Just a day prior to the release of his "7 EP," we examine Lil Nas X's unique marketing tactics and social media mastery.
At the tender age of 20, Montero Hill-- better known as Lil Nas X-- has besieged the music industry in a uniquely Generation Z fashion. When musical historians look back on the year of 2019 and evaluate its biggest sensations, there will be simply no way to overlook the seismic impact of his breakout hit “Old Town Road.” A crossover hit that transcended genres and all possible expectations, one look at the now legendary video of kindergarten-age children losing their minds to its infectious chorus tells you all you need to know about its stamp on culture. Labelled as “country trap,” the fleeting 1:50 track caught on like wildfire and propelled Lil Nas from dwelling on his sister’s couch to a polarizing Wrangler collection, numerous remixes, a star-studded music video, high-profile performances and a lucrative deal with Columbia. In many ways, the Georgia rapper’s voyage is the sort of fairytale rise that any rapper who’s still in the trenches fantasizes about. That said, his emergence as one of the most widely discussed properties in modern hip-hop wasn’t the result of happenstance but persistence and image maintenance.
Back when he was still a sought-after free agent, Diego Farias of Amuse had every intention of signing the young upstart to a deal. But in the wake of Lil Nas X rebuking his offer that was “north of a million dollars,” his comments at a recent Midem music conference encapsulates how the cowboy-hat clad rapper’s rise is the exception to the rule. "To a large extent, this is the story a lot of us dream of: a self-published artist with little means who has an incredible talent, comes through this system, somehow gets [noticed above] the 40,000 tracks a day being uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music, and… becomes a global star."
Amiable, self-deprecatory and prone to childish humour from time to time, Lil Nas X has played fast and loose with the boundaries between artist and meme in recent months. Despite having the inalienable pressure of equalling the success of “Old Town Road” lingering over his head, a visit to The Zach Sang Show insinuating that he’s anything but worried.
"[Potentially being a one hit wonder] is literally told to me at every second at this point, and it's crazy. It's expected though 'cause the type of songs that I've made and then they'll go back to listen to my older songs. I expect that and I welcome that," he said. “I know. It's not a doubt in my mind that I'm not going to be a one hit wonder. I know big things [are] coming. It's gonna be great."
The forthcoming release of his new EP 7 represents a coming-of-age moment for Lil Nas X that will be the true test of his shelf life. That said, his innate awareness of his business model and how to maximize its potential goes some way to explaining why he remains so unfazed by the lingering threat of the fall-off.
Lil Nas X backstage at 2019 Stagecoach Festival - Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
"The rumours are true," he tweeted out in April, "I am a marketing genius." While it may be a slight embellishment, his knack for self-promotion is getting increasingly hard to overlook of late. A self-professed "internet baby," Lil Nas X’s unfalsifiable affinity for all things social media has become an integral part of his branding. Whether he’s deploying memes in order to further endear himself to his audience such as his ingenious repurposing of Usher’s "Confessions," references to "milking the f**k out of Old Town Road" or interacting with fans, few artists have used Twitter as a means of consolidating hype with as much efficacy as Lil Nas.
Typified by his use of a Twitter thread to drip-feed snippets of music to his audience and keep anticipation for 7 high, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the online world that he inhabits and it’s something that simply cannot be manufactured. Levelled with reports that he used to run a Nicki Minaj stan account under the moniker of “@Nasmaraj” (while his label has adamantly denied this, there is sufficient evidence to its truth), it’s notable that his account already had a six-digit follower count long before “Old Town Road” surfaced.
Prohibited from the conventional tenets of a major release’s rollout, it was his aptitude for social media manipulation that was pivotal in the rise of the track and in particular, a purposeful attempt to give it a new lease of life through others’ videos. Heeding the case studies of Denzel Curry’s “Ultimate,” Chief Keef’s “Faneto” and numerous other tracks that became unavoidable through Vine, Lil Nas X took matters into his own hands and had the foresight to try replicate this peculiar form of acclaim on the defunct network’s spiritual successor of TikTok:
"I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger. I was pretty familiar with TikTok: I always thought its videos would be ironically hilarious. When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me. A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger."
Unashamed in his attempts to transfer tweet impressions into impassioned fandom and profit, the fact that he knows how to appeal to his demographic has made his music and online persona into one symbiotic entity. As such, it was social media traction, or more specifically, a lack thereof, that taught him that remaining true to himself was the path to prosperity in music:
"At first, I was just bored, like, 'Hey, Twitter, I made a song,'" he said. "But I'm like, ‘Wait, this is really hard.’ Then I made another one, and it didn't make any noise. I was overtrying. A lot of it was me trying to be something that people would like instead of making music that I would like."
Lil Nas X and Cardi B performing at Summer Jam 2019 - Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
With ten weeks at number one under his rhinestone-covered belt, it’s easy to forget that the track was the centre of a firestorm over its removal from the Billboard Country Charts. Despite the song being removed due to a perceived inauthenticity, the result was an undeniable positive impact on his momentum. By ostracizing him from the country genre, Lil Nas X became the sort of counterculture figure that young consumers will instinctively flock to. As has always been the case, an artist falling foul of convention and doing something that’s marked as “revolutionary” is a fast track to fame and it made Lil Nas X into a cause celebre for music fans and artists of all denominations. Although Billboard have likely learnt the error of their ways, the attempt at suppression was pivotal in making Lil Nas X into a phenomenon. Now, all he’s doing is capitalizing on it.
Whether you’d like to admit it or not, Lil Nas X’s innate ability to build hype and capture the online audience’s attention has made 7 into an intriguing proposition. While some are likely rooting for him to fail, it doesn’t detract from the fact that every stream or view— no matter the intent— will only work in his favour. Teamed with his irreverent bantering, his willingness to chronicle his life and creative endeavours into 140 characters or less is a critical component of his success and lays out a blueprint for Gen-Z artists that’ll follow in his footsteps.