Whether he’s posting fake pregnancy photos or courting controversy with eye-popping visuals, Lil Nas X’s mastery of viral marketing is peerless. In some ways, however, the music has felt like an afterthought. On his debut album, “Montero,” Nas corrects that oversight. He digs deeper lyrically, opening up about the loneliness of growing up gay and his struggle for self-acceptance, and spreads his wings musically. The 22-year-old deftly pivots from hip-hop to pop, even sprinkling in some jangly guitars, with a little help from famous friends including Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and Miley Cyrus.
“Montero,” which also happens to be Nas’ birth name, is at its best when he gives us a glimpse of the man behind the memes. “Dead Right Now,” a raised middle finger to doubters and fair-weather friends, documents the dizzying leap of faith he made to drop out of college and pursue a music career. Instead of gloating or bragging, common themes in hip-hop, Nas expresses genuine hurt at the people who did him wrong. The moody “Tales Of Dominica,” which boasts some of Take a Daytrip’s nimblest production, finds the Grammy winner in full Sad Boy mode. “Finally grown, ain’t nothing like I hoped it would be,” he sing-raps dejectedly. “Out on my own, I’m floating in an oceanless sea.”
Nas is even more vulnerable on “Sun Goes Down,” one of the album’s pre-release buzz singles. “These gay thoughts would always haunt me, I prayed God would take it from me,” he declares over deceptively upbeat, pop-leaning beats. “Don’t wanna lie, I don’t want a life.” The hitmaker reveals that money and fame haven’t taken the edge off those dark thoughts on “Void.” Falling somewhere between Coldplay and Frank Ocean, this ranks as one of the record’s most experimental and achingly honest tracks. “It’s too many ups and downs on the ride,” Nas laments. “I’m spendin’ all them dark months of time trapped in the lonely, loner life.”
For an artist that has conquered the rap world, Nas proves to be surprisingly adept at pop. Heartache and hooks rule supreme on “That’s What I Want,” a toe-tapper with massive radio appeal. “Need a boy who can cuddle with me all night,” he begins, before declaring that he’s ready for love on the chorus. “It don’t feel right when it’s late at night and it’s just me in my dreams,” he chants over jangly guitar and zippy synths, “so I want someone to love.” Equally effective is the ‘80s-influenced ”Lost In The Citadel.” Essentially a breakup anthem, the song shows his softer side. “I need time to get up and get off the floor, I need time to realize that I can’t be yours,” he sings to an ex. “I need time to give up just like before.”
Loneliness is also the central theme of “Don’t Want It” and “Life After Salem.” Not that “Montero” is necessarily all heavy going. While Nas tackles meaningful issues, sharing his inner turmoil, he’s equally focused on streaming-friendly bangers. Lead single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which ranks as one of the most defiantly queer chart-toppers of all time, is the ultimate earworm on the album, but a couple of collaborations give it a run for its money. Co-produced by Kanye West and featuring Jack Harlow, “Industry Baby” holds its own, as does the Doja Cat-assisted “Scoop.” With its immediate chorus and litany of hooks, this is a safe bet for a future single.
“Dollar Sign Slime,” a collaboration with Megan Thee Stallion, isn’t quite as catchy, but the explicit, sex-positive lyrics make it a prime candidate for one of the breakout star’s all-conquering viral videos. Significantly tamer is “One Of Me,” which boasts a cameo from Elton John — albeit as a pianist. Previewed on his Instagram page way back in 2019, the melodic banger hasn’t lost any of its crossover appeal as it’s picked up its instrumental Elton assist. And given that Nas broke big with the “Old Town Road” remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, there’s a pleasing symmetry to him closing “Montero” with Miley Cyrus’ featured appearance on “Am I Dreaming.” Their voices combine admirably on the folk-leaning ditty, but this feels like more of a diary entry than a potential single.
With its genre-stretching approach and refreshingly honest exploration of love and loneliness, Nas reminds us that he’s a musical force to be reckoned with. Perhaps more importantly, “Montero” hints that the rapper is ready to give voice to the fears and longings of a generation of queer kids.