Lil Nas X is a revolutionary forcing hip-hop to face the culture’s long-term issues with homophobia.
Interview: Kris Ex
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
This is how we speak. This is how we’ve spoken in hip-hop since we’ve been allowed to speak—crass and unfiltered, sexual and horny, direct yet metaphoric. It’s obviously not the only way we speak. (Despite a recent feature in The New York Times, which tried to convey tall-eyed surprise at the existence of a London rapper who doesn’t traffic in the tropes of many mainstream rappers. “While other rappers brag about sex, drugs and expensive cars, Jimothy raps about his ambition to one day earn enough money to shop at upmarket supermarkets and listening to his mother’s advice,” they wrote, as if discovering a Black unicorn drinking from a lake of gold underneath a project staircase. That line from the story alone blew up on Twitter.) We speak in many different ways. We speak of missing the bus, missing homies, missing opportunities. We rap about the plug, but we also rap about working in an electronics store and attending technical school. We also cuss and talk about sex. A whole fucking lot.
To be clear: “We” means primarily, but not specifically, young Black men. Obviously, other voices have joined the choir since DJ Kool Herc “birthed” this thing called hip-hop at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in The Bronx on Aug. 11, 1973. Also, Brown people and women’s voices have always been part of hip-hop. We can’t erase them, but to deny that hip-hop’s blueprint is that of the thoughts of young Black men navigating the world around them is to not have an honest conversation. All other voices in hip-hop are defined by their proximity and relationship to those of marginalized Black men living in the United States. These are just facts.
1982’s Wild Style, which ostensibly remains as an artifactual document of the romanticized “four elements” version of hip-hop, featured pioneer and OG best rapper alive Chief Rocker Busy Bee laying money on his bed well before Instagram flexes were a thing. Popping bottles of champagne and removing women’s panties before engaging in an illustrated sexual orgy. In the late 1980s, gangsta rap forefathers N.W.A were the targets of national media, politicians and future Donald Trump supporters for having the temerity to tell law enforcement what it could do with itself. Uncle Luke’s 2 Live Crew spent the first half of the 1990s enmeshed in legal battles over their right to invoke women to “pop that pussy.” Hip-hop—performers and consumers alike—has always waged battles for the right to say what it felt was necessary in the ways that it felt was right to say them. And well before then, in the 1930s, musical artists like Lucille Bogan were one-upping the previous decades dirty blues of Ma Rainey and others which had relied heavily on entendre and other figures of speech dropping bars like, “I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb/I got somethin’ between my legs’ll make a dead man cum” and “I fucked all night and all the night before, baby and I feel just like I wanna fuck some more.”
This is a long way to go to say that talking about sex in hip-hop is not new. But when Lil Nas X—hip-hop’s most prominent openly gay male rapper, and its first out-of-the-closet mainstream star—says something like, “I might bottom on the low, but I top shit” on his semi-Christmas loosie “Holiday,” he’s not necessarily breaking new ground. But then again, he is. Much like N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” was not the first anti-authoritarian song ever recorded—the entire genre of punk rock was based on railing against social norms with groups such as Black Flag making songs like 1981’s “Police Story,” which begins, “Fucking city is run by pigs”—Lil Nas X’s comments come off as revolutionary because of the context. Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella weren’t saying anything new, but they—Black men from the inner-city killing fields of Los Angeles—were saying it, and that made the powers that be uncomfortable. Nicki Minaj and Cardi B can give lap dances in rap videos with little pushback from the center of hip-hop’s audience, but when Lil Nas X does it, it’s a problem.
“Honestly, I don’t feel as respected in hip-hop or many music places in general,” Lil Nas X says over Zoom this past August. “But these are communities that I am a part of, whether people would like it or not. This is something that I wanted to do because, not that my entire album is rap, but there are rap tracks on my album. I am a rapper. I am a pop star. I am a gay artist. But it’s like, I belong in these places, you know?”
To this point, the artwork for Black Flag’s “Police Story” features a gun shoved in a police officer’s mouth, the caption saying, “Make me come, faggot!” Because for too many people, being gay was—and still is—a punch line.
Hip-hop was created for artists like Lil Nas X to exist. Despite what a certain strain of purist might say, his presence is not an aberration of goals or abdication of duty, but the fulfillment of the music’s highest ideals. To the level that he’s accepted, hip-hop has shown growth. In the late 1990s, One Nut, an independent hip-hop magazine, created a series of minor scandals when it published a fake profile of a purportedly closeted homosexual rapper. Radio stations and gossip circles wonder aloud as to the identity of the fictitious gay rapper—and it wasn’t to congratulate them.
Today, some of Lil Nas X’s loudest detractors in hip-hop include Boosie, who proudly boasted about hiring a sex worker to perform oral sex on his underage son and nephews in order to make them “real men,” T.I., who, along with his wife, is being investigated for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting multiple women, and lower, mid-level local rappers with all sorts of ultra-violent songs about the glorification of murder and selling and using of drugs. It would seem that a genre experiencing a high murder rate and is more accepting of guns than the Taliban sweeping into abandoned military bases in Afghanistan draws the line at non-binary sexual identities for men. The same kinds of rappers that give passes to culturally appropriating White girls, who may or may not use the n-word, begin to wring their hands, asking, “What about the children?” when the idea of man-on-man sex is even hinted at.
The hypocrisy isn’t lost on Lil Nas X. He recently tweeted about the outcry over his “Satan Shoes,” a collaboration with streetwear company MSCHF that remixed Nike Air Max 97s, adding a drop of X’s real blood into the soles this past spring. Five months after X’s shoe debacle, Liquid Death—a Los Angeles-based water company that has a “Sell Your Soul” club—announced a collab with skate god Tony Hawk, releasing skateboards infused with paint containing “100 percent real Tony Hawk” from the man himself’s blood. “Now that tony hawk has released skateboards with his blood painted on them, and there was no public outrage, are y’all ready to admit y’all were never actually upset over the blood in the shoes? and maybe u were mad for some other reason?” X tweeted.
This is not something discussed with Lil Nas X. Before his Zoom interview, which was sat in on by no less than two label reps, XXL was instructed that questions about his one-time musical collaborator DaBaby—a man who received major widespread backlash for recent onstage homophobic remarks—were off-limits. Whether or not these requests came from the artist are unclear. It’s doubtful that it was Lil Nas X’s call. During the conversation he mentions DaBaby as one of the artists he’s currently listening to, adding, genuinely and remorsefully, “It’s probably not the best time for him right now.” Record labels tend to be overprotective of their biggest stars and no one wants to be the one that ruins the album rollout for an act who had the longest-running No. 1 song in history. It doesn’t take much to derail a promising career. Ask DaBaby.
But, there’s also an energy about Lil Nas X that invites protective tendencies. He’s incredibly relatable as a person in a way that radiates accessibility and innocence. The Zoom call was set to be audio only; when expressed that it was hard to connect with him without a visual, X immediately switched on his camera, showing him walking around his house, chest exposed.
To many in his generation, he’s the friend they wished they had or the hero they need. To older fans, he’s possibly a version of their younger self that needs to be guarded from a world cruel enough to not accept him. And to hip-hop, he should be the kind of act that makes an argument for the social existence of the genre. He grew up poor, in the projects, the product of a splintered, if not broken, family and was able to find a greater community through the art of the internet. When X achieved success in 2019, he—like so many queer artists were unable to do before him—came out. And when he released his video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which features him giving the Devil a lap dance, this past March, he shared a tender note via Twitter to his younger self: “I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist,” he wrote. “you see this is very scary for me. people will be angry, they will say i’m pushing an agenda. but the truth is, i am. the agenda to make people stay fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
“I don’t think I would have ever came out,” Nas X says now of the decision he made in June of 2019 as his “Old Town Road” was in the middle of its historic dominance of pop culture. “I honestly felt like it was kind of my duty. Especially if I wanted to move forward. And what I was doing, because authenticity is very real, and I feel like people can see right through that. And that’s a part of me.”
“giving head to 5 lucky fans that presave the album”
—@LilNasX, deleted tweet, Aug. 28, 2021
That so much of Lil Nas X’s conversation comes via his public statements is not a gimmick, but a reflection of who he is. At only 22, he’s been raised in a soup of connectivity that makes public posting an instinctive first choice, whether he’s semi-nervous about going to court as a defendant against the world’s largest shoe company—Nike sued MSCHF for the sneakers—or sharing the shock of another milestone—that it took him almost a month to hear “Industry Baby” on the radio is not a reflection of the song’s success as much as his listening habits. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Lil Nas X—born Montero Lamar Hill, named after a discontinued Japanese SUV—appears most comfortable typing through a screen—even if the cameras love him. In conversation, both personally and publicly, he’s currently more likely to ponder questions of identity and goof around rather than exclusively promote his music. That he often does both in one swoop seems so natural that it almost becomes preternatural. He seems to understand that one cannot be iconic by looking like everyone else, so his choices are sometimes outlandish and always unique.
None of this would matter if the music was no good. And it is. Steeped in melody, mixes of genre and deceptively strong songwriting, his music succeeds on the strength of drums (“Old Town Road”), horns (“Industry Baby”) and hooks (“Panini”). His debut album, Montero, of which there were precious details available at the time of print, was partially composed in bits and pieces during a pandemic, which threatened to slow his momentum to a halt. The project is a mix of various forms funneled through a tube of rap and pop, but sharing the truths of his desires, heartbreaks and fears while contouring the shapes of the interview.
“I guess through quarantine and life in general, watching every other star that was coming in and every star that has already been, I feel to level-up to the next place in life, you have to release something else,” he shares. “For me, I felt like [my insecurity with my sexuality] was my fear of people judging me for how I would act post-coming out. I used to ‘like’ comments where people were like, ‘Oh, I like him, because he’s not all in your face about it.’ And then I realized kind of what that was. It’s kind of like when people say, ‘Oh, I have a Black friend,’ and that kind of sits on everything that have to do with their Black history and culture, whatnot. I’m kind of like, I’m not that person, you know?”
The person he is, is one who is already a winner. Even if he got stuck being a one-hit wonder (which he didn’t), he’d still have made one more hit than 99.999 percent of us. Even if his quest for visibility ends with this album release (it probably won’t), he’d still have pushed dialogue into the mouths of those who have erased, ignored or derided the existence of gay Black men in hip-hop. He’s one of pop culture’s biggest new stars. He’s gay and even if we are not dealing with him for a long time, we will be dealing with the ripples of his existence in the realms of rap for decades to come.
“I am a very—and I wasn’t always, like, I was an atheist at one point—but I’ve become a very spiritual person in terms of the Universe, how everything works,” Nas X confesses. “And I believe the Universe—if God, if my angels or whatever—put me in the place to have the biggest song in the world, why would they want me to stop right there? There’s obviously a greater purpose. There’s obviously something greater to be uncovered. Of course, I was getting a lot of one-hit wonder [comments]. I still do to this day. I get a lot of like, people discrediting or saying, ‘OK, this song was only successful because of this. This song was only successful for that.’ And it, it’s kind of just like, OK, let me show you. Let me show you and I’m going to show myself. I’m gonna build my legacy right before your eyes. So, if you ever feel the need to count anybody else out, just know, you should probably wait, you know?”
See Photos of Lil Nas X
Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2021 issue including our cover story with Tyler, The Creator and more.