It’s been a long and winding road to singer, rapper, marketing genius and controversy magnet Lil Nas X’s debut album since he rode into the game on horseback. Lil Nas stirred up interest as only he truly can with a series of provocative videos, performances and even some legal issues stemming from his “Satan shoes” – but unlike fellow musical troll 6ix9ine, at the end of the day the music is actually great to back it up. He might have one of the firmest grasps of what it takes to make a catchy hit single of almost anyone in music at the moment, after being a dedicated student of pop culture and what makes it tick in his formative years. As expected, MONTERO is packed with memorable pop-rap tracks that are destined to continue his masterful evasion of one-hit wonder status. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, Lil Nas spends about half the album getting deep and introspective for the first time, recounting tales of his tumultuous youth as he struggled with his identity. Hearing such honesty, vivid lyricism and vulnerability from someone who pivoted from meme status into being a truly important, groundbreaking figure in pop culture as an openly gay mainstream hip-hop star is both respectable and emotionally powerful. While his swings at the next smash hit don’t all land immediately, this is certainly a strong debut.
The project kicks off with its title track and biggest single, the Latin guitar-tinged “MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)” that brought a track explicitly about a gay relationship to the top of the Billboard charts. While I’ve never been in full understanding with the astronomical levels of hype the track received for months before its official release – compared to the rest of Lil Nas X’s singles, the track’s hook is one of the least likely to get stuck in my head for weeks – but when we’re talking about this man’s catalogue, achieving that level of pop bliss constantly is a tall order. It’s still an excellent way to introduce the proceedings with some pockets of quotables and self-assured, playful delivery, and just as it’s titled after Lil Nas X’s birth name, signals a new beginning for him as the unabashedly confident boundary-pusher for the better that he is sure to cement himself in the annals of pop culture.
As far as singles go, “INDUSTRY BABY” is the one to beat, Lil Nas X recruiting Jack Harlow for a victory lap backed up by a triumphant horn section (co-produced by Kanye West!) and some fiery rap verses. Lil Nas X singing along with the horns as he drops into the chorus is a downright electrifying moment in music this year, once again signalling his arrival and for the haters to get used to him. Sandwiched in between the two smash hits is “DEAD RIGHT NOW,” which introduces some of the project’s more serious themes as Lil Nas sends some vitriol towards all those who weren’t there for him during his darker days that are coming out of the woodwork now. One of the most consistently noticeable aspects of the project is just how blunt, specific and forthcoming Lil Nas’ lyrics can be, and he doesn’t hold back here, discussing being ignored while suicidal and, as the title suggests, completely disowning friends and family members. While the track’s slower pace and somewhat meandering hook push it slightly into the background in the album’s context, the horns transitioning into “INDUSTRY BABY” and the emotional punch still elevate it.
For all of Lil Nas X’s plays at yet another big hit here, he certainly played his cards right by giving the track “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” the music video treatment. The many reviews treating this like one of the weaker tracks here are endlessly confusing – sure, it’s high in cheese content, but this is the same guy who made “Old Town Road.” The anthemic highs as Lil Nas X belts out his insatiable need for connection and cuddles reach the same frenetic energy as something like Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u,” and the track’s breakneck tempo makes it endlessly replayable. The short break as he sings the chorus in a more emotional way fits right in with the album’s themes as well, revealing the troubled man behind the larger-than-life pop star before diving right back into the stadium-sized banger. From a musical standpoint, “SCOOP” feels a bit like a Travis Scott/Post Malone hybrid at times, but once again Lil Nas X’s lyrics and delivery are so distinctly individual that it couldn’t have come from anyone else as he runs through some outlandish and provocative punchlines and an intentionally nonsensical, maddeningly catchy hook. The track is bolstered by a brief but equally hilarious verse from fellow Internet-culture savant Doja Cat, who isn’t the only female rap superstar here. “DOLLA SIGN SLIME” boasts the project’s best feature from Megan Thee Stallion, and the song itself is one of the strongest here. Set to a regal trombone loop as rap’s reigning king and queen descend, both issuing braggadocious boasts with some of the album’s most impressive flows – Lil Nas even compares the project’s hitmaking potential to Thriller. “DON’T WANT IT” tacks another flex-heavy pop-rap gem onto the album’s end as Lil Nas stands up to death itself.
The album’s emotional content begins to pick up around the halfway point and only seeps further and further into the album’s DNA as it progresses towards its conclusion. “ONE OF ME” recruits none other than Elton John on the piano keys to welcome Lil Nas X into the club of legendary and important LGBTQ+ artists as Lil Nas tackles doubting himself as he tried to replicate his day-one success to the chagrin of Internet trolls. Elton’s soft and contemplative piano hooks combine nicely with trap hi-hats as Lil Nas X delivers an entire song from the perspective of one of his doubters, steadily morphing into his own internal monologue. “LOST IN THE CITADEL” sees Lil Nas continuing to prove his artistic versatility with some live percussion and a heavier rock-inspired flair as he recounts the pain of getting over a one-sided romantic interest with one of his more viscerally passionate vocal performances. “TALES OF DOMINICA” takes things to an entirely new level as Lil Nas leans into his flair for the dramatic, his resonant bass voice taking on a new role as the wizened storyteller over an eerie, swung plucked guitar loop, singing bleakly about feeling trapped in his home life during his youth. “SUN GOES DOWN” is where Lil Nas gets the most open and honest about his brushes with death and self-hatred, powerfully and poignantly speaking to his younger self in his newfound place of health and happiness as the teenage Montero prays for a gun to escape from simply being himself.
The project’s last couple tracks keep up the emotional angle. Lil Nas X returns to the cinematic space with “VOID,” seemingly based off of the narrative of Love, Simon as he once again explores feelings of teenage insecurity and inadequacy while grappling with societally shunned romantic feelings. His falsetto is a pleasant surprise, adding yet another level of unexpected vulnerability here. “LIFE AFTER SALEM” is the album’s heaviest track, roaring electric guitars backing up his comparisons of his life to the famous witch hunt. The project closes with “AM I DREAMING,” which seems like Lil Nas X already writing his swan song, the track that is sure to be played as the credits roll on the inevitable documentary telling the Lil Nas X story decades from now. Seemingly in a quest to collect all the famous Cyruses, the soaring vocals of Miley Cyrus complement him as he pleads to be remembered for what he’s done. It’s an incredibly moving sentiment to close things out.
Although this officially stands as only his debut album, it’s already incredible to look back on the journey of Lil Nas X, each move calculated perfectly to become both a musical star and a hero to look up to. Reaching a point where he can be open about his struggles at the same time as using his time as a student of the game to provide us with great pop-rap tracks is a great place to be.
Favourite Tracks: INDUSTRY BABY, THAT’S WHAT I WANT, TALES OF DOMINICA, DOLLA SIGN SLIME, AM I DREAMING
Least Favourite Track: DEAD RIGHT NOW