Pop songs often follow a carefully calculated formula for success: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Writing a single that will top charts, or go viral, is a science that Lil Nas X has already demonstrated mastery in. His very first song, “Old Town Road,” which he recorded for just $20 at a local studio, was an instant success. The song became a viral sensation and quickly rose to the top of charts, breaking the records for most streamed song in a single week, fastest song to be diamond certified, and longest run as number one on the Billboard top 100.
A pop album, though, has the potential to be much more difficult than a single. Artists must demonstrate range, but not so much that the songs feel like they do not belong together. They must produce a cohesive piece of art that tells a story, but can also be open to listener interpretation. The album must be original enough to catch attention, but only if that originality is palatable to the larger audience. Lil Nax X proves on MONTERO (2021) that he does not just turn heads, he keeps people watching.
The first element of a successful pop album is sound, and an artist’s sound is composed of original vocals, instruments, and production style. One of the most impressive feats of the album is Lil Nas X’s ability to use many different instruments, but still produce a collective and cohesive sonic quality throughout the work. He features a unique combination of trumpets, bass, acoustic guitar, and percussion to create the backbone of sound that courses throughout the album. On MONTERO, Lil Nas X successfully creates a sound for his debut album that fits with the singles he has released so far, but still feels new and interesting. The trumpets featured in the backing track of “INDUSTRY BABY,” are woven into “DEAD RIGHT NOW” and “DOLLA SIGN SLIME (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)” in a more muted form, seeming to tie together the themes of the three songs that confront the loneliness Lil Nas X has found in his success.
The acoustic guitar riffs that form the backbone of “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” “TALES OF DOMINICA,” and “AM I DREAMING” are directly contrasted to the electric guitar backings in “SUN GOES DOWN,” “VOID,” and “LIFE AFTER SALEM.” While the acoustic guitar tracks feature Nas acknowledging his feelings of loneliness or yearning, those featuring electric riffs depict numbness. Before even comprehending the lyrics, listeners are already conditioned to feel the tone of the song from the first note strummed.
The lighter and more upbeat songs on the album feature claps as a form of percussion instrument. In addition to keeping the tempo of the song, the claps in “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” emphasize the euphoric feeling of declaring what you want without fear of rejection. Each time Nas says he wants, “someone to love,” it sounds as if he is met with applause, which is so unique to hear after a declaration of yearning from one man to another. In both small details and large themes, MONTERO displays Lil Nas X celebrating his queerness.
Lil Nas X also employs interesting production techniques to tie the record together. One way he emphasizes meaningful words in his lyrics is by layering vocals over specific phrases, rather than layering harmonies over whole lines. For example, in “ONE OF ME” Nas emphasizes each “I” in the lyrics so that behind the main track of vocals, you hear a chorus of ‘I’s’ emphasizing the needy nature of fans dictating how he should act in order to fit their own lives.
In addition to the structurally successful sound of MONTERO, Lil Nas X manages to cover a range of themes that are both specific enough to the queer experience and broad enough to be relatable to all listeners. One standout track, “VOID” is a letter to his younger self, telling him to “hold on” because things will change after he comes out. He explains that things are not perfect, and under all of the pressures of stardom he feels “stuck in this world where there’s so much to prove/ Every win gives you more room to lose.” Nas addresses the real experience of coming out, and all of the joy, loneliness, and uncertainty that emerged from it.
On “ONE OF ME,” a collaboration with Elton John, Nas outlines the pressures that he faced in his rise to stardom, especially after coming out. He describes in the song how audiences have tried to pick and choose which parts of him they want, with some calling himtoo queer to be kid-friendly and others upset that he is not a perfect representative for gay men everywhere. Specifically, the track addressed the backlash Nas received from some members of the Black community after he came out as queer, as some were dissapointed he was no longer the type of Black representation they wanted.
Other songs, like “THAT’S WHAT I WANT,” depict yearning for another person’s love that can be applied easily to anyone’s life, no matter their sexual orientation. On “LOST IN THE CITADEL,” another upbeat and relatable track, Lil Nas X describes an experience of picking himself back up after realizing that he deserves better than what he is receiving in a certain relationship. Throughout the album, Nas transitions seamlessly from upbeat anthems about success to deeper testimonies to his experience coming out, all while maintaining a cohesive sound.
Lil Nas proved once again his talent at marketing with his choice of singles to promote MONTERO. The first track released, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” instantly went viral for the video that accompanied it, depicting Lil Nas X dancing down a pole to eventually meet Satan, and literally dance with the devil. By creating controversy and trolling those who already believed he was deviantt because of his sexual orientation, Lil Nas X ensured that once the single was released, everyone was talking about him. This track was such an intelligent choice because it previews sounds used throughout the album, leaving listeners eager for more. With “INDUSTRY BABY” Lil Nas took a different approach, and selected the unique trumpet melody knowing that it would catch attention. Since the backing track of the song is so catchy and original, the short snippet of the song that he posted to tik tok was being used everywhere before he even released the single.
Celebrated collaborations on MONTERO appeal to the fanbases of other artists and really go to further demonstrate Lil Nas X’s cultural literacy. He creates tracks to showcase some of the hottest artists of the moment, like Doja Cat, Jack Harlow, and Megan Thee Stallion, while ensuring that the listener does not forget this is his album.
The most successful collaboration on the album, “AM I DREAMING,” features Miley Cyrus in a raspy ballad with brilliant production style and sound mixing. Cyrus’s voice blends perfectly with Nas’s, and the acoustic guitar riff present throughout the track stands out, even as more strings are woven in. Through perfectly melded vocals, the two artists deliver nothing short of raw emotion, united by their shared experiences of entering their young adulthood in the public eye. In a person’s 20s, one of the most vulnerable points in life, as Nas and Cyrus had to deal with the pressures of independence and finding themselves, they also had to live up to public perception. With the swell of instruments at the second chorus, Lil Nas and Miley Cyrus are reaching out to their younger selves in a warm embrace, serenading them with the comforting lullaby they wish they could have heard on their own darkest days.
MONTERO is an all around success. Each track is original, but somehow nothing feels mismatched or out of place. Nas breaks new ground on what a queer artist, a Black artist, and a pop artist can look like. The album proves that Lil Nas X is no one or two hit wonder; he is an artist rewriting the script on who a pop artist can be and how a pop album can sound.
Voice’s Choices: “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” “TALES OF DOMINICA” “AM I DREAMING (feat. Miley Cyrus)”