Lil Nas X – MONTERO Album Review: Polished Yet Personal Pop-Rap

On 17th September, Montero Lamar Hill, known as Lil Nas X, released (or gave birth to) his debut album, MONTERO. A project that he’d first announced back in 2019, this is a powerful, multifaceted and mature debut album from the 22-year-old singer and rapper.

From the outset, including his genre-bending mega-success that was 2018’s ‘Old Town Road,’ Lil Nas X has not shied away from taking risks and pushing boundaries. In the wake of releasing his debut EP 7 in July 2019 (to mixed reviews), he publicly came out as gay – becoming the only artist to do so while having a number-one record. As a queer person who grew up with little positive representation of ‘out’ queer music stars, this felt like a crucial moment.

Two years on, it feels fitting that Lil Nas X chose ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’ as not only the lead single but also the opening song and title track to his album. An unambiguously queer (and undeniably catchy) hip-hop/pop track, it’s a song that I have yet to get bored of since its debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 in March.

At various points across the album, the rapper responds to his experiences of such commercial success – albeit from different angles. Featuring rapper Jack Harlow and co-produced by Kanye West, ‘INDUSTRY BABY’ is a cheeky and infectiously confident rap song that has Lil Nas X boldly referencing his multiple platinum plaques, Grammy nominations and lawsuits. (Spiritually, it feels similar to his 2020 track ‘HOLIDAY’ – his last single pre-MONTERO.)

Meanwhile, the album’s second track, ‘DEAD RIGHT NOW,’ offers a more gritty reflection on the 22-year-old’s rise to fame. Set to a luscious 70s-inspired instrumental, he bitingly calls out the people in his life who failed to support him before his success – including his mother. Making the track even more personal are the subtle backing vocals provided by his father in the final chorus.

Later, on ‘ONE OF ME’, we get a glimpse into how his doubters have affected him. With a delicate piano backing provided by Elton John, Lil Nas X takes on the viewpoint of those who see him only as a one-hit-wonder or a novelty:

“Oh, I know it hurts your soul to know it was only luck, huh

If you drop a song, n****, we won’t give a fuck, no.”

‘ONE OF ME’ by Lil Nas X (featuring Elton John)

Success is just one of many subjects that MONTERO isn’t afraid to get vulnerable about. After all, when he first announced the album, he noted it would be ‘more personal’ than previous releases.

On ‘THAT’S WHAT I WANT,’ a breezy, early 00’s-inspired track, he sings earnestly about his longing for love with ‘a boy who can cuddle with [him] all night.’ Despite its retro/early 00’s sound, hearing a gay black man being so unashamedly sincere about his desire for romance feels fresh and revolutionary.

That Lil Nas X has got to a point where he confidently releases queer romance songs feels all the more meaningful in light of ‘SUN GOES DOWN,’ a slow pop track and his most vulnerable single to date. Here, Lil Nas X openly reflects on his younger self’s struggle with homophobia, racism, loneliness and suicidal thoughts:

“These gay thoughts would always haunt me,

I prayed God would take it from me,

It’s hard for you when you’re fightin’

And nobody knows it when you’re silent.”

‘SUN GOES DOWN’ by Lil Nas X

His ability to balance heart-breaking subject matter with the hope that he feels from coming out make this a touching song for anyone able to relate to the queer experience.

‘TALES OF DOMINICA’ and ‘VOID’ share a similar introspectiveness. On the former, Lil Nas X despondently sings about his past experiences of living in a ‘broken home,’ while ‘VOID’ is a heartfelt song addressed to an ‘old friend’ (likely his past self) about the loneliness that comes with fame.

Another standout, ‘LOST IN THE CITADEL’ is an emotional electronic/pop-rock track that focuses on the end of a one-sided relationship. This is one of my highlights from the album – helped by the fact that I listened to it after my first breakup from a queer relationship. Lil Nas X manages to perfectly convey the endless ruminations and sense of loss that occur when two people drift apart:

“My love for falling down

Playing the victim when all my envisionings

Come slowly tumblin’ down

Putting me back on the ground,”

‘LOST IN THE CITADEL’ by Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X ends the album with yet another risk. Instead of ending on a confident and defiant note, the final track ‘AM I DREAMING’ (featuring Miley Cyrus) is a sad and heavy number. Here, Lil Nas X and Cyrus write about the pain and hardship they’ve dealt with as queer artists in an unforgiving industry, hauntingly pleading to not be forgotten. It’s miles away from the cocky self-assurance typically heard in Lil Nas X’s music, making it all the more powerful.

All in all, MONTERO manages to mix tones, genres and subject matter to feel polished yet personal, vulnerable yet strong, and forward-thinking yet reflective. Far beyond a passing novelty, Lil Nas X has solidified himself as a queer pop-rap superstar.

Image courtesy of Paulette Wooten.

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