By Megan Armstrong
Lil Nas X brought the Montero State Prison from his “Industry Baby” music video to the 2021 Video Music Awards stage last Sunday night. “It’s been, like, a long year for me, and I’ve had to overcome a lot of internal battles,” the 22-year-old rapper told MTV News’s Dometi Pongo after accepting the Video of the Year award for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” “The prison represented me breaking out of that.” With his debut studio album Montero, out today (September 19), Lil Nas X (born Montero Lamar Hill) is opening the door and walking listeners through the painful process it took to break free and embrace his truest self — primed to bust up the “homophobic cloud over hip-hop,” according to Kid Cudi.
When “Old Town Road” monopolized the music industry, becoming the longest-running single to own the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in the chart’s history and earning him his first two Grammys, Lil Nas X heard the chatter: Enjoy the limelight now, because you’ve got a one-way ticket to One-Hit Wonderville. The Atlanta-born artist remained clever and confident. That side of him is living his best life on the album’s singles “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and “Industry Baby,” or “Dead Right Now” and “Dolla Sign Slime” featuring Megan Thee Stallion. But the bulk of the project reveals him privately wrestling with the possibility that his haters are right.
At the core of Montero’s extravagant and often hilarious rollout — the cheesy lawyer billboards, the pregnancy shoots, The Montero Show — is a window into a resilient soul that refused to stay broken in a world designed to keep him down. Lil Nas X knows now that he deserves to be heard, and Montero’s 15 songs will meet you exactly where you are in discovering that, too. Below is a breakdown of the optimal mood for each track.
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: unapologetically sexy.
Key lyric: “Shoot a child in your mouth while I'm ridin' / Oh, oh, oh, why me? / A sign of the times every time that I speak / A dime and a nine, it was mine every week”
In March, Lil Nas X put “Old Town Road” firmly in the past with the racy release of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” his second No. 1 hit. The music video immediately caused a stir, which reaffirmed why Nas X made it in the first place. Within the fantastical visuals live lyrics founded in Nas X’s real-life experience. Flamenco-based guitars produced by Omer Fedi, Roy Lenzo, and Take a Daytrip amplify his mission to “normalize” provocative homosexual lyrics and queer representation. Lil Nas X had watched the 2017 film Call Me by Your Name and obviously drew direct inspiration, but “Montero” also acts as his lustful Julia Roberts moment as a boy standing in front of a boy, asking him to want him.
“Dead Right Now”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: vengeful.
Key lyric: “You know I never did you wrong / Even though I'm right here by the phone, dog / You know you never used to call / Keep it that way now”
The second track is the first indicator that this album is going to explore the man behind the memes in a way we haven’t necessarily heard before. “Dead Right Now” showcases Lil Nas X as an anecdotal writer, specifically painting the pictures of living with his sister in 2018 after dropping out of college, receiving discouragement from his dad about pursuing music (“He said, ‘It’s a one-in-a-million chance, son,’ I told him, ‘Daddy, I am that one’”), and witnessing his mom’s addiction. Ultimately, he gets the last laugh. Everyone coming out of the woodwork, beware: He won’t be fooled.
“Industry Baby” ft. Jack Harlow
Listen to it when you’re feeling: like flipping off your doubters.
Key lyric: “You was never really rooting for me anyway / When I'm back up at the top, I wanna hear you say / He don't run from nothin', dog / Get your soldiers, tell 'em that the break is over”
This hip-hop anthem is as triumphant as the trumpets blaring behind boastful bars. “Industry Baby,” a No. 2 entry on the Hot 100, positions Lil Nas X as the center of attention four months after “Montero” caused people to lose their minds and clutch their proverbial pearls. This time, though, Lil Nas X’s muse is himself and his decadent accomplishments. In the music video, which has raised close to $59 million for The Bail Project, Nas X is sentenced to five years in the Montero State Prison. Three months in, he’s shining his Grammys and getting twerked on by his fellow pink jumpsuit-wearing inmates before they all get naked in the showers. Top to bottom (power bottom?), “Industry Baby” is Lil Nas X throwing a middle finger from his undeniable throne.
“That’s What I Want”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: lonely.
Key lyric: “I need a baby while I'm in my prime / Need an adversary to my down and weary / Like, tell me there's life when I'm stressin' at night / Be like, ‘You'll be OK’ and, ‘Everything is alright’”
With an assist from perennial hitmaker Ryan Tedder, “That’s What I Want” proves high-energy acoustics and a down-and-out protagonist to be the perfect combination. Lil Nas X is on the quest for love, but he’s tired of the ambiguity. In what he called his “favorite video I ever made,” Nas X is donning a pink football uniform and making eyes with his teammate (“That afro Black boy with the gold teeth / He dark skin, lookin’ at me like he know me / I wonder if he got the G or the B”). They can’t contain their lust once they hit the locker room. Lil Nas X’s romantic luck appears to be turning around, but his crush is leading a double life — leaving Nas X alone again (“‘Cause it don’t feel right when it’s late at night / And it’s just me in my dreams”).
“The Art of Realization”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: like venting.
Key lyric: “It's like for who? / Is it for me? Am I happy?”
This track only needs 24 seconds to pierce the heart. The muffled audio recording catches Lil Nas X in an epiphany, as if someone was secretly recording therapy. He’s “driving a lot” — driving literally, driving narrative, driving sales — but he isn’t sure that he actually has a direction.
“Scoop” ft. Doja Cat
Listen to it when you’re feeling: on top of the world.
Key lyric: “I been movin' work on the daily / Baby, I ain't tryna be your baby / Understand, I'm just tryna be the daily”
After a quick “Art of Realization” intermission, we’re thrown back into the trenches of Lil Nas X’s braggadocio. The first verse references Nasarati, his 2018 debut mixtape that he since admitted was “just me acting really hard … because it felt like that’s what I had to do,” and three years later, Nas X has the bona fides to authentically play the part he thought he was ready to play back then. Scrolling Twitter to get the “scoop”? Expect to see Lil Nas X. Doja Cat’s verse emphasizes the necessary dedication to get to that level (“All them rehearsals got me tight, look at the payoff”) and dusts away disrespectful criticisms with catchy disses of her own (“He named my right cheek Jennifer and left one Lopez / Can’t call me stupid with this big ol’ fuckin’ forehead”).
“One of Me” ft. Elton John
Listen to it when you’re feeling: like indulging the negative voice in your mind.
Key lyric: “You's a meme, you's a joke, been a gimmick from the go / All the things that you do, just to get your face to show”
Just when you think Lil Nas X has put the past behind him, he dives headfirst into the slander he faced after the “Old Town Road” boom. The subtle catch is that he’s able to recite back the hate people slung his way, hellbent on making sure he knew he wasn’t going to last, while Sir Elton John plays piano in the background as a guest on his debut album.
“Lost in the Citadel”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: stuck between closure and nostalgia.
Key lyric: “My guardian angel / I only seen you in your halo / I was hoping we could stay close / But we no longer sing the same notеs”
Sonically, this is a standout moment on the project because it further solidifies Lil Nas X’s cross-genre ability and appeal. Produced by John Cunningham, who is known for working with the late XXXTentacion and most recently wrote on Halsey’s rock-fueled If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, “Lost in the Citadel” is dripping in pop-punk angst. Nas X isn’t just someone desperate to be loved; he is someone who has experienced what he believed to be true love, lost it, and struggled to truly let go.
“Dolla Sign Slime” ft. Megan Thee Stallion
Listen to it when you’re feeling: drenched in “Hot Girl” confidence.
Key lyric: “Yeah, album gon’ hit like it’s ‘82 / Got a new whip and it’s navy blue / Top of the game, only 22”
And we’re back to in-your-face hip-hop. The Montero tracklist is jumpy, jerking listeners around from one genre or mood into a contrasting one, and that’s the point: No path is linear, especially the path to success and self-love. But if the destination is flaunting with Megan Thee Stallion about sex appeal, wealth, and your debut album that slaps like Michael Jackson’s Thriller? Keep going.
“Tales of Dominica”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: anxious.
Key lyric: “Hope my little bit of hope don't fade away / I've been living on an island made from fate / Can't go running back to home, I can't facе her face”
By this point, Nas X has established how he has at times destructively internalized doubt, and the effects of that persist here (“Could I be wrong? Was everybody right about me? / Scary things in my head”). Dark, alternative-leaning “Tales of Dominica,” yet again tag-teamed by Fedi and Take a Daytrip, finds Nas X “living in my lowest, it’s safe to say,” but not in the literal sense. From the outside looking in, he’s at his highest. The problem is that he’s terrified of waking up to find it all gone, to be dumped back into the hollowness he grew up in. This song takes a more poetic approach than “Dead Right Now” to addressing his painful family roots, though the message is still loud and clear: He came from a broken home, and after making it out, his biggest fear is ending up alone anyway.
“Sun Goes Down”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: alone and wanting to know that you’re not actually alone.
Key lyric: “Don't wanna lie, I don't want a life / Send me a gun and I'll see the sun / I'd rather run away”
Soon after Lil Nas X met his now-frequent collaborator Omer Fedi, he penned his most bluntly vulnerable single to date. “Sun Goes Down” dropped in May, as did its deeply cathartic music video, and while the song didn’t crack the top 10, external validation was never the goal. This song is about internal peace. Over somber guitar and punctuating beats in all the right places, Nas X speaks to his younger self, who contemplated suicide and struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. Present-day Nas X is able to see that “there’s so much more to life than dying” and revel in his well-earned happiness.
Listen to it when you’re feeling: confessional.
Key lyric: “Hello old friend from the road / I wanted to write a note / To let you know that, all in all, it ain’t all what it seems”
Produced by Cunningham and Grammy-nominated Carter Lang (SZA’s Ctrl), “Void” ties all the album’s themes over ethereal beats. Lil Nas X is again feeling low, “small as the salt in the sea,” and reconciling with what comes after breakout success. At the end of the day, he is left with only himself. In the intro, he seems to be writing to himself before “Old Town Road” blew up — almost as a warning to get right within himself rather than expecting adoration to fix everything. “Every win gives you more room to lose,” he sings.
“Don’t Want It”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: reflective.
Key lyric: “Started thinkin’ am I stupid to be funny over things that’s been hauntin’ me all my life? / And I’m fuckin’ living proof that if you want it, you can have anything right before your eyes”
As the outside noise swells, the loudest voice is still Lil Nas X’s own. Emo rap beats produced by Take a Daytrip and Juice WRLD collaborators DT and Nick Mira underline the power in hindsight. Lil Nas X recounts drinking too much or smoking himself to sleep to avoid pangs of sadness, but every lamenting line is one-upped by an affirmation from the other side. The interlude features spoken awards and news announcements of his accomplishments. It sets up a powerful one-two punch in the second verse (“I wanted fame and I wanted riches / Wanted happiness, wanted forgiveness … Old people in my life should know that I am not the old me”) and chorus (“Tell the devil I can’t have him inside / Tell the reaper he don’t want it”).
“Life After Salem”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: numb.
Key lyric: “Why don’t you just take what you want from me? / I think you should take what you want and leave”
Cunningham and Lang added Jasper Sheff (Halsey, Miley Cyrus, XXXTentacion) to the mix and plunged even deeper into grungier rock instrumentals. Lil Nas X is again a loner, as he was in “That’s What I Want” and “Lost in the Citadel,” but “Life After Salem” has a key distinction: He doesn’t care anymore. He won’t chase after someone who doesn’t want him. He’s begging this person causing him so much harm to save him from himself, as he can’t help but indulge in their toxic dynamic, and leave him alone.
“Am I Dreaming?” ft. Miley Cyrus
Listen to it when you’re feeling: existential.
Key lyric: “Oh-oh-oh, never forget me, like I'm your favorite song / I'm fadin', replayin' / These thoughts I thought while sinking down / Oh-oh-oh, never forget me, and evеrything I've done”
Fedi and Take a Daytrip’s weaving of Miley Cyrus’s timeless voice into a song about the unpredictability of time and memory is the cherry on top of pristine production leading up to the finale. But don’t get it twisted: Lil Nas X is never overshadowed. It is his voice that makes the lasting mark. To keep with the album cover’s biblical themes, a line has been drawn: B.M. and A.M. — Before Montero and After Montero. He may not have figured out just yet how to totally absolve his present from the demons of his past, but from this moment on, you will know who he is and what he stands for.