After six months of “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X will finally unveil the next phase of his artistic development in the form of the 7 EP. The wave he’s been riding since January — spurred on by viral memes, chart controversy, video game references, Vince Staples, and yes, even Yelp ads — will be considered crested. What happens then?
In much of the coverage of the song’s curious rise and improbable continued success, many critics, journalists, fans, and foes alike have all danced around the obvious elephant in the room when it comes to tremendous viral smashes like “Old Town Road”: The potential for the song to be Lil Nas’ one hit on his way to washed-up, one-hit-wonder status. To address it directly feels too much like hating, and for once, it seems like the whole rap fandom — barring a few obvious exceptions, of course — is rooting for a kid to win.
It helps that he’s humble, that he’s taken both the celebrity and the unusual circumstances behind it in stride. The fact that he’s so earnest and forthcoming about the measures he took in trying to get the song to blow — the aforementioned Yelp reviews, the obvious miscategorization in an effort to game the Soundcloud charts, the TikTok challenge that likely pushed it to the tipping point — has been a help, as has his indefatigable sense of humor about the whole thing.
He’s joked along with fans and his remix collaborator Billy Ray Cyrus over the success of “Old Town Road” and the “yee-haw agenda,” eventually partnering with Wrangler jeans after the lyrical shout-out in the song’s second verse piqued interest in the Americana mainstay. He lets the insults of salty older peers roll off his back like water from a duck’s feathers. He’s dressed up in ever more elaborate cowboy costumes and he hired Southern Californian sarcasm sorcerer Vince Staples to semi-roast him in his own music video. Lil Nas is a six-foot, ten gallon-wearing teddy bear with shiny teeth. He’s practically impossible to dislike.
But that elephant ain’t going anywhere, and come Friday, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to keep ignoring. A lot is riding on 7’s success: Capitol Records’ investment, Lil Nas’ continued rap career, Dave East’s reputation as a professional rap critic (I kid — sorta). The thing is, it’s really hard not to think about similar viral standouts of the past few years. They’ve all faced similar circumstances; a precipitous, out-of-nowhere rise, an extended period of massive, near-ubiquitous popularity, and then, barring personal calamity — your shootouts, your ill-timed felonies, your milkshake duck moments — at best, they received an underwhelming reception to their first project.
The critics all threw up their hands in collective, smug self-satisfaction. The Bobby Shmurdas, the Desiingers, the Lil Pumps, the Silentos, the Makonnens, the Young MAs, the OG Macos — they all came, took over our radios and TVs and mobile devices and social media feeds with little kids throwing hats in the air, whipping and nay-nay-ing, and shouting out “Gucci Gang,” and dropped projects that landed with resounding thuds — if they dropped at all. Sure, some have limped along ever since, resurfacing just often enough to remind us they exist, but the time that we thought of them as legitimate hit-makers has long since passed.
Here’s the thing about Lil Nas X: For a kid who started rapping a little over a year ago, he’s got a real knack for it. His gift for rhythm, wordplay, unconventional humor, and surprisingly vulnerable storytelling all glitter throughout his debut mixtape Nasarati like gold dust in a prospector’s pan. The problem is, Nasarati barely registered on mainstream’s radar, meaning that the foundational hits that allowed other potential one-hit wonders — Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, Rae Sremmurd, even Drake — to survive their initial viral moments with a steady track record of consistency don’t exist for Lil Nas X. For many people, 7 will be their first exposure to a version of the Atlantan 20-year-old that doesn’t actually ride horses everywhere and isn’t really an unorthodox “f*ck you” to the country music establishment’s legacy of racism and exclusion.