Lil Nas X is good at the internet — and he should be. At just 21 years old, he was born into a world with social media, smartphones, and all the cultural byproducts inherent to both. He’s a representative member of the first generation to never know a world without PCs, MacBooks, iPhones, and DSPs.
Still, though, he’s better at playing the game than most, a fact best evidenced by the now-well-known circumstances of his rise to stardom. “Old Town Road” didn’t become a mega-hit by accident. Instead, Nas, disillusioned after the lukewarm reception of his debut mixtape Nasarati, shifted gears, putting all of his considerable knowledge and experience at social media trolling into making his country-fried joke song blow up.
Now, those computer troll instincts are again making him the center of attention. Someone less adept at manipulating the narrative and processing the invective he’s taken would crumble under the weight. But Nas, bred in the fires of Stan Twitter flame wars and well-versed in the weird humor of convoluted Reddit memes, has turned every slight against him into another chance to promote “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and its ancillary products.
His gift mirrors that of another colorful and gifted troll who recently lived out his rise and fall in the burning spotlight of internet scrutiny. Tekashi 69 also blew up by playing on social media users’ attraction to controversy. Feeding the algorithms that shove outrage fodder in our faces 24/7, the New Yorker goaded opponents, leaned all the way into his role as a hip-hop heel, and kept up a steady stream of new material to capitalize on the trainwreck quality of his online persona.
Of course, we all know what that got him. While he continues trolling establishment rap media and other artists, the effect is beginning to show diminishing returns. The nonstop negativity he generates may have a sideshow quality, but eventually, there’s only so much you can gawk at the bearded lady before you get bored and look around for something else. In contrast, Lil Nas X is doing the opposite: Using his troll powers for good — or maybe for redemption.
After all, those skills were honed at the cost of childish jokes at the expense of marginalized groups back when Nas just ran a Nicki Minaj stan account. Like many of the Barbz online, he could be seen lashing out at just about any target. Yet, in light of his coming out as gay and knowing the angst that comes along with hiding your identity, his past behavior is understandable, if not acceptable. Hurt people hurt people.
Behind just about every nasty troll comment is insecurity; Nas eventually came to terms with his and is now using his wicked sense of humor to thrash his detractors — people he can likely relate to on some level as a result of his prior experiences — with sarcastic wit and cleverly-planned rollouts that use their criticisms as free promotion.
So when his music video’s Luciferian lapdance prompted accusations of devil worship, Nas judo-flipped those complaints by pointing out the fire-and-brimstone recriminations that have been leveled at queer people for the past century — and that he’s not the first to use such imagery, highlighting the potential hidden agendas of those accusers. When his customized Nike Air Max collaboration with MSCHF was demeaned by Fox News, he smoothly noted the hypocrisy of freedom-of-speech advocates with a humorous knock on Chick-Fil-A’s proud support of anti-gay groups and legislation. The shoes sold out in 60 seconds, adding insult to injury for his haters.
By offering up this provocation, not only does Nas generate streams, views, and ultimately, dollar signs, he also provides an example that he didn’t have growing up: A gay, Black man standing up to the establishment — and winning. He’s laying a blueprint for the kid who feels that they can’t be themselves without facing persecution, who would otherwise turn into the bullies they feared through online trolling.
The anonymity the internet provides allows the opportunity for reinvention, but it also incentivizes our worst impulses. Clap backs get the most engagement, algorithms guide lost souls down dangerous roads of conspiracy theory and hatred, and outrage is more valuable than Bitcoin, DogeCoin, and Ethereum put together. What Lil Nas X has done with “Montero” and his so-called “Satan Shoes” has exposed these tendencies and silently invoke the query, “What are you going to do about it?”
By calling out the silliness of outrage culture, he’s also subtly calling out the absence of anything better — and challenging us to create that missing alternative. For every hell, there must be a heaven; if Lil Nas X’s fantastical video bothers you so much, maybe you need to find somewhere positive to put that energy. After all, you’re unlikely to see a pair of those Air Max 97s out in public and you won’t have to watch the “Montero” video unless you go to YouTube searching for it. That’s the thing about trolls; the more you feed them, the stronger they get. At least this one is trying to make the world a slightly better place.