When Lil Nas X burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, not many music insiders or fans expected him to become the long-lasting success story that he has morphed into. The self-proclaimed “INDUSTRY BABY” popped up seemingly out of nowhere, and his first-ever single, “Old Town Road,” found many writing him off as a one-hit-wonder. 

Two-and-a-half years later though, Lil Nas X remains one of the biggest names in music, while that particular single has gone the distance, becoming the most-certified song in music history after going fifteen times platinum. His celebrity continues to rise with nearly 58 million monthly listeners on Spotify and over a billion streams on “Old Town Road” — with “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” about to hit that mark too. Lil Nas has expanded beyond his hip-hop roots to explore subjects that hip-hop often avoids, certifying himself as a pop culture phenom for years to come, perfecting his own formula to capture the world’s attention whenever he wants. And he’s doing this all while being unapologetically himself.

Nas started his career veiled in controversy, though it was unorchestrated. “Old Town Road” had just started taking over the world and country music fans weren’t happy about it, for the most part. The song was blocked from a few of Billboard’s country-specific charts, which pushed it even further into a crossover success, and then Billy Ray Cyrus jumped on the re-issue. While Nas navigated his first few months in the industry swerving controversies and taking notes on how to take over the world, it seems everything he’s done since has gone according to his master plan. Now, he’s fully embracing controversy, inviting it in, and allowing it to be a core part of his rollout strategy for his debut studio album.

MONTERO, Lil Nas X’s first full-length release, features production from Take A Daytrip (who are credited on the majority of songs), John Cunningham (who is best known for his work with XXXTentacion), and Omer Fedi (who came up playing guitar on hit records with Machine Gun Kelly, iann dior, and 24kGoldn). This eclectic mix of producers helps create the world that Lil Nas envisioned with MONTERO, allowing him to open up over different stylistic vibes, shedding plenty of vulnerable moments that reflect on his personal experiences. Of course, we’re not missing any of the hitmaking magic that we’ve come to know and appreciate from the growing artist. What sets Lil Nas apart from most other artists — particularly in hip-hop — is the fact that he’s so comfortable in his own skin. In rap, you don’t often, if ever, hear a man singing romantically about another man. As Kid Cudi claimed in his write-up for Lil Nas’ entry onto the 2021 TIME100 List, there is a wave of homophobia that has surrounded hip-hop for decades. With MONTERO, Nas found a niche for himself within an increasingly pop-driven hip-hop landscape, while still exploring themes found in other genres, including pop-punk and rock. While he’s ultimately still rooted in hip-hop, he has found his own lane, and that much is truly evident on his debut.

The first five songs set the pace for the entire album. Things kick off with “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” which went #1 around the world and cemented Lil Nas as one of the most important artists in modern music. This marked the very first time that an openly gay Black man released a song explicitly about gay sex, and topped the charts with it. 

There are plenty of similar unapologetic moments from the pop-rapper on his debut, including on “THAT’S WHAT I WANT,” where Nas croons about wanting a male companion to keep him warm during the night, and on “LIFE AFTER SALEM,” where he sings about a past relationship ending in heartbreak. The music video for the former is exceptionally queer, with Nas suffering a football injury and heading to the locker room, only for the viewer to learn that it was all a ploy for him to have some intimate alone time with another player.

While Lil Nas loves to be a goofball on social media, he put his soul into the creation of this album. The 22-year-old opens up about his mental health, familial life, and issues with his mother on “DEAD RIGHT NOW.” On “TALES OF DOMINICA,” self-doubt is a major theme as Nas sings about the lowest moment in his life. On “SUN GOES DOWN,” he admits that he used to pray that God would take away his “gay thoughts,” diving deep into feelings of insecurity and self-hate.

Most impressively, Nas’ lyrics and vocal delivery are much more refined on MONTERO than with his previous releases. Instead of uncomfortably regurgitating words carefully designed to be consumed by a wide audience, like he did on “Rodeo” with Cardi B, where he serenades a female subject; Nas devotes more time to allowing his proficient vocals and authentic storytelling skills to shine on songs like “ONE OF ME” and “AM I DREAMING.” 

Following the album’s release, Lil Nas revealed that he had reached out to Drake (who turned down a feature because he was working on “CLB”), Nicki Minaj (who ghosted his request to star on “INDUSTRY BABY”), Ski Mask The Slump God (who didn’t finish his verse for “SCOOP” on time), and Lady Gaga (for which the song was never finished) for features. While the released version of MONTERO is being celebrated in its current form, it’s interesting to realize that the well-connected pop star’s debut album could have been even bigger than it is.

Already, Nas is teasing the inevitable deluxe edition of the album, which he has revealed will likely contain the fan-favorite song “My Little Baby,” as well as possibly “Titanic” and “Empathy” with Sam Smith. 

With one of the most creative album rollouts of the year — Lil Nas staged a pregnancy and had all sorts of parody billboards installed in major markets across the country — it’s safe to say that MONTERO was a strong debut project for the 22-year-old phenom. This was Lil Nas X’s baby, and he birthed a gem.