At this point Lil Nas X’s knack for dominating the news cycle is a given. From the lap dance he gave Satan to his recent fake social media pregnancy to the constant and immensely satisfying pearl-clutching he inspires, you could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting that all that headline-grabbing was in the service of an album. Finally here, after months of hype, Montero (★★★★☆) stands as the 22-year-old rapper’s bold attempt to follow up his cautious EP 7 and make good on the explosive runaway success of “Old Town Road.”
That Lil Nas X has rocketed to the status of queer celebrity in the past two years has at least as much to do with his personality and incredible command of social media as it does with “Old Town Road” — plenty of people who might not even listen to his music but would still happily identify as fans. Montero is full of coy callouts and rejoinders that could have come right from his Twitter feed, but it does not succeed on wit and charisma alone. “Montero (Call me by your Name),” the single that dropped in March, opens the album as if to remind us that aside from all the chatter and backlash its video courted, the song itself packs incredible punch.
“Montero” is far from an outlier, either. The album is front-loaded with tracks that are packed full of radio-ready hooks. “That’s What I Want” is an almost saccharine pop-rock banger that finds him pining for a boy to cuddle. “Industry Baby” is a swaggering rejoinder to the homophobia, racism and sneering dismissiveness that have dogged him from the start, skewering his haters and brushing off their jealousy with the pure queer excellence of the lyrics, “I didn’t peak in high school/I’m still out here getting cuter.”
Beyond a few high-energy tracks, though, Lil Nas X is far from unbothered. Montero channels plenty of angst, over the direction of his career and the idea that he might never shake the one-hit wonder label pinned to him after his first big hit. He nods to his critics saying as much on tracks like “One of Me,” kicking off the more somber second half of the album that also sees him reminisce on a childhood spent in the closet on the introspective “Sun Goes Down” and ruminate on a breakup over dirgey grunge rock on “Life After Salem.” The major anxiety that comes to a head on the second half is his likeability and the spectre of rejection — whether from a potential lover, his fans, or the music industry at large.
Montero does noticeably stumble in its less tightly wound second half. Elton John and Doja Cat may have been big gets, but apart from name recognition and a bit of poetic closure in Elton’s case, their collaborations add little to “Scoopt” and “One of Me,” failing to match the energy and swagger that Megan Thee Stallion brings to “Dolla Sign Slime.”
With so much to work through, Montero can’t help but seem a bit unfocused. Much of the time, though, this actually works to its advantage. Its varied, guitar-heavy instrumentation and erratic combination of pop and rap are manic and chaotic — but in a fun way that suits the project. Notwithstanding the bump it got from Lil Nas X’s celebrity status, Montero stands easily along works from more established artists as a strong debut that is as unapologetic, idiosyncratic, and assertively queer as its creator.
Montero is available for streaming and purchase everywhere now. Visit www.welcometomontero.com.
Read More Music Reviews:
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!