Pop Culture

How Lil Nas X Mastered the Modern Art of Attention

The long, constantly viral rollout of Montero tops even Drake and Kanye.

Lil Nas X at the Met Gala on September 13.

Lil Nas X at the Met Gala on September 13. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)Sean Zanni

We live in an age of baroque album rollouts. Drake had his billboards. Kanye had his troika of gaudy stadium shows, including a literal homecoming in Chicago. But it’s hard to make a case that either of the long-time superstars presided over a more masterful rollout than the 22-year-old Lil Nas X. His debut album Montero is out today, and it’s a triumphant moment for Nas as an artist who has proven not only that he’s no one-hit wonder, but also that he’s a true mastermind of the modern art of attention. No matter what is thrown Lil Nas X’s way, he’s always in on the joke, and he dictates the cultural conversation in a way most celebrities could never. Let’s look back at the long road to Montero.

After beginning work on the album in April 2020 with Take a Daytrip, Nas stirred up tremendous interest online by previewing snippets of some of his new songs. He shared “Call Me By Your Name” in July, and dropped a portion of “Industry Baby” in October, both earning millions of plays and hundreds of thousands of likes. The two tracks debuted at no. 1 and no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively.

Fans were dismayed when Nas suggested a 2021 album release instead of late 2020, but on October 15 he got on Twitter and explained why he really wanted to take his time. “Sorry guys, I honestly wanted to just drop the album, but then it’s like drop album, [two] singles off it, then album era over? For something I’ve been working on for 2 years. it’s almost not fair to myself,” he wrote. A year later, it’s clear why he didn’t want to rush things.

Nas never really left the news cycle thanks to his penchant for clever posts, a popular Roblox concert, and the success of the November 2020 single “Holiday.” But he really vaulted back to the top of trending lists with the announcement of his MSCHF “Satan shoes” in late March. 666 pairs of the altered Nike Air Max 97s featuring a striking red-and-black colorscape and including a single drop of human blood sold out in a blink. Predictably, many prominent conservatives and Christians freaked out, particularly since the release coincided with the “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” video, which featured reinterpretations of religious imagery and a scene of Nas descending to hell and seducing the devil.

On March 28, Nas stoked the fires by posting a video titled “Lil Nas X Apologizes for Satan Shoe.” It starts off looking like the classic YouTuber mea culpa, but then smash cuts to the “Call Me By Your Name” Satan lapdance scene. That clip has been viewed more than 8 million times.

Nas’ status as one of the few Black queer A-listers in the music industry has also made him an easy target for bigotry and harassment, choppy waters he’s navigated without getting a drop of water on his pink prison jumpsuit or his elegant red carpet gown.

At the BET Awards in June, Nas performed “Call Me By Your Name,” kissing one of his dancers at the end of the performance. The romantic moment was praised by industry figures like Diddy, but his actions also drew the ire of the rapper Boosie Badazz, who has been bashing Nas since he first came out in June 2019.

Nas has consistently parried Boosie’s offensive, derogatory, and even threatening comments. He offered a droll pseudo-apology for riling up the 38-year-old rapper in September, and in a Breakfast Club interview the day before Monteros release this week, said simply that he’d recently heard Boosie’s music in a club, and even though he didn’t want to collaborate, he didn’t necessarily harbor ill will: “If somebody got beef with me, that doesn’t mean I got beef with them.”

The sneaker drama culminated in a lawsuit filed by Nike against MSCHF that set the stage for Nas’ next blockbuster video, “Industry Baby,” in late July. In the opening seconds, a judge (also played by Nas) sentences the rapper to time in Montero State Prison, leading to two show stopping dance sequences, including one in the prison showers that left fans thirsting for an uncensored clip. (The “uncensored” version features a brilliant troll move, as the video appears to simply stop buffering right before the dance begins.)

On August 25, Nas officially announced Montero in a promo clip where he played a news anchor who exists within the same universe as the “Industry Baby” video, which was widely praised by fans and critics but angered some online for its celebration of LGBTQ+ people. “Breaking news, power bottom rapper Lil Nas X and his caucasian friend [Jack Harlow] led a prison escape this morning. This comes just months after the talentless homosexual was sentenced to five years in prison,” Nas says, clad in a garish blonde wig.

Not long after that, Nas took things to absurdist new heights, first by parodying Drake’s pregnant emoji cover for Certified Lover Boy, then by posing with a protruding stomach of his own and framing the album as something he was about to birth. “My little bundle of joy MONTERO is due September 17, 2021” Nas wrote on Instagram. He continued to play on the pregnancy theme up until midnight on release day, when he put out a hilarious video where he delivered the record, joined by the Daytrip guys as doctors.

On the eve of Montero’s release, Nas shared a series of billboards his team put together, likely a riff on what Drake did with CLB, but riffing on the conservative, homophobic backlash he’s faced. “Do you hate Lil Nas X?” “Gay?” “Do you miss the real America!?” the billboards asked, alongside the URL for the album’s presale link.

Even in the birth video, Nas and Daytrip take time to pointedly troll DaBaby, with Nas doing his “Let’s go” ad-lib and the trio imitating his dance from “BOP.” (Back in July, T.I. invoked Lil Nas’ name when arguing that DaBaby’s homophobic Rolling Loud comments actually represent “equality”).

But the best moment of Nas’ unimpeachable promo run might be The Montero Show, a 10-minute talk show-style parody of his career released today, in which Nas plays both interviewer and interviewee. “Did you ever thank Billy Ray Cyrus for giving you a career? You little ungrateful piece of shit.” he asks himself as “Old Town Road” plays.”

A white suit and perm-clad Nas introduces the guest version of himself as “‘Old Town Road’ Boy,” and proceeds to put his own spin on the negativity he’s faced (“That was a cultural reset,” he says of “Call Me By Your Name,” only for the interviewer to retort “More like a cultural upset. That was fucking gay!”)

Since the album’s release, Nas has been as busy as ever online, making memes, throwing down alley-oops from brands trying to capitalize on the Montero moment, and interacting with the ardent fans who’ve made him such a singular success.

Whether or not you think Lil Nas X’s musical chops match his promotional acumen, you won’t be able to miss Montero. In fact, Nas can probably keep it trending for as long as he wants.

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