Montero review: Lil Nas X sounds limitless on his debut album

Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X

Charlotte Rutherford 'Montero' arrives two years after Lil Nas X's breakout hit 'Old Town Road'

It's been less than three years since Lil Nas X threw his Stetson into the pop-music ring with his first song, the gossamer, stupendously catchy "Old Town Road." Released in December 2018 as a response to the then-thriving "yeehaw agenda," which updated Wild West tropes for the TikTok era, "Old Town Road" went viral in more than one sense — not only did it spread across culture quickly and park itself at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks, it pivoted on an infectious sing-song hook that adhered to even the most fervent resisters' temporal lobes.

Other artists would have ridden off into the sunset after scoring such a left-field yet epoch-defining hit, but Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill in 1999, has taken the opposite approach. "Old Town Road" gave him the clout (and the budget) to do things his way, and he's wholly embraced the idea of being limitless. He came out in June 2019, just as the chart-topping run of "Old Town Road" was entering the record books, and he's been honest about mental-health struggles while swatting away those who might object to his life or his art with acerbic clapbacks. His artistic ambitions, which had previously been channeled through Vine clips and Nicki Minaj Twitter standom, have been made eye-poppingly real through vivid music videos, elaborately staged awards show performances, and more genre-hopping pieces of brain Velcro like the Nirvana-meets-electropop 2019 cut "Panini."

Those trends — as well as Lil Nas X's tastes for slightly gloomy, yet painstakingly detailed pop music — all continue on Montero, the 22-year-old Renaissance man's first full-length album. Over 45 minutes and 14 songs (as well as an existentially perplexed interlude), Lil Nas X expands on the vision of pop he's already outlined on "Old Town Road" and its follow-up EP, 2019's 7, whipsawing through genres and sentiments while bringing along a cadre of megastars (Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion, and others) to help him figure out what life as a boldfaced name-slash-lightning rod might look like in 2021.

Montero opens with "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," a sinuous plea to take a romance out of the shadows — although its many references to the high life, its thumping beat, and the controversy-ready video, which featured just enough Satanic-adjacent imagery to agitate the more easily shocked, obscured the lyrics' deeply felt longing on first listen. Montero takes its opening track's heat and flash even further while also luring the listener deeper into Lil Nas X's wild mind.

When the success of "Old Town Road" led to it charting as a country hit, it caused some consternation among traditionalists. Montero continues Lil Nas X's muddying of distinctions between genres, blending capital-P pop with sonics from all over popular music's map. "Lost in the Citadel" begins with a percolating synth line that recalls the bedroom synthpop of the early '00s then goes airborne, its soaring chorus echoing the idealization Lil Nas X is projecting onto his would-be lover — and then everything comes back down to earth. John's piano provides the base for "One of Me," a modern power ballad about the vagaries of fame; similarly, the letter from the road "Void" feels made for a long drive down a starlit highway, although its lyrics ("Lately, I've been feeling small as the salt in the sea/ Oh, it's so much to do in so little of time") add weight to the reason for the trip.

The peppy wish for love "That's What I Want" has a stirring chorus where Lil Nas X's wail "I want someone to love me/ I need someone to need me" is accompanied by a backing choir straight out of power pop. In addition to the title track's fingerpicking, Montero is an excellent showcase for guitar playing, from Omer Fedi's arpeggios on the pensive, solitary "Tales of Dominica" to Jasper Sheff's scorching solo at the climax of the wrenching "Life After Salem." And Miley Cyrus showing up at the end for "Am I Dreaming," a simple ballad where the two grapple with their legacy, puts an uncertain bow not just on the album, but on the nature of pop stardom in general.

Montero succeeds, at times wildly, because of the way it bridges the gap between Lil Nas X the persona and Montero Hill the person. It sounds larger than life even on the smallest speakers and its guest stars demand white-glove service, but the feelings it describes over its 15 tracks are keenly described and made even more acute by the detail lurking within its arena-ready music. It's a huge pop-cultural event, but one that commands you to face the Black, queer, anxious, boastful, complex human at its core head-on while simultaneously singing along with instantly memorable choruses — and that complexity is why Lil Nas X is one of this chaotic moment's singular artists. Grade: A-

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