“Old Town Road,” a rap-influenced country song—or a country-influenced rap song, depending on your particular tilt—is presently en route to becoming the most significant commercial release of the decade. Written and self-released by Lil Nas X, a heretofore unknown and unemployed twenty-year-old from Atlanta, a remix of the track has spent eleven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, becoming one of only twenty-five songs to ever linger that long at No. 1—staving off new singles from such established pop veterans as Taylor Swift and from such beloved, Zeitgeist-friendly upstarts as Billie Eilish. For jaded fans of pop music, there is perhaps no joy more pure than when an odd, exuberant, and vaguely nonsensical song seizes the national imagination, despite not ever having been strategically decanted in a glass-panelled conference room by a team of tanned producers. The slog of glossy, market-optimized major-label pap can get a girl down. It’s a relief to remember that surprises, fuelled by luck, savvy, and youthful acumen, can still best the charts.
Last week, Lil Nas X released “7,” his début seven-song EP. It was inevitable that Nas X would produce more music, and fast—he was signed to Columbia Records almost immediately after “Old Town Road” hit—but it was an open question whether he was at the beginning or the end of his music career. The immediate critical response to “7” has been underwhelming (“It’s unclear if Lil Nas X actually likes music,” Pitchfork noted). The second single, “Panini,” credits Kurt Cobain as a composer and borrows an explosive melody from the chorus of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Nas X clarified on Twitter that the song is not about a pressed sandwich, but a character from the late-two-thousands-era cartoon “Chowder.”
“Panini” is a serviceable song, if uninspiring. The crudeness and lack of sophistication of the tracks on “7” are essential to their appeal, much in the way that a goofy eight-bit graphic is often funnier and more charming than an elaborate animation, and not simply for reasons of nostalgia. There’s something warm and human about being so proudly amateur; Nas X seems to dismiss virtuosity itself as old-fashioned or even bourgeois. Accordingly, critical evaluations of his work—especially the ones that approach the music with some historical breadth—don’t really figure into his gestalt. His art is not so much about a mastery of sound as it is about the curious (yet highly precise) ways in which we cultivate intimacy and community online.
The success of “Old Town Road” is indebted to a confluence of cultural events, some spontaneous and irreverent, and some in keeping with the progressive, canon-cracking energy of our times. The beat that Nas X used for “Old Town Road” was built by a nineteen-year-old Dutch producer named YoungKio, who works from a desk in his bedroom and posts his work to YouTube for free. YoungKio, in turn, used a public commons sample of “34 Ghosts IV”—a track by Nine Inch Nails that originally appeared on the band’s sixth album, “Ghosts I–IV,” a collection of sparse ambient songs (it briefly features a morosely plucked banjo). In the context of YoungKio’s production, the sample becomes masculine and iconic, as if it’s meant to accompany two duelling outlaws as they square off outside a saloon.
In September, 2018, a few months before Nas X first posted “Old Town Road” online, a Texas-based Twitter user named Bri Malandro coined the phrase “yeehaw agenda” to describe the pop singer Ciara’s appearance on the cover of the fashion magazine King Kong, where she is wearing a magnificent white cowboy hat. A few months later, the art critic Antwaun Sargent compiled a string of images of black artists and models dressed as cowboys and posted it to Twitter: “I need a fashion piece about how the black yeehaw agenda is chic and thriving,” he wrote. Cultural critics hastened to point out that black cowboy culture was neither an anomaly nor a novelty, and that country music itself is firmly and unambiguously rooted in black musical traditions.
Around the same time, Michael Pelchat, who runs a popular account on TikTok, came upon “Old Town Road” on Nas X’s Soundcloud page. Pelchat, who is twenty-one, lanky, and appears pre-programmed to grin, danced around his carpeted bedroom to “Old Town Road,” wearing a plaid shirt and bluejeans, for fifteen seconds. The clip went unexpectedly viral. The video was silly, and sort of innocent, and effortlessly paired two traditions—country and western and hip-hop—that many people had long presumed, however erroneously, were mutually and constitutionally exclusive.
By then, the whole trajectory of “Old Town Road” was becoming so nonsensical that it was impossible not to be delighted by it. (“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Albert Einstein once wrote.) On March 16th, “Old Town Road” appeared on Billboard’s country chart, but the company eventually pulled it, claiming that it had been misclassified. Later, when Nas X was asked by Joe Coscarelli, of the Times, if he thought that Billboard’s dismissal of the single was racist (Billboard claimed it wasn’t country music), he demurred, suggesting, instead, that it might have been the song’s ingenuity that intimidated them. Soon the country singer Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a remix. Chris Rock appeared in the “official movie,” announcing, “When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let him fly!” It was curtains for every other pop star with a summer single and dreams of mass airplay.
Nas X’s childhood unwittingly prepared for him for his moment in the pop spotlight. He was born Montero Lamar Hill, in 1999, and was raised by his mother and grandmother in Bankhead Courts, a public housing project situated in a grim and industrial corner of west Atlanta (it was demolished in 2011). In the mid-nineties, Bankhead became briefly famous after a dance called the Bankhead Bounce took hold in hip-hop clubs; Michael Jackson did a version of the move—a kind of incremental, upper-body shimmy, like a robot gently powering down—at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1995, and it’s featured heavily in the video for TLC’s single “Waterfalls.” Like many black neighborhoods in Atlanta, Bankhead has been a rich incubator of hip-hop talent, including the rappers T.I., Young Dro, and D4L.
When he was nine, Nas X left Bankhead to move in with his father, in suburban Cobb County. He has said that he spent large amounts of his adolescence online, tinkering with ideas of persona creation, trying to figure out how to establish (and monetize) a kind of virtual celebrity. Nas X’s Internet fluency has, so far, been crucial to his success. The culture that births and circulates memes can feel preposterous to people who are too old, too busy, or too disinterested to take the time to absorb the cadence and flow of life online, which operates by its own internal logic and is engineered, in a way, to be inscrutable to anyone who doesn’t spend their waking hours drifting through it. Trying to make sense of it all sometimes reminds me of a scene in “Mad Men” in which Don Draper asks a young woman backstage at a Rolling Stones concert why she likes the band—what it makes her feel. “What are you, a psychiatrist?” she asks.
Still, for me, the entire philosophy of the Internet seems to be contained in the purposeful way that Nas X raps the phrase “I got the horses in the back,” at the very start of “Old Town Road.” He knows that it’s a weird and funny and possibly absurd thing to say, and his voice is so flat and full of self-awareness that the line itself almost curls into a smirk—yet it is delivered earnestly! It’s impossible to explain why the phrase is funny, beyond what it suggests about the fluidity of cultural boundaries, but Nas X is preternaturally confident in its pitch, its import, and his unassailable right to say whatever he wants about horses. This gets at something about the modern condition—that we have arrived at a moment in which self-definition trumps any other kind of categorization. Or perhaps it merely encapsulates the ballooning absurdity of our times, and our increasing desperation to laugh at anything.
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