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Gay? You might be entitled to financial compensation: Review of MONTERO by Lil Nas X

Patrick brings us a review of Lil Nas X’s debut album “Montero”.

As a young gay man, I remember the first time I discovered Logo TV. I was home alone after school one day, and I was avoiding homework. As I was scrolling through the TV guide, I came across what could have been a revelation in my queerness: programming created for a queer audience. I turned it on and a music program was just beginning. But this was not your regular MTV or VH1 fare, but actually, blatantly queer music videos. There were guys kissing each other and holding hands and showing their love for one another. I remember sitting there, discovering these music videos and thinking about how upsetting it was that I was seeing a reflection of myself in music, for the first time, hidden away on a single channel up in the 200s. But the worst part is that I have no idea what the names of the songs I listened to that afternoon, nor the artists who poured their hearts into them.

Back in 2010, queerness was just beginning to enter the mainstream in the United States. But openly queer love was not readily accessible in media, and these songs about queer love that played in the mid-afternoon on Logo had so little reach into the cultural consciousness that I never listened to them again. So when Lil Nas X released the music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” in March of this year, and everyone was talking about it? It felt unreal. A song by an openly-queer artist about being queer was dominating social media, news organizations, the industry charts, and the minds of music fans everywhere.

Lil Nas X has been here before. “Old Town Road (Remix)” (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus) was pretty objectively the Song of the Summer back in 2019, where it spent a record-breaking 18 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. A runaway hit, everyone was talking about it, playing it at their parties, and adding it to their playlists. But it was not until “Old Town Road (Remix)” was already the Number 1 Song in America when Lil Nas X came out as gay.

This is one of my most anticipated albums ever. It was hard not to be excited for this album. Lil Nas X and his team’s marketing in the lead-up to this release was nothing short of inspired. He posted several videos and photos of himself “pregnant” with baby MONTERO, even posting a hilarious video of himself giving birth to the album on the night of the album’s release. He posted videos of him sending himself to jail in the lead up to the release of the “INDUSTRY BABY” video and as a talk show host in the 80s. The one that killed me the most, though, were a set of billboards that he set up, including one that said “Gay? You might be entitled to financial compensation!” Lil Nas X, if you’re reading this, I want my gay money!

@LilNasX / Twitter

MONTERO, which is Lil Nas X’s debut album following previous EPs and Mixtapes, is the first major music release from Lil Nas X after he came out as gay. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”, therefore, was one of the first explicitly queer piece of music that Lil Nas X released (following his allusion to queerness on 7 track “C7osure” and more explicit references in the single “HOLIDAY”), and it began an honest-to-God debate on acceptable behavior of queer people in the mainstream by many outside of the LGBTQ community.

It is with all of this in mind that we dive into MONTERO, in what is one of the most personal musical introspective of queerness that I, personally, have had the pleasure of listening to.

MONTERO hits the ground running with its eponymous track, of much notoriety. This song has been running in my mind basically nonstop since it was first released in March. The music video, where Lil Nas X literally leaves the Garden of Eden and descends into Hell to twerk on Satan, naturally made all the wrong waves in all the worst places. But as a gay man myself, this song touches such an important chord with me; it is an open expression of Lil Nas X’s queerness, something that he suppressed for so long due to the heteronormative society that we live in. Upon release of the song, Lil Nas X tweeted: “i wrote a song with our name in it. it’s about a guy i met last summer…i know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.” MONTERO, which bears Lil Nas X’s real name as the title, brings us through this personal journey of conflict and ultimate acceptance as a queer man.

“DEAD RIGHT NOW”, the second track, deals with Lil Nas X’s struggle with his parents and others as he was working his way up into stardom. He is still the confident, brazen performer that we see in “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”, but we also see the cracks that give us peeks into his personal struggle.

“INDUSTRY BABY” (feat. Jack Harlow) is one of the best tracks on the album. One of the pre-album singles, the horns and beats keep this track pumping all the way through, with great harmonies and fun lyrics. It immediately gets lodged in your brain, and you find yourself humming along well after you’ve listened. The only fault of this record (and the album in general) is the rather strong “no homo” vibes from Jack Harlow’s verse, which, while well-performed, is a bit out of place on an album with such a queer message.

In “THATS WHAT I WANT”, whose video was released same day as the album, we begin to really start hearing Lil Nas X’s personal journey in queerness. This is the beginning of the exploration into the man, Montero, behind the persona we see on Twitter every day. What’s so beautiful about this song is that it is unabashedly about queer love, wrapped up in a radio-ready country-twinged pop bop. He talks about how he “need a boy”. Not a generic someone special, not an unidentified lover. A boy. Finding love as a gay man can be a minefield, never knowing who might be open to queer relationships or who might beat you up for coming on to them. But while safety is always on our mind, it does not mean that we still don’t long for love, affection, and physical touch. As Lil Nas X says, “I want someone to love me/I need someone who needs me/’Cause it don’t feel right when it’s late at night/And it’s just me in my dreams/So I want someone to love/That’s what I fuckin’ want”. Oh boy… got me right in my pop-loving heart.

“THE ART OF REALIZATION”—Look, I’m a huge slut for audio clips in the middle of an album.

“SCOOP” (feat. Doja Cat) is the start of what feels like a new section of the album, which is broken into two by “THE ART OF REALIZATION”. “SCOOP” is about physical beauty (“I been workin’ on my body”). In the context of the rest of the album, it is hard to separate this song from the other themes about the pressure he has to conform to expectations that society puts on him, in this case an exemplary physique. Doja’s verse is a nice switch-up that keeps this track moving nicely into “ONE OF ME”.

“ONE OF ME” (feat. Elton John) is an incredibly moving moment for me. Elton John, who is undoubtedly queer royalty, is listed as a feature on this track, but never sings. Instead, he played piano for this track, contributing a beautiful backing for Lil Nas X’s lyrics. This feels like a symbolic backing from our elders to the new guard; Lil Nas X’s message is literally being backed by Elton. Lil Nas X’s lyrics concern his artistry and those that felt he should stay with what he is good at. But Elton’s moving piano lines behind Lil Nas X’s rhythmic vocals lead to a genre-bending masterpiece that proves to his haters that Lil Nas X’s talent is bigger than any box you could put him in.

“LOST IN THE CITADEL” continues the under-the-radar sound that began with “ONE OF ME”. This track, similar to “THATS WHAT I WANT”, has a sound that is palatable to the mainstream, but with multilayered lyrics about having to be the one to pick yourself up. A great transition from the last track into the next.

“DOLLA SIGN SLIME” (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) was the track I was most excited for going into this album drop. I felt that any track that had both Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion on it would be an instant homerun, and I was right. A rap song, Megan Thee Stallion’s feature is one of the best on the album. But what’s most intriguing about this track is that on its own, it’s a fun track about being a successful musician, yet, with its placement in the album, it’s changed. You realize that Lil Nas X is not trying to show off to his haters but is maybe just trying to tell himself that he’s made it.

Then “TALES OF DOMINICA” starts. While it could be argued that “DOLLA SIGN SLIME” is a personification of the Lil Nas X public persona, “TALES OF DOMINICA” is the track that first struck me as most honestly Montero. We’ve seen in the earlier tracks who Lil Nas X is (he’s hot, he’s funny, he’s controversial), but that outer layer has broken apart, revealing Montero underneath: “Oh sometimes you’re angry/Sometimes you’re hurting/Sometimes you’re all alone/Sometimes I’m anxious/Sometimes it makes me/Feel like there’s only now”.

“SUN GOES DOWN” continues this journey into showing us Montero. The video, set back in high school, shows us the journey to acceptance that Lil Nas X went through to get to this point. It’s a struggle that I personally went through myself, which he so succinctly puts in the lines, “These gay thoughts would always haunt me/I prayed God would take it from me/It’s hard for you when you’re fightin’/And nobody knows it when you’re silent”. I prayed to God too, begging him to take these thoughts from me, to fix me, to help me in my fight. This is a painful struggle that so many queer people have to fight through every day. And it’s so hard to get to acceptance when you are working alone. Lil Nas X’s lyrics and vocal performance and acoustic backing help communicate these inner demons to those who haven’t had to fight them themselves.

An important note on “SUN GOES DOWN”: Lil Nas X makes a reference to his past life running Nicki Minaj stan accounts. Nicki Minaj is a bit of a wild subject right now, which I do not have the space nor energy to address here, but what is important is the growth and honesty Lil Nas X is showing us here. These stan accounts featured a lot of controversial tweets, which he later apologized for. In this track he includes the line “I’ma make my fans so proud of me”. I think it’s safe to say he has.

“VOID”… oh boy, I thought “TALES OF DOMINICA” was personal??? This track absolutely wrecked me. A beautiful track featuring Lil Nas X’s striking falsetto with beautiful lyrics that I think speak best for themselves:

“See, I’m getting tired for the way I’ve been living
I’d rather die than to live with these feelings
Stuck in the world where there’s so much to prove
Every win gives you more room to lose
It’s too many ups and downs on the ride
I spent inordinate ‘mounts of time
Trapped in a lonely, loner life
Looking for love where I’m denied”

“DONT WANT IT” moves us back to a bit more upbeat mood. The lyrics here show Lil Nas X’s struggle with his own acceptance despite his success, and his ultimate path there. This then transitions into and meshes well with the lyrics of the next track:

“LIFE AFTER SALEM” is an alt rock track featuring driving, grungy power chords that push this song through measured, particular steps of Lil Nas X’s journey, arriving firmly at his acceptance of himself and his art. He has accepted that not everyone will find his work and personality to be their thing. But he will continue driving himself forward as whoever he wants to be.

“AM I DREAMING” (feat. Miley Cyrus) begins: “Every song, every dream filled with hell from beyond/As I’m sinking, I relive the story/Every try, every breakthrough and every cry/As I’m sinking, I relive the story”. These haunting lyrics, sung in Lil Nas X’s unique voice help show the journey we’ve been on with Montero in getting to a point of acceptance. Miley Cyrus’s verse features one of my favorite vocal performances from her yet, as her voice fits so well into the emotion and intention of this track. When we get to the final chorus we are met with the lyrics “Oh, never forget me/And everything I’ve done/Oh, never forget me/Like I’m your favorite song/I’m fading, replaying/These thoughts I thought while sinking down/Oh, never forget me/And everything I’ve done”, followed by a clap of thunder that fades into silence…

This album is a masterpiece. Even on its own, outside of the context into which this album was birthed, there would be no denying that this album has a lot of strengths. However, this album does not exist detached from the world, and, in fact, it is the world that makes this album so beautiful. As a gay man, being able to listen to a mainstream musical journey through queerness where I can see so much of myself in the lyrics is an incredible experience that I never imagined would be possible even five years ago. The marketing and roll-out of this album have been spectacular, but even more incredible is how Lil Nas X has taken these viral moments and directed the energy into a “Baby Registry” for his album: a list of charities, one for each track, that support a number of important works, including support for the trans community, Black queer men, and infertility issues.

Montero pregnant with baby MONTERO (via @LilNasX / Twitter)

Musically, there are many brilliant moments. Highlights for me include Elton John’s piano in “ONE OF ME”, the radio-ready (and personal favorite on the album) “THATS WHAT I WANT”, and the emotional performance in “VOID”. The continued genre bending shows that Lil Nas X is not afraid to challenge the rules of his art, while the form the album takes is reminiscent of Lemonade.

Of course, there are parts of this musical odyssey that I cannot relate to as a White man. Lil Nas X talks about how others will treat him for his complexion and features, and his commentary on queerness exist within the framework of being a Black man. I am not someone who can comment on this aspect of his music.

Another point of note is how important Lil Nas X’s rise to fame is as a talented artist in the genre of hip-hop/rap. As Kid Cudi put it his recent profile of Lil Nas X for Time 100: “To have a gay man in hip-hop doing his thing, crushing records—that is huge for us and for Black excellence. The way he’s unafraid to make people uncomfortable is so rock ‘n’ roll. He’s a true rock star.”

I think a lot about Lil Nas X’s tweet to himself when he released “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”. I wish I could go back to my past self and tell myself just how much better it gets. That people like Lil Nas X will be there, helping shepherd the next generation of queer folk to a life of happiness and acceptance. Montero, you’re helping so many queer people exist, by being who you are best.

MONTERO is available to stream on all major music streaming platforms and as a digital download. You can find the MONTERO Baby Registry on https://welcometomontero.com.

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