By now, it’s almost reductive to call Lil Nas X just a rapper. Sure, the descriptor was already highly in doubt, thanks to the chart-topping, inescapable success of his breakthrough single, “Old Town Road.” But on his follow-up EP, 7, he demonstrates a wide-ranging facility for catchy choruses and chirpy, cheerful tunes that only highlight how weirdly relatable and down-to-earth he actually is, both as a person and a performer.
Through it all, the listener can almost see his “aw shucks” earnestness in their mind’s eye as Nas vividly details the rags-to-riches success he’s seen in just, well, seven short months. However, although Lil Nas seems earnest in his attempts and displays the professional polish that the project needed to pass muster at first glance, 7 reveals an artist who still has a long way to go before he nails down his sound and proves he’s capable of more than just a few hit records that sound like search engine mashups of popular genre mainstays.
Leading up to the release of this first project since Nas landed on the mainstream radar proper, all anyone had to guess at its direction was, of course, “Old Town Road” and Nas’ first mixtape, Nasarati. Before Nasarati, the then-19-year-old rapper only had a vague notion that he wanted to be a star and that rap, in his own words, “runs music right now.” On Nasarati, he could be heard constructing his persona in real time as he discovered his knack for songwriting and witty punchlines that took advantage of his goofy, meme-honed sense of humor.
However, Nasarati more or less bricked, insomuch as a digital-only release from a relatively-unknown, Weird Twitter meme kid could be said to have done. Accordingly, Lil Nas X switched up his style, going from straightforward raps about video game characters over oddly house-influenced hip-hop beats, to coining “country trap,” if not from whole cloth, then from a hodgepodge of similarly eclectic influences. The mash-up worked, but left him bereft of a musical identity; if he went back to the well, he ran the risk of becoming a gimmick. If he switched up, all his newfound fans might not be willing to take the ride with him. 7 does its best to split the difference and the results are mixed to say the least.
Living up to its title, the EP consists of just seven songs (“Old Town Road” appears twice), each one an example of a completely different genre. The format of such a short release is a risk in itself. The danger of such a short project, as Kanye West found out to his detriment last summer, is that any single misstep will end up highlighting Lil Nas’ flaws and bringing down the quality of the project overall. That’s more or less what ends up happening; the EP’s dazzling highs, from the addition of his signature hit to his sole collaboration, wind up flashing more of the easygoing wit and engaging potential of “Old Town Road.” Unfortunately, there are a few songs that wind up feeling skippable and nondescript, for all their polish and sharp execution.
“Panini,” the EP’s second single and second best song, represents the very essence of what Lil Nas did well with his previous effort. It has all the hallmarks, including the catchy hook-writing and an unexpected sample — Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which Nas had never actually heard before Take A Daytrip interpolated it on the record. The sly pop culture references all work in his favor on a bouncy, melodic rap song about one of the dangers of fame: Losing someone close. It’s also a double commentary on the way fans turn on artists as they go from relative unknowns to superstars, a sentiment Lil Nas likely feels all too starkly now — see the #LilNasXIsOverParty hashtag started by longtime followers from his time as a Nicki Minaj stan account.
Likewise, “Rodeo” featuring Cardi B is a great pairing building on their rapport from Nas’ appearance alongside Cardi at — where else? — the Houston Rodeo. Produced once again by Take A Daytrip, along with Roy Lenzo and Russ Chell, “Rodeo” sounds like a guitar case full of guns in pulp action film. The “Barracuda” riffing, buzzing guitars propel Nas through another verse about a transforming relationship, this one a developing dependence on his newfound wealth to get over. Cardi provides a snarling counterpoint which illustrates their lockstep chemistry by playing the menacing Bonnie to Nas’ Clyde, but nothing else on the album reaches the same energy level.
Nas skips easily and coolly from the highly recognizable country-trap of his calling card single to the fuzzy garage rock of “Bring U Down” to the pop-punk of “F9mily (You & Me)” to the disco-infused dance-pop on the album’s closer, “C7osure,” all without really landing anymore of the punches that really pull a listener in for repeat plays. “F9mily” succeeds as an example of its genre largely through the expertise of its producer Travis Barker, who was, of course, one of the pioneers of the style. Lyrically, though, Nas falls short, still earning points for effort, considering the genre at hand.
“Kick It” mainly confirms Nas’ earlier suspicion that mainline rap requires too much wrangling to distinguish itself, coming off generic in comparison to the more rambunctious material elsewhere. The EP closes, fittingly, with “C7osure,” produced by Allen Ritter and Boi 1-da. Here, Nas goes for a different crooning style that’s endearing but not enough to overcome the blandness of the lyrics. The EP is bookended by both renditions of “Old Town Road,” which seems like the most business-minded decision made here. It’s dope that Nas was allowed space to experiment on 7, but it’s clear he needed the cushion for streaming purposes.
And that’s sort of Lil Nas X in a nutshell. More than being really great telling jokes, he was pretty good at knowing which ones to lift to generate viral tweets. More than being a great rapper, patiently building a fanbase out of consistent music, he made up his own genre to appeal to fans on both sides of the fence. And on 7, he tries to be everything at once, hoping to endear himself to everybody to avoid having to be really great at any one thing. If there is anything he is great at, it’s gaming the system. 7 is just good enough for him to get away with it once, but there’s only so long you can try to beat the house before the house wins.
7 is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.