Newfound fame has felled many a young superstar, and Lil Nas X, feeling overwhelmed by the massive success of his 2019 hit “Old Town Road,” decided to take a brief hiatus early last year to settle in and work on his debut album. Then Covid-19 hit.
“I think I spent all of the pandemic making music and crying — no in-betweens,” the 22-year-old rapper-singer says now. “For the first month or so, I did not leave my house, and once I did, I was super overly critical of everything I was making. I was letting everything online get to me and feeling like things were over for me.”
What a difference a few traumatic months can make: The Nas who has reemerged is, he says, “a totally different person” — an outspoken and empowered gay man unafraid to express truth in his art.
Far from “Old Town Road,” the rap-country earworm that famously was recorded for $50 in a small Atlanta studio and has become the longest-running No. 1 hit in Billboard Hot 100 history, Nas’ recent lyrics, videos, TV appearances and especially public statements are exponentially more honest, autobiographical and queer. And while he avoids making grandiose statements about being a pioneer or a trailblazer for the LGBTQ community — “Let’s f-----’ go, gay agenda!” he wrote last month, tongue firmly in cheek, when retweeting that he had the top two videos on the YouTube U.S. songs chart — he doesn’t need to. His actions do the talking.
This year alone, Nas (real name Montero Lamar Hill) has released one video that features him giving Satan a lap dance — for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” — and another, prison-themed one that has him and several male dancers gyrating nude, albeit with their privates pixelated, in a shower (“Industry Baby”); delivered a sexually loaded performance on “Saturday Night Live” during which he split his pants and finished the song holding his crotch (that was an accident); and most controversial of all, kissed one of his male dancers full on the mouth on the BET Awards (that was no accident).
It’s all leading up to “Montero,” his long-awaited first full-length album — which he says will be out before the end of the summer, and will be “much more personal” than his pre-pandemic work and of a piece with the unapologetically LGBTQ-themed singles he’s released this year.
Rap and R&B artists from Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator (both of whom Nas acknowledges as inspirations) to Azealia Banks, Le1f and Janelle Monáe have announced, acknowledged, kind of acknowledged or simply not denied being gay or bisexual. But Nas — who came out in June 2019, midway through the record 19-week reign of “Old Town Road” at No. 1 — has become a singular trailblazer, especially in the hip-hop world. In terms of pop stars confrontationally expressing sexuality, one has to go back decades, even to David Bowie or Madonna or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, to find others who have gone so far in forging a path that will make things less difficult for other artists and less shocking for audiences.
“Honestly, I believe the pandemic helped me get out of the idea of trying to please everybody, and the idea of ‘He’s a cool gay person; he’s an acceptable gay person,’” Nas says. “I used to see things like that as a compliment, but it’s not. It just means you’re a people pleaser, and they never become legends. I wanted to be even more authentic in my music and let people into my life. I’m much more confident now — in my music, myself, my sexuality, the things that I believe that I stand for.”
Like many people — particularly in his age group, which saw the world shut down just when their lives were supposed to begin — Nas emerged from lockdown scarred, changed and with a defiant resolve. He doesn’t just smack down haters, he gets in their faces, advancing his beliefs with a rare combination of sass, bluntness and wit. “Y’all be silent as hell when n—-s dedicate their entire music catalogue to rapping about sleeping with multiple women,” he replied on Twitter to one criticizing his “Industry Baby” video. “But when I do anything remotely sexual I’m ‘being sexually irresponsible.’ Y’all hate gay ppl and don’t hide it.” On a lighter, more characteristic note, shortly after he came out publicly, he tweeted: “Just got news that I’m gay and I will no longer be streaming my music. I’m sorry that shit is just not ok.”
He even gets ahead of criticism he knows is coming. Asked about the prison-shower scene in the “Industry Baby” video, he says, “I knew people were gonna make those jokes about ‘Don’t drop the soap,’ so I just beat them to the punch.”
Intentionally or not, his presence as a proud, successful gay man has led others to reveal their prejudices. At the time of this story’s publication, no fewer than five major rappers — none of whom Nas had mentioned in songs or statements — have publicly and flagrantly displayed their homophobia in response to his stance, most prominently DaBaby. And conversely, artists who work with him now, such as rapper Jack Harlow, know they are effectively co-signing him.
“I think he’s giving a voice to a lot of people and kids who could use one,” says Harlow, who appears in the “Industry Baby” song and video (not in the shower scene, although he says he would have if Nas had asked). “I think the community he represents could use someone who’s succeeding on a mainstream level — where it can feel like, ‘Yo, you can be No. 1. You can be the greatest.’ I really recognize what he’s doing and I admire him. I admired him long before we met.”
Elton John, who has called Nas “a hero of mine,” tells Variety: “Lil Nas X is a bold and brave provocateur who’s making amazing and inspiring music. He’s pushing the boundaries of urban music by wholeheartedly embracing his sexuality and visually projecting that celebration out into the world."
“Historically, there has been a lot of homophobia in the hip-hop world,” John continues. “DaBaby’s recent recent damaging comments about the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV/AIDS clearly demonstrate that there is still so much education and work to be done.”
Nas declines to address the issue or those rappers’ negative comments directly. “The honest truth is, I don’t want to speak on a lot of the homophobia within rap because I feel like this is a very dangerous playing field,” he says. “It’s more for my own safety rather than anything else.”
Does that mean he’s felt unsafe?
“Yeah, a lot of times, absolutely,” he says. “Especially after [‘Montero’]. There was literally someone who chased my car a few days after that video came out, yelling, ‘Fuck you!’ or something. And that’s when I actually started getting security.” Although he’s not sure the video is what caused this stranger to pursue him, “I feel like it couldn’t be a coincidence.”
Nas is a definitively 21st Century pop star.
Raised on the internet and social media, fluent in many of those platforms — particularly Twitter, his virtuoso format — fluid with genres and genders, and hardened by the global lockdown. Unlike the old music industry’s reliance on multiyear album-tour-then-go-away-for-a-while cycles, in 2021 pop-culture figures must continually feed their audiences, like digital Johnny Appleseeds throwing clouds of potential memes into the wind, nursing the ones that take root and dropping those that wither. It’s a talent or skill most successful contemporary public figures have; Donald Trump, the Kardashians, Drake and Taylor Swift are masters at it.
Music is just one element of Nas’ narrative. Like other contemporary superstars, he and his team are meticulous about budgeting and doling out content. If you haven’t seen the videos, photos, tweets, Instagram posts, TV appearances, splashy (ahem) interviews and whatever else, you’re not getting the full story.
And he’s constantly shaping and reshaping that content and narrative. Nas is charming in interviews but plays his cards close to his vest, occasionally giving revealing answers but more often short and evasive ones. However, it comes off less like protection of his privacy — he gave that up a long time ago — than like someone who just doesn’t want to show his hand. He shares only general details about his album: In addition to being “much more personal” lyrically, it is as musically diverse as “7,” his 2019 debut EP, but “much more cohesive.”
“I’m always trying to give people a show, you know?” he says of his strategy, “while also pointing out the flaws in society. I have a goal in my head for where I want to be, but my entire life and career has been just going in and winging it. Some things work really well and some don’t work at all, and a lot of them are very much last minute — like, I planned the BET kiss literally a day or two before it happened. I just use anything that comes at me to my advantage, even things that others may see as a disadvantage.”
It’s been a recipe for smash success so far. Some of the places the journey has taken him are a spin around the dance floor with Beyoncé at her and Jay-Z’s Halloween party in 2019 — “She just said she’s super proud of me and to keep going; it was a next-level experience” — and meeting Timothée Chalamet, whose star turn in “Call Me by Your Name” inspired Nas to make it the subtitle of the groundbreaking “Montero” single and video.
“I saw it at home while I was beginning to make my album,” he recalls of the 2017 coming-of-age movie. “And I was really happy to see such an artsy gay film, you know? I used it as a subtitle because I felt like that song, like even before I added in lyrics, sounded like that movie, taking sounds from Indian music, Arabic music, African music.
“Anyway, I met Timothée at ‘SNL.’ He was just hanging out backstage, and he was like super supportive and showed love. I was like, holy s---, that’s a crazy full-circle moment.”
Did this conversation take place before or after Nas split his pants on live national television?
“Uh,” he pauses, “this was pre-split pants.”
Montero Lamar Hill has come a long way from Lithia Springs, the Atlanta suburb where he was born on April 9, 1999. His parents broke up when he was 6, and he initially lived with his mother and grandmother for four years before his dad, a gospel singer, won custody. He says he realized he was gay as early as age 5.
“I had feelings for my sister’s cousin — we have different dads,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s really cute,’ and thought that about a lot of other boys my age.” On his recent single “Sun Goes Down,” he sings, “These gay thoughts would always haunt me / I prayed God would take it from me.”
He began using the internet as a 13-year-old — “mainly posting about Nicki Minaj,” he laughs — and before long was running six-figure-follower fan accounts for the trailblazing rapper, experimenting with creating memes. (He was even suspended from Twitter for “tweet-decking,” creating multiple accounts in order to make memes go viral.)
Asked what inspired his standom, Nas says, “I felt like [Minaj] was unique to the rap industry — somebody who is super talented but didn’t get all the credit because of her being a woman. She’s super outspoken, she’s a boss and she goes after what she wants. I love all those attributes.”
At first he denied running the fan accounts, later claiming he was concerned that people would think it meant he was gay — before he stopped caring about that. But last year he finally came clean. Minaj wrote to him on Twitter, “It was a bit of a sting when you denied being a Barb,” she posted, referencing the name for her superfans, “but I understand. Congratulations on building up your confidence to speak your truth.”
While Nas says that exchange is the extent of his personal contact with Minaj thus far, the experience was formative for any number of reasons. “Being on stan Twitter as a whole, I learned a lot about the things that artists have to go through,” he says, “and also a lot of music industry history. It’s helping me a lot.”
Like many of his generation, Nas led a double life as a teenager — “kind of polar opposites,” he says — as an outspoken stan on social media but an outsider high school student IRL. He sings in “Sun Goes Down”: “I’d be by the phone / Stanning Nicki mornin’ into dawn / Only place I felt like I belonged / Strangers make you feel so loved.”
He revisits that time in heartrending fashion in the song’s video, which depicts a teenage, tuxedoed Nas being ignored at his senior prom and retreating to the men’s room in tears, before being consoled and led back to the school gym by his future self — and then joyfully ripping it up on the dance floor.
The video “absolutely is me,” he says. “My hair wasn’t that blond [as it is in the video], but everything else is pretty accurate. It was a little peek into my experience in high school, feeling like an outsider and like I didn’t really fit in with any cliques, or trying to fit into the wrong ones to feel accepted: the tough guys, the clowns — although I definitely was a class clown myself — the popular people who had the nicer shoes and whatnot … and of course straight men.”
“Sun Goes Down” could strike a chord with anyone who ever felt like an outcast, and it has. “The reaction has been so much love — the most of any song I’ve released,” he says. “A lot of people said it encouraged them to stay alive and know that there’s more on the other side. I was just happy to give people something other than just a bop, and write something insightful about my past.”
While it’s not addressed in the video, that was also the era that Nas took up with the person he considers to be his first real boyfriend. “I was 18, I believe,” he says. “Before that, there was a guy who wasn’t my boyfriend, but we met in middle school and we talked, after we both found out that each other were gay. But I didn’t act on anything until high school — well, middle school, but then high school.”
Encountering homophobia “bred a lot of self-hate,” he reveals, “but it also made me stronger. Once I was 17 or 18, I finally accepted it — like, for sure accepted it, slowly, more and more — and now I’ve grown into a person that is 100 percent open with it."
“I’ve had some good boyfriends and some bad ones. A lot of them were emotionally unavailable or had a lot of insecurity and whatnot.” But “I’ve found someone special now,” he reveals. “I think this is the one. I can’t explain it — it’s just a feeling.”
Nas’ decision to come out — during Pride Month 2019 — was a risk, but a calculated one. He told his sister, then his father, then the world.
“That was a heavy month,” he admits. “I definitely knew that I would lose a lot of the fans that I was gaining, but I also knew that others would [be supportive]. And having that release helped me so much creatively — I probably wouldn’t even be here right now, talking about the things I’m talking about and being that voice for so many people. It’s so much more of a journey when there’s more to it than just making catchy songs, you know?”
While the video for “Montero” was polarizing, to say the least, the three-minute anthem that has generated more than 315 million views on YouTube alone actually brought Nas and his dad closer. “People were definitely talking to him online,” Nas says, “but I feel like after the [controversial] videos is when my dad became the most supportive of me. Before that, it was something we never really talked about. But after he gave it some time, he believed in me even more. I mean, it wasn’t that reaction when he first [saw the video],” he laughs, “but you know, we got there!”
As for the future, Nas just wants to keep pushing himself and the envelope. “I see myself as a self-made-legend kind of situation, icon — all the great words to describe someone,” he says.
He even turned down a high-profile acting gig because he didn’t think he was ready. “I was actually going to do ‘Euphoria,’ but I didn’t want to take time away from finishing my album,” Nas says of the HBO drama starring Zendaya. “I definitely want to get into acting, but I feel I have to give it my all, and I want to focus on music for right now. I want my first movie to be amazing.”
On the basis of this young artist’s career thus far, we’d expect nothing less.