Words: Jamie Tabberer; pictures: Lil Nas X's new album 'Montero' is out today (by Charlotte Rutherford)
He's had number one singles, won Grammys, and clocked up several show-stopping TV moments. Suffice to say, Lil Nas X is an artist who arrived long ago.
Quite why, then, it's taken almost three years - since the release of his unstoppable debut ditty 'Old Town Road' - for a proper, full-length album to arrive is a mystery.
While lesser stars would have faded, the delay has only increased anticipation for the LP to a level rarely seen in the streaming age. Indeed, the last six months, since Nas dropped his turbocharged ode to gay sex 'Montero (Call Me By Your Name)', along with a confrontational video a 'Freeek!'-era George Michael would've been proud of, have been especially agonising.
With its powerfully explicit lyrics ("shoot my shot in your mouth while I'm ridin'...") 'Montero' opens and sets the tone for an album that proudly explores, via punchy rap, soaring pop and a smattering of rock, a sorely under-represented perspective: a young Black man's experiences of gay sex and love.
On songs addressing the latter, the album reaches a state of giddy perfection. On new single 'That's What I Want', over arresting acoustic guitar, the 22-year-old emits a rallying cry for love via lyrics straight from the Swiftian diary/playbook of relatability: "Need a boy who can cuddle with me all night, keep me warm, love me long, be my sunlight."
It's a surprisingly simple song - compared to the bells, whistles, and brass of the album's second gargantuan hit 'Industry Baby', for example - that exudes a youthful passion and vitality. One minor quibble: is the song's shortness (two minutes, 23 seconds) ultimately to its detriment? It's a charge you could make at a few of Montero's songs.
Swaggering self-confidence is another major theme - it is for any straight rapper, so why not Nas? - whether on the earwormy 'Industry Baby' ("this one is for the champions") or the mysterious 'Dead Right Now' ("He said, 'It's one in a million chance, son,' I told him, 'Daddy, I am that one-uh"). On grandiose rock anthem 'Life After Salem', there are echoes of Freddie Mercury's defiant showmanship, à la Queen's 'The Show Must Go On'.
But, ever the complex character, Nas eventually flips the script and balances the tone. First on the indie-pop-band-ready 'Lost In the Citadel', then on the despairing 'Tales of Dominica', on which he sings of escaping a "broken home" only to find "finally grown, ain't nothing like I hopеd it would be, out on my own, I'm floating in an oceanless sea."
Then there's the heartbreakingly vulnerable 'Sun Goes Down': this writer's favourite Montero track. On it, over dreamy, lullaby-like melodies, Nas revisits the pain of homophobic bullying he suffered as a teen.
Some lyrics are straight from the voice of that child ("had friends, but they was pickin' on me"), lending authenticity to a cliche-ridden subject. But on the chorus - and on that arresting, rich "youuuuuu" at the beginning - he's all man. In fact, he has the sonorous, luxuriously beautiful voice of an old soul. Although, that angelic falsetto on 'Void'!
Another sign of Montero's quality: the caliber of collaborations. Wisely, Nas has recruited the world's most underrated balladeer Miley Cyrus on slowie 'Am I Dreaming?' Elton John pops up on piano on 'One of Me'. There are typically arch verses from Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion on the fittingly irreverent 'Scoop' and 'Dolla Sign Slime', respectively. (Nas has spoken of Doja's influence on his career, and as such playfully adopts different personas and voices throughout, although to a far lesser extent than the spiritual daughter of champion voice-thrower Nikki Minaj).
Elton's presence, albeit welcome, is almost a prerequisite; Nas's dynamic with the girls, on the other hand, feels fresh and exciting. It's a treat to see a gay male pop star vibe with his female (and in Miley's case, genderfluid) counterparts, and for their mutual respect to be spotlighted.
That said, this is such a major release, the features aren't strictly necessary. Should he wish to, Nas has the vision and creativity (just check out the origin story of 'Old Town Road') to forgo guest spots altogether in future, as Billie Eilish did on Happier Than Ever. For truly, he's the singular Black gay super-talent the world needs.
The Attitude October issue is out now.