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.
The truth is, Lil Nas X is just a kid who wanted to rap for a living. He didn’t want to wait to the long way, building a slow, steady stream of work that appealed to rap’s respectability politicians, so he took a gamble on the back door through a similar, but unrelated genre. Timing, political climate, and bored teens on a Chinese social video app all worked in his favor, but now it’s down to the music to carry him into the next phase of his career. Judging by what little he’s already put out, his more straightforward hip-hop-oriented fare is going to sound just fine. He’s working with some of the hottest producers in the game right now and he’s already proved he’s good at rap. He can make a hit. He’s willing to work his butt off to get put on. But the rap game is fickle, as is pop stardom. The gifts that make you an artist aren’t necessarily the same things that people gravitated to that made you a star.
When Lil Nas X inevitably pivots away from the “country-trap” sound that dazzled a generation of thrill-seeking young listeners, will they hang around to see what he really has to say, or will they consider the joke over and move on to the next thing that glitters in the stream? It’s hard to say. There are a lot of hard-liners in hip-hop who agree with Dave East and a lot of short-timers from the country fandom who might not understand Lil Nas’ next move. There is one thing I’m sure of though; Nas lived up to his own expectations. From Nasarati to “Old Town Road,” he blew up fast and rode ‘til he couldn’t no more. For his sake, I hope that last part is a long, long way off and the road is kinder to him than it has been to his predecessors.