Lil Nas X is nothing if not a testament to the power of being true to yourself. His breakthrough single, “Old Town Road,” forced the industry to revisit old conversations about the limitations of genre, race, and who is kept out (or locked in) by the definitions we use to talk about music. The Georgia-born singer-rapper responded in kind with a remix and remixes to that remix that rocketed him up the charts and simultaneously highlighted the fickleness of the entire endeavor—did Billy Ray Cyrus suddenly prove his country bona fides any more than the addition of Young Thug proved his trap ones or Diplo his electronic? But that's the magic of Lil Nas X and of his debut album MONTERO: He knows that pop music is whatever the artist creating it wants it to be, an exercise of vulnerable imagination packaged as unyielding, larger-than-life confidence.
“I feel like with this album, I know what I wanted,” he tells Apple Music's Zane Lowe. “I know what I want. I know where I want to be in life. And I know that's going to take me being more open and bringing it out of myself no matter how much it hurts or feels uncomfortable to say things that I need to say.” But any such ambivalence doesn't explicitly manifest in the songs here, as Lil Nas X roams his interior spaces as openly as he does assorted styles—which span everything from emo and grunge to indie pop and pop punk. On “DEAD RIGHT NOW,” a thunderous track complete with choral flourishes, he recaps the journey to this moment, how it almost didn't happen, and the ways his personal relationships have changed since. “If I didn’t blow up, I would've died tryna be here/If it didn’t go, suicide, wouldn’t be here,” he sings, adding, “Now they all come around like they been here/When you get this rich and famous everybody come up to you singing, 'Hallelujah, how’d you do it?'”
All throughout—on songs like “SUN GOES DOWN” or “DONT WANT IT”—the weight of his burdens exists in contrast to the levity of his sound, a particular kind of Black and queer disposition that insists on a joy that is far more profound than any pain. And make no mistake, there is plenty of joy here. On “SCOOP,” he finds an effervescent kindred spirit in Doja Cat, while “DOLLA SIGN SLIME,” which features Megan Thee Stallion, is a trapped-out victory lap. Elsewhere, the dark riffs on the outstanding “LIFE AFTER SALEM” bring him to new creative lands altogether.
The album brims with surprises that continuously reveal him anew, offering a peek into the mind of an artist who is unafraid of himself or his impulses, even with the knowledge that he's still a work in progress. “Don't look at me as this perfect hero who's not going to make mistakes and should be the voice for everybody,” he says. “You're the voice for you.” And to that effect, MONTERO is a staggering triumph that suggests not just who Lil Nas X is but the infinite possibilities of who he may be in the future, whether that falls within the scope of our imaginations or not.