On the middling 7, Lil Nas X attempts to show he’s more than “Old Town Road”

The unlikely star of 2019’s first half attempts to showcase his versatility with his debut EP.

June 21, 2019
On the middling <i>7</i>, Lil Nas X attempts to show he’s more than “Old Town Road” Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images  

What odds would Vegas have given you on Lil Nas X releasing his debut EP while “Old Town Road” was on top of the Billboard 100? At the turn of the year, you could’ve made a life-changing amount of money on the then-unknown 19-year-old musician bursting out of Tik Tok and turning into a superstar. Even after Billboard foolishly removed the track from the country charts for not having enough in common with “today’s country music,” difficult questions about race and genre seemed far more important than “Old Town Road” itself. The song was a curio, a thought-experiment, an interesting problem with a golden hook.

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Even after the world figured out that this guy was a Twitter genius, it still seemed as though “Old Town Road” would come, go, and stay gone. But the one-time Tweetdecker born Montero Lamar Hill is still here. “Old Town Road” is still the number-one song in the country. Billy Ray Cyrus has returned to his rightful place atop the Cyrus Family Power Rankings. And judging by 7 — Lil Nas X’s hastily-assembled debut EP, out today on Columbia — these unlikely victories will keep coming.

The obvious question that lingered over the release of 7 was whether or not it would hue too close to “Old Town Road” —a presumptive dying wheeze of a one-hit wonder and an attempt to capitalize once more on the sound that propelled him to ubiquity. Hill knows as well as anyone that he didn’t invent trap-country, never mind rap-country crossovers — but he’s the kid who took his song to the top of the charts, his entire public image built on the success of a song he wrote on his sister’s couch and published alongside some Red Dead Redemption footage. Remaking “Old Town Road” six more times would’ve been an embarrassment, but it would’ve made some sense —and it certainly would’ve been easier than building a new identity over half a dozen songs.

That identity isn’t really fleshed out on 7, but there’s enough in these 15 minutes of music to confirm that Hill has plenty of ideas. The Cardi B-featuring “Rodeo” is the only other song on here that’s remotely country-adjacent, and even its spaghetti Western guitar opens up into an alt-grunge riff with horns that call back to Cardi’s 2018 smash “I Like It.” Her energy is a welcome jolt, and it sounds like a hit in the world ushered in by Lil Nas X, where Dick Dale-esque licks dominate the pop airwaves.

It’s not the most interesting moment on 7, though. “Panini” is an electro-pop song full of whistles and emo-rap torpor: “I thought you want this for my life / Said you wanted to see me thrive, you lied.” Kurt Cobain gets a songwriting credit because, Hill insists, it sounds too much like Nirvana’s “In Bloom” — but it doesn’t, not really, save for a three-note stretch that’s three octaves and three degrees of fury below what Cobain delivered on his song. “It introduced me to Nirvana's album Nevermind,” he told Zane Lowe yesterday. “It's like I always seen the cover but I never actually listened to it.”

It was entirely reasonable to assume that Lil Nas X had never listened to Nine Inch Nails’ otherworldly, mostly instrumental 2008 LP Ghosts I-IV when he sang over Youngkio’s beat to create “Old Town Road.” But Nevermind, one of the best-selling albums of all time, is foundational — not just to culture at large, but to a kid who sings “can’t nobody tell me nothing” for a living. To have made “Old Town Road” and “Panini” without ever having listened to a lick of that album means that Lil Nas X isn’t just artist who deliberately smudges lines between genres — he’s someone who doesn't really know the lines between genres at all.

Hill has rarely dropped his mask on Twitter or in interviews, seemingly so stoked about his newfound fame that nothing could hurt him. But “Bring U Down” has him angry for once, writing a monologue for his detractors. “I’ve dug up your past and now I know all of your moves / And I’ve got witnesses, statements, and I’ve got all of the proof,” he sings. “I’m wondering about you because I’ve got nothing to do.”

Elsewhere, the lyrics are less important than the sound. The Travis Barker-produced “F9mily (You & Me),” with its octave harmonies and mid-range power chords, inevitably sounds like a breezy pop-punk throwback. It’s fun and fuzzy, and it sounds nothing like “Old Town Road.” Mission accomplished. The same can be said for “Kick It,” an echoey R&B song that seems to have revealed all of its tricks before some untamed saxophones lope into the mix. By the time the Malibu pop of “C7osure” is done, the only thread left to hold onto is Hill’s voice, and though it's not his best asset, it's at least versatile enough to seem at home on most of these songs.

Everything Hill does and has done from the moment he asked his then-modest following to get Billy Ray Cyrus on “Old Town Road” has been intentional. Other musicians want to control the narrative, but even Drake can’t control the memes. Lil Nas X can. So, 7 is an imperfect record, a quarter-hour showcase of new songs from a young artist who’s had a wild six months, but it achieves everything that it sets out to. We still don’t know who Lil Nas X is, exactly, and maybe he doesn’t either. But now we know that he can just about sound comfortable while changing lanes. A dollar on that in January would have dwarfed a lottery win.

On the middling 7, Lil Nas X attempts to show he’s more than “Old Town Road”