How 20-year-old upstart Lil Nas X used the internet to beat Nashville at its own game
Lil Nas X is getting bored. At a bowling alley in midtown Manhattan, he plays a giant Connect 4, then ping-pong and then, even as he checks and re-checks his phone, he races back and forth between two lanes, pins clattering in surround sound as he bowls one spare after another.
But for the 20-year-old rapper, singer and songwriter–who less than a year ago was a college dropout sleeping on his sister’s floor–second best gets boring, and fast. On his next turn, in a whirl of goofy energy, he spins around, pointing his black Air Jordans away from the pins, and flicks the ball backward down the hardwood lane. Rather than sinking into the gutter, the ball rolls perfectly down the center, knocking down all 10. He collapses onto the floor, yelping and pumping his fists.
It’s tempting to read this moment as a perfect metaphor for Lil Nas’ career: an amateur flings something into the universe, only to luck into a massive win. When his debut single, “Old Town Road,” exploded online early this year and began climbing the charts, industry prognosticators anticipated a quick rise and fall.
Four months later, “Old Town Road” has defied all expectations. It’s now the longest-running No. 1 song in history, having occupied the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 weeks, blocking new singles from Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran, and dethroning the previous record holders, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 1995 hit “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber’s 2017 single “Despacito.” It’s been streamed more than a billion times on Spotify alone. As Lil Nas himself put it on Twitter: “It’s crazy how any baby born after march has not lived in a world where old town road wasn’t number 1.”
All of this has made “Old Town Road” the defining sound of the year, a slurry, genre-busting interpolation of two quintessential American musical genres: country and hip-hop. Not coincidentally, it’s a perfect meme–catchy, quick, self-referential and subversive. (Sample lyric: “Ridin’ on a horse, ha/ You can whip your Porsche.”) Yet it was written solely by Lil Nas X using a beat he purchased online for $30. It’s weird, beguiling and inarguably fun–a tonic for these times.
A hit song doesn’t need to stand for anything, of course. But the rise of Lil Nas X represents a larger moment in our culture. Phenomena that once solely existed in digital spaces–the idea of canceling someone, the contagious popularity of a nonsensical thing, the rise of influencer culture–have become a part of everyday life. “Old Town Road” is the sensibility of the Internet, which thrives on the juxtaposition of opposites, playing on your car radio and as you shop at the supermarket.
Yet even from his perch at the top of the charts, Lil Nas is still an outlier. There aren’t many black stars in country music; there aren’t many queer stars in hip-hop. There aren’t many queer black stars in American culture, point-blank. The fact that Lil Nas has risen so far and so fast testifies not only to his skill, but also to the erosion of the systems that for generations kept artists like him on the sidelines. As streaming and social media have democratized pathways to success, hip-hop–once an outlet for disenfranchised people of color–has become the dominant sound of popular music. More and more in recent years, hip-hop has been merging with country, a genre long associated with white conservatism. All this has the people who usually make money off stars like Lil Nas X questioning long-held assumptions about who consumes what, how and when. “He’s been able to break down cultural barriers as well as pre-existing notions of musical genres,” Ron Perry, the chairman & CEO of Columbia Records, Lil Nas’ label, tells TIME. “He has remained authentic and true to his art and this is just the beginning.”
At a time when debates about categorization and identity are ubiquitous, Lil Nas X represents a more unified vision of the future, one in which a young queer black man can dominate popular culture by being unapologetically himself. “Everything lined up for this moment to take me to this place,” he says now. “Not to sound self-centered, but it feels like I’m chosen, in a way, to do this stuff.”
For the history of music, artists like Lil Nas were the exception. Now, by definition, Lil Nas is the rule. His critics might say he’s just another flash in the pan, destined to go the way of the Macarena and the Dougie. Yet many signs point toward this as our new normal: the spirit of the Internet springs to life, then becomes the biggest pop star of the summer.
Huge portions of the music industry are still run like an assembly line. Songwriters gather in camps to layer mathematical hooks over sticky beats. The formulaic results are cut by artists and sent to radio, where they climb the charts on the merits of their cross-generational appeal.
But over the past decade, the origin stories of stars have changed dramatically. Piracy, streaming and social media have reshaped the industry, allowing rising stars to find fans without the help of industry support. On digital services like the short-form video platform TikTok (previously Musical.ly) and the audio platform SoundCloud, a class of primarily hip-hop artists are racking up huge streaming numbers. Idiosyncratic interlopers like Blueface, Juice WRLD and Lil Pump have forced the music industry to incorporate a wider array of sounds and scour these digital platforms in hopes of folding these new talents into their existing system.
The music industry has always subsumed niche or local scenes–punk, grunge and hip-hop started out small before they became pop phenomena–but what used to require A&R savvy is now quantifiable by anyone. “This is the democratization of the music industry that people were hoping for when social media first became available,” says Bill Werde, the director of Syracuse University’s music industry program and the former editorial director of Billboard.
As a true digital native, Lil Nas X understands this intuitively. When he recorded “Old Town Road” last fall, he was hoping it could be his way out of an unhappy life. Born Montero Lamar Hill outside Atlanta in 1999, Lil Nas grew up poor, living with one parent or another–his mother and father split when he was 6. As he spent most of his teenage years alone, he began to live on the Internet and particularly Twitter, creating memes that showed his disarming wit and pop-culture savvy.
But while his posts earned him a devoted following online, out in the real world, his circumstances felt grim: he was in the process of dropping out of college and frequently fighting with his parents. “It was like, I’m able to go viral, but I’m not promoting anything that’s gonna help me,” he says. “Until music came along.”
A gifted vocalist since he was a child–his father is a gospel singer–Lil Nas began writing and recording songs in his closet. When, around last Halloween, he stumbled across a banjo-driven beat by the teenage Dutch producer YoungKio, he saw an opportunity to combine trap–a Southern-born hip-hop subgenre propelled by vicious bass and crawling tempos–with country, which was experiencing a surge of popularity on the Internet. (It’s been called the “Yeehaw Agenda”–picture SpongeBob Squarepants in a cowboy hat.) “Because it’s two polar opposites coming together, it’s funny no matter what it is,” he says. Since then, he’s fully embraced the country aesthetic, performing in an impressive array of brightly colored cowboy hats and fringe, portraying an old-school Western outlaw in the epic “Old Town Road” video and even designing his own line for Wrangler jeans.
Like veteran songwriters, Nas had studied the tropes of popular music: bold beats, catchy lyrics and short length. And like the best digital creators, he knew he had to turn that music into a movement. He estimates he made more than a hundred short videos to promote “Old Town Road,” plugging it into existing memes or creating his own. “People were like, ‘Where are these memes coming from?'” he says. “If you see something going around the Internet, people want to join in.”
Sure enough, the song was picked up by canny online influencers, as millions of people went on to don cowboy outfits and dance to the song on TikTok. “Old Town Road”–boosted by the fact that Billboard now includes streaming numbers in its chart positions–began a renegade climb up the country charts.
Then something shocking happened: the song was banned. In March–the same month Columbia Records signed Lil Nas–Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country songs chart, claiming it did not have enough country elements to belong there. The incident set off a furor, with many saying its exclusion echoed country music’s uneasy racial history: Nashville has been dominated by white artists since the birth of country music, even though that genre has strong roots in black musical styles like blues.
Darius Rucker, front man of the hit rock band Hootie & the Blowfish, says he faced resistance because of his race when he started making country music 11 years ago. “I was doing radio tours, and one guy looked me in the eye and said, ‘I love the song, but I don’t think I’ll play it,'” he remembers. “The perception was that the audience wouldn’t accept an African-American singer.”
Nashville is a notoriously territorial industry, with a long tradition of snubbing country songs that didn’t originate from inside the system. A look at the Country Airplay charts–which reflects what plays on country radio stations–shows a world that favors white men singing about religion (Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country”), the troops (Justin Moore’s “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home”) and the genre of country music itself (Chris Young’s “Raised on Country”). On that chart, “Old Town Road” stalled at No. 50: Nashville DJs stuck to their regularly scheduled programming. “It’s a stupid little ditty–an earworm,” says Kyle Coroneos, the founder of the website Saving Country Music. “The people inside country music aren’t even paying attention to it.”
Billy Ray Cyrus was. After being told that Lil Nas wanted him on a remix, he happily recorded a new verse in the wake of the song’s removal. The new version shot all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100; An unprecedented 19 weeks later, it’s still there.
For a lot of reasons, Lil Nas didn’t initially plan to come out. He had been taught from a young age that homosexuality “is never going to be O.K.,” and he feared he would lose fans: “I know the people who listen to this the most, and they’re not accepting of homosexuality,” he says. While hip-hop stars like Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator have come out as queer, the spectre of homophobia still looms large.
But during Pride Month, something changed for Lil Nas. “I never would have done that if I wasn’t in a way pushed by the universe,” he says. “In June, I’m seeing Pride flags everywhere and seeing couples holding hands–little stuff like that.”
He first came out to his father and sister earlier in June, and then broke the news on Twitter several weeks later. It was a historic moment, in no small part because of how casually he went about it: “Thought I made it obvious,” he wrote on Twitter, pointing out a rainbow on his album cover. He had some haters, but they were quickly and summarily dismissed–often by him personally. (He wrote on Twitter that the next person to say something offensive would be “getting kissed.”) Meanwhile, “Old Town Road” continued to rack up millions of streams, extending its run atop the Billboard Hot 100.
Now Lil Nas’ playful expression of his sexuality is just another part of his self-deprecating online brand. “Last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay,” he tweeted at the end of July.
“A lot of walls were taken down by this song,” Cyrus says. “I think a lot of artists out there can look at this and say, ‘Hey man, this is a green light.'”
It’s a sweltering Friday afternoon in July, and the Twitter offices in New York have been brought to a screeching, euphoric halt. A crowd of cowboy-hat-clad employees cheer on Lil Nas as he wanders their halls in a purple Pyer Moss jacket and mismatched earrings, handing out pressed sandwiches, in honor of his follow-up single “Panini.” Jack Dorsey, the company’s CEO, jokingly gives Lil Nas his title for the day.
He’s had many surreal firsts over the past few months–from performing at Glastonbury to cooking with Gordon Ramsay–but perhaps none means as much to him as this one. Twitter was his first community; the origin of his superpowers. He still regularly tweets more than 10 times a day to his 2.6 million followers, who revel in his goofy memes, shameless self-promotion and sharp cultural commentary.
If Lil Nas is nervous, he doesn’t show it; he strides around the building with a rambunctious, childlike irreverence. He delights in using his custom ID to unlock the building’s turnstiles, freeze-frames while leaving rooms, and unflinchingly tells Dorsey that he’s fired. During a skit, Dorsey asks him if he has any questions. Lil Nas immediately deadpans: “How’s your relationship with your father?”
When Lil Nas isn’t engaging with another human, his mischievous energy dissipates and he’s back to his phone. Lil Nas is constantly reading and responding to comments, watching videos, looking at news and laughing at memes. He admits to being “100% addicted” to his phone. (According to one study, half of Gen Z is online 10 hours a day; they admit to suffering from widespread anxiety and mental-health issues.)
Lil Nas says he’s dealt with acute anxiety, and is still adjusting to the pressures of fame and nonstop in-person interaction. “It gets overwhelming,” he says. “I just shut down on everybody–I’m still a loner in a lot of ways.” Yet much as he needs down time, he knows he can’t afford it, even if he was capable of logging off: if he doesn’t keep up with the steady stream of content, the social-media world could move on to someone else without blinking.
After all, a new wave of would-be Lil Nas Xs has already arrived. Sueco the Child, a rapper whose song “Fast” went viral on TikTok in April, signed to Atlantic, while Y2K and bbno$ pushed their song “Lalala” through unconventional digital campaigns until it was snatched up by Columbia.
In June, another country-trap concoction by a black artist–Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up”–sailed to the top of the country charts thanks to a TikTok meme, massive streaming numbers and this time, the approval of Nashville. According to John Marks, a former Nashville DJ who is now global head of country at Spotify, five of the top six most streamed country tracks globally the week “Old Town Road” bested the No. 1 record were by Lil Nas, while the remaining one was “The Git Up.” Now, Marks says, “the same people that were saying, ‘That doesn’t belong on the country charts,’ are now saying, ‘We need to find something like it.'”
Lil Nas’ seductive trap hit “Panini” already has 149 million streams on Spotify–more than the Beatles’ “Help” or Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” When that song has run its course, he’ll release the video for “Rodeo”–another Western-tinged song that features Cardi B–and then a slew of new songs that also experiment with genre bending, Lil Nas says. He’s working with bigger producers now, including Pharrell Williams.
Pop culture moves at light speed and its past is littered with one-hit wonders who were convinced, at least for a brief moment, that they ruled the world. Back at the bowling alley, Lil Nas is determined to make his success last. “Seeing digital numbers, it’s a good feeling. It goes so quickly, though,” he says. “You have to keep going.” After celebrating that backward strike, he hops up off the floor and snatches up another ball–to try his improbable, innovative technique again.
Cover photo: Styling: Hodo Musa; Suit: PHLEMUNS; Hat: Gladys Tamez Millinery; Earrings, necklace, silver rings: Armature; Red rings: Aman Itomi Jewelry; Boots: pskaufman…
This appears in the August 26, 2019 issue of TIME.