Lil Nas X really seems to be enjoying the success of his viral hit, “Old Town Road” — as he should. Viral moments seem to come along more and more often these days, but their ability to translate into real-world success still has varying degress of return. Nas’ version includes a Columbia Records album deal, three consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, a remix with Bill Ray Cyrus, and a batch of parodies and takes ranging from wildly explicit to dad joke corny. The fact that the 20-year-old rapper from Atlanta is taking all of this in stride makes the rollout even more fun to watch than usual.
Lil Nas X’s responses to the challenges that have arisen from his viral hit’s ubiquity are like a master class in how to handle unexpected fame, enjoy the moment, and make the most of the opportunity, and his ability to roll with the punches proves he’s ready for an even bigger spotlight. When longer-established rappers try to detract from his song’s success, rather than entering an ill-advised war of words, he focuses on that elusive No. 1 status, reminding the world that he does not give a f*ck what a hater thinks — even when the hater in question says he isn’t being a hater in the first place.
Some might believe that hate is justified though: Rap and country have long been considered mortal enemies at worst and strange bedfellows at best. Prior attempts at blending the two seemingly opposing genres were met with mixed responses, from the ridicule that followed Nelly and Tim McGraw’s “Over And Over” and LL Cool J and Brad Paisely’s “Accidental Racist” (rightly so, in the latter case), to the ho-hum commercial performance of more earnest attempts like Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance or other so-called “hick-hop” artists like Big Smo and Cowboy Troy. “Old Town Road” is the first song to chart on both the Rap and Country Bilboard lists, seemingly bridging the gap, but not without resistance, in part from Billboard itself.
When Billboard removed the song from its Country chart, the resulting backlash from social media invoked the genre’s long history of whitewashing Black artists, even as Billboard‘s reasoning that “Old Town Road” didn’t contain enough country elements sorta-kinda holds up. Fans who wanted to see this trend upended championed the song right back onto the Country Airplay chart as well as the Hot 100. While it has its detractors — mainly from established country and rap purists like Brothers Osbourne and Dave East — it has earned many more rabid supporters, including the aforementioned Billy Ray, who claimed that it was “obvious” that “Old Town Road” should qualify as country as much as hip-hop.
Normally, when a song gets as huge as “Old Town Road” has, there’s a worry that the song has become bigger than the artist, which is the first step toward them becoming a one-hit wonder. Lil Nas X’s fellow Atlantan 6lack spoke on this effect on his own breakthrough mixtape, Free 6lack, discussing the dangers of falling into a formula on the mixtape’s closer, “Alone/EA6.” “I’m not settling for that sh*t,” he says on the track’s introductory monologue, “‘Cause if I do it once and it pop, I’ma have to keep doing that sh*t over and over again. You can’t build no fanbase like that. You become a f*ckin’ song instead of a person.”
Lil Nas X takes a different approach. He seemingly wonders “What’s so bad about being a one-hit wonder?” Rather than shying away from the success of “Old Town Road,” which, let’s be frank, seems accidental, considering the jokey subject matter of the song and its broad departure from the sounds and content of Lil Nas X’s 2018 debut mixtape Nasarati, he’s leaned into it. He’s in on the joke. He reposts the memes. He wears Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats and posts goofy photos to Twitter posing with antique, pearl-handled revolvers straight out of the Old West.
By doing so, he endears himself to fans as a good-natured, funny, charismatic guy who they want to see win. When fans have an investment in an artist like that, they’ll take them to the top of the charts, as they did for his viral single, but they’ll also stick with the artist through thick and thin. If XXXTentacion could engender the level of outsized support he did with his rap sheet, a relatively unproblematic jokester like Lil Nas X should be easy to root for. It doesn’t hurt that the rest of his music is also enjoyable.