The morning before Thanksgiving, Lil Nas X was driving around Atlanta recounting the whirlwind year in which he broke long-standing Billboard chart records, became the biggest gay pop star in the world and scored six Grammy nominations, including best new artist, record and album of the year.
For the whirlwind sensation born Montero Lamar Hill, talking to a journalist by phone while tooling around his hometown constitutes downtime. He has been going non-stop since his country-rap confection ‘Old Town Road’ teleported from silly meme to cultural phenomenon, and he’s still catching his breath.
“I’ve been in a constant state of realisation that this is all happening, and I have to remind myself that I deserve anything coming my way,” the 20-year-old singer-rapper says with a sense of wonder that’s discernible despite the 3,000km separating us.
Engineered with virality in mind — right down to its lyrics, promotion and many remixes — ‘Old Town Road’ changed our ideas of what pop, hip hop and country music look and sound like today, and did so on Hill’s own instinctual terms.
Born on the cusp of the new millennium, Hill has been glued to the internet since adolescence. The youngest of six, he lived with his parents until he was around six and moved with his mom and grandmother to Bankhead Courts, a housing project on Atlanta’s west side, before his father got custody of him and his brother a few years later.
Like most Gen Z kids, he sought refuge and community on social media, where he’d spend hours posting funny clips and memes. Hill was always into rap but never considered pursuing music until last spring, as a bored freshman at the University of West Georgia.
His first EP, ‘Nasarati,’ released shortly after leaving school, was a haphazard attempt to establish himself with mostly generic trap songs. It didn’t take off, but it gave him the confidence to continue. After finding a beat on YouTube created by a teenage producer in the Netherlands named YoungKio, Hill bought it for $30 (Dh110) and spent a month writing what became ‘Old Town Road.’
Wanting an anthemic song with viral appeal, he crafted lyrics built around quotable Western lingo and worked with a banjo sample on the beat (pulled from a Nine Inch Nails cut). He posted it online last December.
Within months, the song was streamed so often it broke onto the Billboard charts, and Hill’s career went into overdrive. In a matter of weeks, Hill signed to Columbia Records, recorded an ‘Old Town Road’ remix with Billy Ray Cyrus that catapulted the song to No 1 and quickly turned around his major-label debut EP, ‘7.’
And he hasn’t slowed since. A few days after we spoke, he was in a West Hollywood photo studio, dressed in a vintage vaquero costume, a nod to the Mexican cowboys of the late 1800s. He braced himself as a stylist carefully topped his head with cowboy hat after cowboy hat that added an extra 3 feet to his slender 6-foot-1 frame. Impressed with the finished look, he broke into YG’s mariachi-flavoured trap hit ‘Go Loco’ — rapping and smiling at himself in the mirror as his sister looked on.
When you started doing music, were the Grammys ever on your mind?
I’m just getting started as an artist, and I know there is so much more to come, but the nominations gave me more validation than I already had given myself.
How did your dad react to you leaving school to rap?
He wasn’t happy about it. Gradually, he eased into supporting me. He was, like, ‘This is a one-in-a-million thing.’ And I told him, ‘Well, maybe I’m that one.’
You were confident you would break online?
One hundred per cent. When I was putting out music before ‘Old Town Road,’ I was using the internet heavily to promote [myself]. I would go to YouTube comments and try to get attention there and on Reddit, Genius, Instagram — everywhere I could. I was known for tweeting memes and stuff like that, and with ‘Old Town Road’ I decided to incorporate the song within those funny videos and test reactions. When you don’t have money, which I did not have, you have to use your best advantage, and that’s what I did.
Do you remember the day ‘Old Town Road’ took off?
Almost from the first second of me putting the snippet out. I tweeted ‘country music is evolving’ with a video (of a man dancing at a rodeo), and it immediately went viral. The song got stagnant at one point, but then TikTok came along and moved the song 100 times faster.
I knew the song was going to be something from the first time I heard the beat — not that it was going to become a worldwide song or break any records, but I knew it was special. I’d heard a lot of songs, but I’d never heard a song like this.
When Billboard dropped you from the country charts it reignited a conversation about the genre’s relationship with black artists. Did you care?
I didn’t. I honestly didn’t think the conversation was as big as it actually was, and then I thought, ‘Oh, my God, everything’s centred around me.’ Of course, I understood why it was such a big deal, but I was happy that I had people rooting for me. I felt protected.
Most of us don’t have the world watching when we come out, but you did, and you did it as a young black man with the No 1 song in the country. Did anyone try to talk you out of standing in your truth?
Yeah, there was definitely someone trying. I think it was more of a protective thing than anything else. I had only come out to, like, my sister and my dad in the same month ... but I wanted to be someone that people are proud of.
How’s the new album coming along?
It’s pretty great, but I’m not going to stop until it’s absolutely incredible. I want to keep it a little more under wraps for now, but I’m working with a lot of new people. I’m most proud of being able to work with Pharrell.
Do you feel any added pressure to deliver the music quickly? The internet has a quick pace when it comes to music.
At first, I was feeling that way. But now I feel like I don’t have to fear that if I don’t rush music out, things are going to go away. The truth is, as long as I put out a song that people want to listen to, I’m going to be fine.