Lil Nas X's 'Montero' album and the power of unabashed queerness

The star’s emotionally vibrant music is only part of the story.

The road to Lil Nas X’s debut album “Montero” has been an exhilarating affair, complete with detours like a chart-topping EP, “7,” show-stopping red carpet outfits, multiple awards and a run of viral music videos.

The Georgia-born rapper’s meteoritic rise started with his track “Old Town Road” — released independently as a single in 2018 — which made the Billboard 100 and became a viral TikTok meme in the process. But the star’s music is only part of the story. Lil Nas X demonstrates a type of celebratory, unabashed queerness that is badly needed in the music industry right now, and culture more generally.

The breakout success of “Old Town Road” sparked interesting and important conversations about race and country music. But after his June 2019 Twitter post celebrating his queer identify, Nas’ vibrant ascension took on a new purpose for his growing legion of fans — especially his LGBTQ listeners. In an industry still steeped in homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and overall anti-LGBTQ attitudes, Lil Nas X is a bold symbol of freedom.

Nas is a disruptor, a title that took on new meaning as he began work on his debut album “Montero” in 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and a broader fight against racial inequality.

“Creating this album has been therapy for me,” Nas said in a Twitter post detailing his work on “Montero.” “I’ve learned to let go of trying to control people’s perception of who I am, what I can do, and where I will be. I’ve realized the only opinion of me that really matters is my own.”

In an industry still steeped in homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and overall anti-LGBTQ attitudes, Lil Nas X is a bold symbol of freedom.

The singer explores his search for self on tracks like “Sun Goes Down” — with its emotional lyrics that detail his own experience battling depression. But true to fashion, he still finds space for fun among his self-discovery, with thumping tracks like “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” Their visuals give him a chance to continue to push the comfort zone of popular culture, while tweaking the trolls who would love nothing more than to crush his confidence.

The rollout for “Montero” has been equally vibrant, with Nas crafting a whimsical menagerie of unforgettable red carpet moments, live performances and videos that reflect the high energy of his current musical iteration.

In March, the artist released the video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” to both fanfare and exhaustingly obtuse hate from public figures, fellow musicians and listeners. But his lap dance with the devil proved to be a perfectly choreographed conversation starter — with the video spotlighting an intentional representation of queer sexuality often hidden from view — specifically for Black and brown artists in the hypermasculine and often anti-LGBTQ hip hop genre.

Nas kept that energy going with a BET Awards performance in June that combined choreography, a cast of gorgeous shirtless Black men and a kiss with one of his backup dancers.

But this kind of confidence took years to build, as Nas told Out Magazine in an interview following the performance. In that interview he noted that while preparing for the performance was initially scary, he eventually embraced the chance to really flaunt his truth. That he is also able to use his art to take on those who criticize his sexuality is a bonus.

“Y’all hate yourselves so much. Y’all live your lives trying your best to appease straight [people]. Y’all are uncomfortable with what I do because y’all are afraid they will be uncomfortable with you,” he tweeted in June in response to criticism of the performance. “Work on yourselves. I love who I am and whatever I decide to do. Get there.”

Nas followed his BET Awards performance with the July release of his prison-themed video for “Industry Baby.” He performed a medley of “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By My Name)” at the MTV VMA awards in September — complete with another cast of Black and brown backup dancers and a steamy shower dance break. When he won the MTV VMA for video of the year, he gave a triumphant thank you to the “gay agenda.” It was a direct swipe at a ludicrous term that has long been weaponized against the LGBTQ community.

Nas then stunned in three separate looks while strutting the red carpet at the Met Gala, a trio that included a luxurious cape detailed with gold beading, a suit of gold armor and a figure-hugging black and gold jumpsuit accessorized with a gold choker and chunky boots.

To celebrate the album release, his team is running a series of eye-catching billboards this week that directly call out and parody the anti-LGBTQ outrage that seems to follow the artist, no matter what he does.

It appears Nas has found a way to make outrage his fuel, cooly and calculatingly using the never-ending criticism to highlight the way the LGBTQ community continues to be marginalized, silenced and underestimated. And for Black gay men, his success is that much more important.

The most celebrated and most visible queer voices in the music industry have typically been white men, from legends like Boy George, Elton John and George Michael to more recent acts like Troye Sivan, Sam Smith, Clay Aiken, Lance Bass and Adam Lambert. So for Nas, a dark-skinned, queer Black man with beautiful full features, to gain the traction and coverage he has over the past two years sets an important precedent.

His impact is also being felt across the hip hop industry, which continues to be plagued by anti-LGBTQ attitudes — despite how the Black and brown queer community has historically supporting hip hop artists. In a welcome deviation from this historical stigma, Nas has garnered support from hip hop acts like Kid Cudi, who recently praised Nas for his attempts to “break down” the “homophobic cloud over hip-hop” and pledged to do all he could to “stand with him” and “do whatever I have to do to let him know — you have my support.”

Montero is Nas’ given first name. So it feels only right that he named this album after himself, seeing that it embodies such an inspiring, and personal, journey of self-love.

“I hope every single corner of the globe is reached with this album,” he told People Magazine, adding that, “It’s going to happen!”

Lil Nas X’s infectious self-confidence and captivating artistry has carried him far — and his career is just beginning. We can assume the rapper will continue to influence pop culture through his zealous endorsement of the kind of freedom that comes when we prioritize, protect and proclaim our truth.

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