In today’s music industry, talent often only accounts for a part of the equation. Coupled with raw ability, you also need to have the temperament to traverse through the online world and, inevitably, figure out how to use it to promote yourself. For a lot of hip-hop’s modern artists, this can take on the form of a tried-and-tested formula in which their social media accounts supplement the content of their lyrics, complete with high-end fashion, jewellery and stacks of cash. In other cases, artists such as Freddie Gibbs, Tyler The Creator and Vince Staples have used their profiles as an outlet for their own brands of absurdist comedy, while for the more opportunistic, it can be the perfect conduit through which to create overblown, low-stakes conflict with their fellow MCs.
But when it comes to country-trap poster boy turned hip-hop provocateur and LGBTQIA+ icon-in-the-making, Lil Nas X, his use of social media and his success is uniquely inextricable from one another.
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Brought into the public domain on a tidal wave of memes and his outright refusal to let the joke expire, Lil Nas X’s rise from Computer studies student with aspirations of stardom to cultural force, thrived on his synergy with the internet. While his combined 26 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and TikTok doesn’t give him the largest following in hip-hop, no one maximizes their every moment under the online spotlight to the same effect that Montero Hill has.
His new single and video “Call Me By Your Name,” undoubtedly his biggest smash since “Old Town Road,” is an ode to his sexuality that follows in “WAP’s” footsteps by whipping conservative pundits and picket-fenced America into a frenzy. However, it’s clear that Lil Nas hasn’t stumbled into this firestorm of controversy by accident.
“A powerful music video can spark a larger conversation and create a real moment,” Kevin Meenan, music charts manager at YouTube, gushed to Billboard. “[Lil Nas X] has been very explicit that this was his goal…He’s a genius. He really knows how to capitalize on the moment and keep it going.”
When retracing Lil Nas’s steps through the industry, it appears that every online move is premeditated and more often than not, the goal is to turn online impressions into something he can commodify. Let’s not forget, as soon as “Call Me By Your Name” had set the internet ablaze, the viral artist was ready to double down with his injunction-spawning satanic shoe collaboration and his $10,000 “Pole Dance To Hell” challenge on TikTok.
Where other artists simply hope that users take it upon themselves to imbue their music with viral appeal, Lil Nas X leaves nothing to chance. And when you look at both his personal history and the statements that he’s made in regards to the power of the internet in previous interviews, this makes perfect sense. Hill has always been the most comfortable with the online dimension.
“Social media opened up so much of the world and showed me there’s so much I can be in this life,” Lil Nas told HighSnobiety late last year. “And whenever I find that thing that sparks me, I’m going to take it all the way there. Having a big platform and digital influence is a superpower,” he continued. “It’s always great to have people who are looking forward to what you’re going to say or do next.”
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From the days where he was the agitator behind Nicki Minaj stan account @Nasmaraj, Montero has always understood the currency in which the online world trades in, be that soundbites, fan-cams or even outrage.
So, it’s only natural that from the minute he dropped out of college to pursue music as a career path, Lil Nas X has been striving to direct traffic his way. With his internet acumen on his side, it’s unsurprising that long before “Old Town Road” became the runaway success that it was, Montero had already streamlined the track to ensure that it’d take on a life of its own once in the hands of excitable social media users.
“‘I got the horses in the back,’ I was like this is gonna be the highlight of the memes right here,” he informed NPR. “And then, ‘The cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty…’ I was like, ‘These are all quotables.’ I was just doing that the entire month of making the song: ‘Put this right here … oh, this is gonna be the best plan ever.’ And, you know, it worked.”
Candid in his intentions, Hill knew that if he were to stand out amid the scores of Atlanta rappers that were better connected or had a grittier edge, he’d have to use what he had at his disposal to stack the odds in his favour. And just as his intimate knowledge of how the online news cycle works was key to the creative decisions behind “Call Me By Your Name,” the formula for manufacturing virality had already been tested on
“Old Town Road.” Except on that occasion, he had to play the long game.
“I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger,” Lil Nas X told Time in one of many post mortems on how “Old Town Road” took off. “I was pretty familiar with TikTok: I always thought its videos would be ironically hilarious… A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger…. TikTok brought my song to several different audiences at once.”
Now equipped with a worldwide following, Lil Nas X initially struggled to replicate the same degree of frenzy that his breakout single had sparked. When it came time for him to attempt to capitalize on his new platform with his genre-spanning but unfocused EP 7, he incorporated features with Cardi B and Travis Barker to ensure that they went viral in their own echo chambers. Later on, he’d craft another crossover of meme-worthy proportions when he teamed up with the original Nas for both a “Rodeo” remix and The Matrix-inspired video that outperformed the track’s initial commercial release in terms of views. Aware that sometimes a little context can be all you need to go viral, Lil Nas X also allowed EP highlight “C7osure (You Like)” to simmer before revealing its true intentions as a coming out song to social media. Notably, he did so on the last day of Pride Month.
But after regrouping to record his debut album, Lil Nas X once again struck upon that one characteristic that had been missing from his recent work, but had been pivotal to galvanizing support for “Old Town Road”– controversy.
In the same way that the genre classification debate over “Old Town Road” kept Lil Nas X’s name in conversations across Twitter and news timelines, “Call Me By Your Name” has made him just as unavoidable, with a discussion over the taboo-shattering gyrations and fears that he is seemingly corrupting the youth.
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However, just in case you were still dubious as to whether Lil Nas X had somehow simply lucked out with his repeated viral success, comments he made as the wolves began to descend let us know that, once again, this was all meticulously plotted out.
“I had 9 months to plan this rollout,” he declared on Twitter. “Y’all are not gonna win bro.”
Unashamed to be seen as “desperate” in the pursuit of his success, Lil Nas X’s entire career is a microcosm of what the internet-savvy artist can achieve with foresight and a distinct lack of fear. Currently boasting a number one single and over 105 million views at time of writing, it’s interesting to hypothesize whether Lil Nas X would be experiencing the same success if the track existed in a controversy-free vacuum. However, whether you like him or loathe him, what’s indisputable is that when it comes to seizing online momentum and forging it into real, tangible success, Lil Nas X currently exists in a league of his own.