Lil Nas X gets lost in the citadel and finds gold on his debut album 'Montero'

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Lil Nas X gets lost in the citadel and finds gold on his debut album 'Montero'
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Lil Nas X Montero press photo
Lil Nas X is a 22-year-old singer and rapper. Charlotte Rutherford
  • Lil Nas X released his first full-length album, "Montero," on Friday.

  • Overall, it's an impressive pop debut with a satisfying mix of fun bops and vulnerability.

  • The best songs are "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," "Dead Right Now," "Lost in the Citadel," and "Am I Dreaming."

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Lil Nas X released his highly anticipated debut album, "Montero," on Friday.

The 22-year-old rocketed to fame in 2019 when his first single, "Old Town Road," smashed chart records and his subsequent EP, "7," was nominated for album of the year at the Grammy Awards.

"Montero," named for the rapper's real name, was preceded by two top-10 hits and a thrilling yet controversial rollout, which involved giving Satan a lap dance and masterminding a mass breakout from a fake gay prison.

Insider's music team (reporter Callie Ahlgrim and celebrity and music editor Courteney Larocca) listened to the new album on our own, jotting down our initial thoughts track by track.

Here is what we thought of each song on "Montero" upon first listen. (Skip to the end to see the only songs worth listening to and the album's final score.)

Even after months of chart-topping success, "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" is still a blast.

lil nas x montero (call me by your name)
"Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" was released as the album's lead single on March 26, 2021. Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: This song is such a hit. Every time I listen to it, my serotonin levels skyrocket — especially when the second verse glides in with those delirious lyrics ("I wanna sell what you're buying / I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii").

And on that note, I know the point of this song isn't poetic genius, but "I wanna fuck the ones I envy" is genuinely one of the most punchy, evocative lyrics I've heard this year.

Larocca: Artists don't often put their lead single as their album's opening track, but it's arguably a great spot for it. If you're willing to introduce the era with the track, why not introduce the album the same way? But if we know anything about Lil Nas X from his album promo, it's that he knows exactly what he's doing.

Everything that went into this single's rollout was wildly entertaining, and the song is too. It still slaps. Every. Time.

"Dead Right Now" is dark and vulnerable, but maintains a wide appeal.

lil nas x dead right now
"Dead Right Now" is the second track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: I am surprised and thrilled that Lil Nas has added another song to the crying-on-the-dance-floor canon. As opposed to the sunlit revelry of the title track, "Dead Right Now" is a dusky sort of banger, thick with nostalgia and bittersweet triumph.

Paired with an almost harsh beat, the lyrics expose an underbelly of Lil Nas' confident gloss. He's clearly proud of his accomplishments, but when a choir arrives to worship his one-in-a-million success ("Hallelujah! How'd you do it?"), it feels almost sinister — particularly in light of confessions like "I would've died trying to be here" and "My momma told me that she loves me, don't believe her."

The cost of fame, especially the many-hued leeches you may find attached, is a well-worn trope in pop music. Lil Nas is far from the first star to call out exes who come crawling back, or deadbeat relatives who suddenly ask for favors. But it's certainly a first for him. I mean, this is the king of camp and internet memes, building a song around the line, "I'll treat you like you're dead."

By wielding uncharacteristic venom and vulnerability, Lil Nas makes a familiar concept feel fresh — and proves, once again, that he's no one-trick pony.

Larocca: "Dead Right Now" explores newfound fame and the crushing realization that once you've made it, all the people who wouldn't give you the time of day before are suddenly taking advantage of having your contact in their phone. It's made all the more devastating when that group of people includes family: "My momma told me that she love me, don't believe her."

But there's not just sadness here; there's understanding, triumph, and appreciation, too. I particularly admire the way he subtly highlighted the people who stayed by his side throughout his journey: he mentions staying at his sister's house in summer 2018 and included his dad's vocals on the final chorus.

"Industry Baby," featuring Jack Harlow, is a boastful anthem that's both fun and subversive.

lil nas x industry baby
"Industry Baby" was released as the album's third single on July 23, 2021. Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: With his newly minted icon status, combined with the homophobic vitriol he's forced to contend with on a regular basis, Lil Nas has certainly earned the right to make a straight-up flex anthem.

Of course, it's only fun to listen to someone brag when it feels like their energy is rubbing off on you — and that's exactly what "Industry Baby" achieves.

If you haven't had the good fortune yet to hear this song during a night out, just know that it feels like being welcomed into a royal court. The celebratory trombone loop compliments Lil Nas' particular brand of braggadocio. As a young, queer, homegrown talent, his success doesn't feel exclusionary. It feels radically joyful.

Larocca: Earlier this week, Kid Cudi penned a tribute about Lil Nas for Time's annual list of the 100 Most Influential People. He wrote, "There's a homophobic cloud over hip-hop, and he's going to break that shit down."

I'd also argue there's a misogynist cloud over hip-hop, and it appears Lil Nas senses that too. He mocks this hypermasculinity in one beautifully succinct line: "I don't fuck bitches, I'm queer, ha."

Also, largely thanks to this song and "Montero," this album became one of the top 10 most streamed albums released this year on Spotify within nine minutes of its release. He is the industry, baby!

"That's What I Want" seems inspired by pop greats like Outkast and Justin Bieber.

lil nas x that's what i want
"That's What I Want" was released as the album's fourth single on September 17, 2021. Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: This chorus inevitably reminds me of Justin Bieber's "Somebody to Love," and given Bieber's name-drop in the previous song, I can't imagine that's a coincidence.

Now, I may not be on the Belieber bandwagon these days, but "That's What I Want" is bursting with the precise flavor of starry-eyed, rosy-cheeked energy that made him an icon in the first place. It's like a queer reboot of the "My World" era.

This is a highly danceable, scream-along-able song about craving affection, and what could be more delightful (or relatable right now) than that?

Larocca: Listen, Outkast's "Hey Ya!" is one of the greatest songs of all time. So if you're going to make a song that even minutely takes inspiration from it, you're going to create a banger — and Lil Nas delivered exactly what I wanted on "That's What I Want." One, two, three, UH!

The song just keeps getting better from that glorious intro; hearing Lil Nas unabashedly yearn for "a boy who can cuddle with me all night" is pure bliss.

"The Art of Realization" is a 24-second spoken interlude.

lil nas x sun goes down
"The Art of Realization" is the fourth track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: Predictably, I don't have much to say about a music-less interlude. While I appreciate the artistic risk, I think it would've been more interesting if the audio clip were folded into the production somewhere else, or the sentiment ("Is it for me? Am I happy?") had been incorporated into a set of lyrics.

Larocca: It's 24 seconds of talking. Not much else I can say about it.

"Scoop" is a saucy collaboration with Doja Cat.

lil nas x doja cat
"Scoop" is the fifth track on "Montero." Charlotte Rutherford; David LaChapelle

Ahlgrim: I will not lie: I despise the word "scoop." For me, it conjures a complicated blend of auditory ick (like how people feel about the word "moist"), flashbacks to journalism lectures in college, and trauma from Kanye West's "Lift Yourself" release.

Lil Nas says the word "scoop" 34 times in this song. I cannot and will not abide by that nonsense.

However, I am a professional, and I can separate my own personal taste from the song's objective quality. It's good! I particularly enjoy Doja Cat's verse and Kendrick Lamar's brief possession of her body. (Just try to tell me that her delivery of the line, "Let him apologize and eat it in a Bentley," isn't lifted straight from "Damn").

Larocca: One of my favorite things to do is match songs to menial tasks to make them more enjoyable (Bo Burnham's "Bezos I" makes brushing my teeth an Event). Due to the repetition of "scoop" here, I already plan on playing this the next time I have to clean my cat's litter box. I promise this isn't a diss! Lil Nas is actively making my boring life better, and for that, I thank him.

Similarly, I will never get through another Friday without hearing Doja Cat in my head, saying, "Tomorrow is my day off."

This song is just kinda silly — and I love it a little bit more every time I hear it.

"One of Me" is a pretty piano ballad, courtesy of Elton John.

elton john lil nas x
Elton John and Lil Nas X star in a new campaign for Uber Eats. Uber Eats/YouTube

Ahlgrim: Sorry to Elton John and the gay agenda, but I'm bored.

Thematically, "One of Me" grapples with the weight of breakout-star expectations, which is terrain that Lil Nas covers on several other songs. But "I like this, I don't like that / Do this here, don't you do that" is such a watered-down way to revisit it.

I understand the hunger to break out of simplistic boxes and prove yourself as an artist, but Lil Nas is already doing that by crafting a luminous pop album. He doesn't need to make it so explicit.

Larocca: Look, the lyrics aren't revolutionary, sure. But this song's strengths are in the production and, obviously, John's piano playing. The soft intro, the little flourishes throughout, Lil Nas's attention to melody and rhythm, all make "One of Me" easy listening.

"Lost in the Citadel" is the best song on the album.

lil nas x lost in the citadel
"Lost in the Citadel" is the eighth track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: Please forgive the lack of eloquence, but this is it.

I love so many things about this song: the echoes of 2004 punk-rock power ballads; the falsetto delivery of "thought the universe sent you;" the way "lost in the citadel" is never actually sung, leaving me to decode the title like a William Wordsworth poem.

My only complaint about this song is that I wish it were longer.

Larocca: This review is now my public plea for Lil Nas X to make "Lost at the Citadel" his next single. To get straight to the point: this is the best song on the album. The first time I heard it, I could not stop smiling; I was hooked immediately by how great Lil Nas sounds on the first verse, but then when he went full pop-punk on the chorus? Inspired.

"My God you're an angel / I only seen you in your halo" also reminds me a lot of Ariana Grande's "In My Head" ("My imagination's too creative / They see demon / I see angel, angel, angel / Without a halo, wingless angel.") I'm not sure if this homage was intentional, but I'm obsessed regardless.

If Callie doesn't include this on Insider's best songs of 2021 list, I will personally edit the post and add this in.

"Dolla Sign Slime" is buoyed by Megan Thee Stallion.

lil nas x megan thee stallion
"Dolla Sign Slime" is the ninth track on "Montero." Charlotte Rutherford; Marcelo Cantu

Ahlgrim: Lil Nas' lackadaisical delivery here is saved by two things: Megan Thee Stallion, naturally, and the punch-drunk horn loop, which makes "Dolla Sign Slime" sound like the soundtrack for a debaucherous montage in a Netflix teen drama (one of the good ones, like "Sex Education" or something).

Larocca: I'm sorry, but "dolla sign slime" is a dumb phrase made increasingly more grating each time it's repeated. I enjoyed Megan's verse, but I can't help but think Lil Nas threw her on here in hopes she'd distract listeners from realizing this is one of the album's weaker moments.

"Tales of Dominica" is one of Lil Nas X's strongest lyrical showings to date.

lil nas x tales of dominica
"Tales of Dominica" is the 10th track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: I love how this song marinates in anger, hurt, loneliness, and anxiety without necessarily demanding a solution. Many times, the only way to escape an emotion is to go through it.

"Tales of Dominica" contains some of the most expressive lyrics in Lil Nas' discography, pure emotion wrapped in digestible language. "I've been living on an island made from fate" perfectly captures the mundane crisis of young adulthood, coming to terms with how much is outside your control.

Larocca: "Tales of Dominica" boasts maybe my favorite opening lines on the entire album: "Woke up on the floor / Oh, this plastic bed don't blow up no more / In this broken home / Everyone becomes predictable." From there, Lil Nas X only continues to open up, producing one of the most genuine, vulnerable track he's released thus far.

I will admit I didn't expect to feel attacked by Lil Nas lyrics today, but these hit a little too close to home: "Oh, finally grown, ain't nothing like I hopеd it would be / Out on my own, I'm floating in an oceanless sea / Could I be wrong? Was everybody right about me?"

"Sun Goes Down" is a poetic ode to Lil Nas X's younger self.

lil nas x sun goes down
"Sun Goes Down" was released as the album's second single on May 21, 2021. Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: I remember liking this song when I first heard it, though I haven't revisited it much in the months since. When I did for this review, it genuinely made me tear up.

"Sun Goes Down" is solid on its own, but it really clicks within the greater framework of "Montero." As the 11th track, it adds so much context to the victories and wounds I've already borne witness to. This song sounds like a breakthrough moment in therapy, or the heart-to-heart you have with a new friend that bonds you for life.

Larocca: On an album full of bangers, it could be easy to overlook "Sun Goes Down," but you shouldn't. I don't have synesthesia, but I have no other way to describe this song than golden-tinged. It's soft and contemplative, warm and pretty. It sounds like how a golden hour feels.

He never utters the phrase "sun goes down" in the song, but the imagery is fitting considering this line sounds like a more poetic version of something I tell myself at the end of a rough day: "I know that you want to cry / But it's much more to life than dyin' / Over your past mistakes / And people who threw dirt on your name."

"Void" somehow makes loneliness sound soothing.

lil nas x void
"Void" is the 12th track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: I've always admired Lil Nas for trying new melodies and stretching his range, even though he's not a traditional vocalist. That being said, his voice sounds sincerely lovely here.

While his pitch fluctuates throughout the song, his tone remains rich and serene, creating a beautiful juxtaposition with the anguish of the lyrics. His falsetto in the chorus is especially haunting, striking a balance that reminds me of a phantom — gossamer-thin and weightless, but trapped in a space he can't make sense of.

Larocca: I cannot hear this without thinking he's saying "Hodor," like the "Game of Thrones" character. He's not, but I can't hear anything else and it makes me want to laugh — which I don't think was Lil Nas' intention on "Void."

Luckily, I forget about it when he pivots to the dreamy chorus: "Oh Blue, I wrote for you / To say I'm gonna run away from home / Oh Blue, I love you too / But, today I'm gonna run away from home."

"Don't Want It" explores the disorienting experience of fame.

lil nas x don't want it
"Don't Want It" is the 13th track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: "Don't Want It" is not one of the album's strongest songs, though it's far from mediocre. The lyrics offer an interesting contrast between tropes: Lil Nas is proof that dreams really do come true, but also, he smokes himself to sleep and dwells on his past mistakes.

This duality is the connective thread that runs throughout the album. "Don't Want It" attempts to make this disorientation tangible, primarily with audio clips from recent award shows and media segments, as well as a nod to Eminem's parental ode "Mockingbird." Lil Nas seems to feel a weighty sense of responsibility, as if "Montero" really is his child.

Larocca: I probably wouldn't enjoy this song if it were by someone else, but Lil Nas has the inherent likeability and genuine charm to contemplate his own fame without sounding ungrateful or overly braggadocious.

Even when he's questioning if he's trying too hard to make people laugh ("Am I stupid to be funny / Over things that's been hauntin' me all my life?"), he still lets his humor crack through ("Old people in my life should know that I am not the old me").

"Life After Salem" doesn't quite fit into this tracklist.

lil nas x life after salem
"Life After Salem" is the 14th track on "Montero." Lil Nas X/YouTube

Ahlgrim: I really appreciate the rock influences throughout this album, and this song's electric guitar does go incredibly hard.

Overall, however, "Life After Salem" feels out of place — even among the darker songs like "Dead Right Now" and "Void," which are raw and melancholic, but still retain the warm patina of polished pop. Its late placement makes it feel like a sudden obstacle in the final stretch. "Don't Want It" would've been the perfect penultimate track.

Larocca: Somehow "Life After Salem" is both overdramatic and forgettable all at once.

But if he's going to cry, "Why don't you just take what you want from me? / I think you should take what you want and leave" then I will abide and skip ahead to the final song — because what I want at this point is to hear him duet with Miley Cyrus.

"Am I Dreaming," featuring Miley Cyrus, is an ideal album closer.

Lil Nas X Miley Cyrus
Lil Nas X and Miley Cyrus perform at Glastonbury Festival in 2019. Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Ahlgrim: In an interview with Zane Lowe, Lil Nas said "Am I Dreaming" is a meditation on death and public memory — including the "bowl of gay artists" that history has crafted, defining the legacies of musical trailblazers by their sexual orientation alone.

"Certain demographics of artists are less appreciated or remembered. No matter what they do, they may never get their credit," he said. "Gay artists in general, often, are just swept under the rug."

Given this context, recruiting Miley Cyrus to help deliver this song — a queer artist who's inspired many, including Lil Nas himself, and whose artistic impact is often reduced to her love life and image — was a true stroke of genius.

But "Am I Dreaming" isn't simply a plea to remember Lil Nas' accomplishments. It's a poetic, poignant conclusion to an ambitious debut — an ode to the power of self-respect and self-creation, regardless of how the result is received.

The splash at the end of the song creates a synergistic bond with the "Montero" cover art, which can be connected from the top and bottom as a continuous loop, symbolizing the circle of life.

Larocca: As I listen to "Am I Dreaming," I can envision Lil Nas strumming a guitar and walking with Cyrus through a technicolor Eden, much like the one on the album cover. The imagery becomes even more tactile as the song closes with the sound of plunging into a moonlit lake.

"Am I Dreaming" is a perfect ending note for this album, but it feels like a full-circle moment too. In January 2020, "Old Town Road" collaborator (and Cyrus' dad) Billy Ray Cyrus told Callie that Lil Nas "told me the reason he reached out to me was because he said I was the only country dude that he knew because of 'Hannah Montana.'"

If it weren't for Cyrus, her dad never would've been on that show, and Lil Nas' first No. 1 hit wouldn't have been the same. Now, she's making an appearance on the final track of his debut album. On paper, she was a brilliant choice for this feature, but she's even better in action. The harmonizing on the final chorus is everything.

Final Grade: 8.3/10

Lil Nas X Montero album cover art
"Montero" consists of 15 tracks. Columbia Records

Ahlgrim: It's difficult to imagine the type of person who wouldn't enjoy this album — provided they have operational ears and a human heart.

Of course, "Montero" isn't flawless. But it's certainly one of the strongest high-profile debuts in recent memory, and it's pretty obvious why. Lil Nas X is just absurdly likable.

One of the reasons I was disappointed by his 2019 EP "7" was that it lacked his peculiar glow, that undeniable charm at the core of "Old Town Road" and its record-breaking reign. Luckily, "Montero" glows as often as it sizzles, snaps, broods, and bursts with passion.

Lil Nas could have made an entire album of glowy hits like "Old Town Road," "Call Me by Your Name," and "Industry Baby," and it would have been delightful. Instead, "Montero" is impressively flexible, bounding gracefully in between bright acoustic guitar, trap beats, confessional emo-pop, and stadium balladry — infusing each mood with warm melodies and glossy production fit for any top pop star.

Lil Nas continues to prove the core of his power isn't aesthetics or gimmicks, as his detractors often argue it is. Understandably, he's quick to confront these critics head-on, eager to rise above the trolls who were "never really rooting for me anyway." But after the sheer delight of this debut, it's hard to imagine he'll have a shortage of people in his corner.

Larocca: As I wrote earlier, I didn't expect to feel attacked by any of Lil Nas' lyrics, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that under the (admittedly genius) gimmicks and blaring horns lies a beating heart, bleeding for love, affection, clarity, acceptance.

On "Montero," Lil Nas makes vulnerability look easy. It's like he believes making confessions about heartbreak or reflecting on his younger self's suicidal ideations is just what you do when you're drinkin' with your friends. Honestly, that's my kind of friend.

If "Montero" is a house party, Lil Nas doesn't stay dancing in the living room or drinking in the kitchen; he's also the wallflower sharing secrets with a close friend in the corner, the guy sneaking off to the bedroom with his crush, and the loner dipping his feet into the pool out back.

There's nothing one-note about this album — it boasts a kaleidoscopic range of emotion, vocal variety, and production elements. I can't imagine hearing this set of 15 songs, and not coming away with at least one standout favorite. I've already listened to "Lost in the Citadel" more times than I can count.

It's rare to have a debut album with this much hype already built in before it drops. It's even more rare to live up to that hype. But with "Montero," Lil Nas X continued his impressive streak of not having lost since he began.

Worth listening to:

"Montero (Call Me By Your Name)"

"Dead Right Now"

"Industry Baby"

"That's What I Want"

"Scoop"

"Lost in the Citadel"

"Tales of Dominica"

"Sun Goes Down"

"Void"

"Don't Want It"

"Am I Dreaming"

Background music:

"The Art of Realization"

Split decision:

"One of Me"

"Dolla Sign Slime"

Press skip:

"Life After Salem"

*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for "Worth listening to," .5 for "Background music," .5 for "Split decision," 0 for "Press skip").

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