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“You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go…” raps Lil Nas X, on a fabulous debut that directly addresses the critics who wrote him off as a one-hit wonder. To give the doubters their due, the quirky-camp country trap of “Old Town Road” (2019) had all the earwormy ingredients of a one-off. Made with a beat bought online for $30 in a $20-an-hour studio and later accessorised with achy-breaky embellishments from Billy Ray Cyrus, it became the longest-leading No 1 single in the Billboard Chart’s Hot 100 history. It was streamed over a billion times and was guaranteed to fill the dance floor at every primary school disco. It had kids cantering in circles, whipping the flanks of imaginary stallions and chanting, “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’” at parents and teachers, until we wanted to throttle them with the toggles of their adorable little stetsons.
But on his recent, parping, brass-backed single “Industry Baby”, Lil Nas X reassured fans: “I told you long ago, on the road/ I got what they waitin' for…” Now, he boldly delivers it. Over Montero’s 15 tracks, he pulls together as many bright, witty and varied textures as his own, headline-grabbing wardrobe. There’s Latin, rock and acoustic guitar, moody indie moments, yearning concert-hall violin, sidewalk brass and all manner of keyboards (including some jazzy contributions from Elton John). Lil Nas scrolls gleefully through it all, confidently mashing genres. Miley Cyrus pops in to add her raspy ballast to “Am I Dreaming”, while rapper Doja Cat spit-croons over the slick synth hook of “Scoop”.
What punches through it all is Lil Nas’s energised and emotional expression of his queer identity. It’s joyous to hear the 20-year-old southerner (who grew up believing he’d have to spend his whole life in the closet) bouncing off the beats to proclaim: “I'm a pop n***a like Bieber, ha/ I don't f*** bitches, I'm queer, ha.”
The album opens on the flamenco-inflected strum and handclaps of the bouncy “Call Me By Your Name”, then plunges into the low-riding R&B of “Dead Right Now”. There’s some breezy strumming on “What I Want” ahead of the addictive melodies on “One of Me”, where Lil Nas deals with industry expectations. As Elton John hits the keys, you can hear the hurt in the younger artist’s voice. In many of these songs he uses instrumental motifs to signify different emotional states. Staccato brass adds a jubilant tone to “Dolla Sign Slime”, while a Spanish guitar contributes a sunset sorrow to the confessions of loneliness flowing through “Tales of Dominica”. On the indie-tinged “Sun Goes Down”, he acknowledges his past suicidal thoughts and deals with the racist and homophobic culture that left him “always thinkin’, ‘Why my lips so big?/ Was I too dark?/ Can they sense my fears?'” Later he reveals: “These gay thoughts would always haunt me/ I prayed God would take it from me.” Against the brushed electric guitar of “Void”, he reaches for a falsetto as he admits to weeping through the night.
Close your eyes as you listen to Montero and you can almost feel the rainbow confetti falling from the ceiling and sticking to your tears. This album isn’t the creation of a gimmick-spinner. It’s an album bursting with technicolour heart. Now, where did I hide that disco-stetson?