To all appearances, no one had a better 2019 than Lil Nas X, who became an overnight star with his carefree, chart-annihilating debut single “Old Town Road.” It was a witty, succinct anthem that accelerated from a TikTok meme to permeate every corner of life, feeling as welcome as a sun-shower on an August day. Cutting across demographics gave the song an edge—it was country but also rap, as hooky as Brill Building pop with a lo-fi scrappiness. But most dazzling was the wit and hunger Lil Nas X brought to his music as a genre-blind teenager with everything to prove.
His an underdog story that mirrored the come-from-nothing journeys of pop’s most beloved stars, from Dolly Parton to Cardi B. Less than a year prior to the song’s explosion, Lil Nas X was a college dropout, battling anxiety and crashing on his sister’s couch in Atlanta. He achieved some kind of Gen-Z American Dream and was so lovable with it all that when “Old Town Road” broke Mariah Carey’s long-held record for longest-running U.S. number one, she posted a photoshopped image of her passing the torch to the much younger performer.
So has his life-changing 2019 sunk in yet? “To a degree,” Nas says over Zoom, his skin radiant in Los Angeles’ midday sun. “Sometimes I’m laughing about it, sometimes I’m crying about it. I’m still discovering the magnitude of it all.”
To well-intentioned observers, Lil Nas X represents a music industry trying to adapt to a new normal, where internet savvy can create hit records as much as the radio airplay or campaigns of the past. He is a flashpoint for conversations about mainstream country music’s embedded racism, and its erasure of the Black musicians who shaped the genre. (“Old Town Road” was dropped from the country charts for not including “enough elements of today’s country music,” per a Billboard statement.) And after he came out last June, with “Old Town Road” still at number one, he came to stand for proud queerness in main-stream hip-hop, a space that has traditionally hushed LGBTQ voices.
It seemed like Lil Nas X had an answer for everything. “Just got news that i’m gay and I will no longer be streaming my music,” he wrote last year in a not-so-veiled subtweet at homophobic Neanderthals. But there was a psychic toll to being a symbol. After his 7 EP was released to lukewarm reviews, Nas says “there was a three month-ish period where I completely lost faith in myself.”
My first show was last year,” he says, a fact that’s easy to forget given the internet’s whiplash speed and the temporal warp of COVID. After a run of bad shows, including a New York performance where he fell on stage, Nas hit a mental low. He pulled out of all other shows for two or three months, an unthinkable move for a new artist in the first flush of fame. “I came back home and found myself feeling sorry for myself all the time,” Nas says. When asked to perform at the Grammy Awards, he declined twice before agreeing. “I was proud of myself for pushing myself to get up on the stage and to do what I feel like was the best performance of that song,” he says. When Lil Nas X held two Grammys a loft that night, he stood triumphantly in a hot pink Versace cowboy suit with a mesh shirt and harness to match. The gold Medusa logos shone as bright as his smile.
Nas wears a black durag and a baggy T-shirt, explaining that he needs a shape up. I teasingly call it his “trade”—gay slang for macho—look, and he laughs. As he speaks, he absent-mindedly flips the durag’s neck flap upwards and the fabric frills like an old-timey bonnet. The gesture is endearing, and a little childlike. (Prior to our call, Nas’s publicist joked about an aborted plan to hold his 21st birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.) In conversation, he is quiet and a little dreamy, with a gaze that never settles on one spot for too long. But he has an eye for detail, too. Noticing I’m British, he tries out some slang he picked up in London, taking tips on pronunciation.“Catch you later, mate!” he finally exclaims with pride.
Playful instincts are just as vivid in Nas’s music. You can imagine a hoard of preschoolers finger-wagging to the “can’t tell me nothin’” hook of “Old Town Road,” and “Panini” was named after the sassy Cartoon Network character. His own childhood was peripatetic. Born Montero Lamar Hill in 1999, he moved around the suburbs of Atlanta, GA, between the homes of his parents, who divorced when Nas was 6. As a teenager, he was watchful and introverted, and, while he prayed that his attraction to boys was just a phase, he had a second life online as a meme stunt queen.
How did he dress in high school? “The very opposite, pretty much,” he says. “I didn’t want to draw any attention.”
“Because you didn’t want to be called gay?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I didn’t want any red flags.” He came out to his family just a few weeks before he told the world. “My dad said some very Christian things,” Nas says. “Like it could be the devil tempting me. It sucks, but I guess I saw it coming.” I ask about boys. “I feel like if I put any guy solo in a picture with me, we’re automatically dating,” he says with an eye roll. “One time, I was sitting in Subway with my brother, and then a few hours later there was [a headline], ‘Lil Nas X and his boyfriend eating Subway to celebrate 17 weeks at number one.’”He shakes his head. “But I’m dating someone right now. We’re not in a relationship yet, but it’s been on and off for the past few months. I’m maybe going to try to go steady this time.”
“Is it hard to tell whether a guy’s into you or just a starfucker?”
“Kind of. It’s like, Do you really fuck with me? Or just how everybody else sees me? You can never really tell, so you just have to hope for the best.”Lil Nas X’s openness extends to a broad-minded taste in fashion. He joyfully embraces color and silhouette, from lime-green Western wear with zebra-print gloves, to cyberpunk PVC, to a glittery suit by British maximalist Christian Cowan, with whom Nas is launching a collaborative collection this fall.“I really want dolls,” he says, suddenly animated, as he reels off the outfits that Lil Lil Nas X could have.“I have to do it.” In the mix of depressingly tasteful male celebrity dressers, Lil Nas X is a flamingo among barn hens. His style is unambiguously queer, too—sans cowboy hat, his Grammy outfit would be a showstopper at San Francisco’s legendary fetish-fest, Folsom Street Fair. “I’ve been trying to deviate from the norm that most guys wear—suit, tie,” he says. “So when I saw the [Grammys] look, even as a sketch, I was like, That’s crazy. That’s a talking point. I want to get more in tune with that flamboyant side as well. It’s an ongoing journey.”
For the last “five-ish” months, Nas has been working on his album in Airbnbs across L.A. “It’s nice to be around new spaces while thinking of new ideas,” he says. This July, he put out a clip of an unreleased song, “Call Me By Your Name,” its title a clear reference to the horned-up Luca Guadagnino romance. Over a beat that sticks like spaghetti on a wall, Nas raps about a guy on the DL who’s “cute enough to fuck with me tonight.” If the lyrics of his 7 EP felt superficial, Nas promises that he’s approaching songwriting “100 percent” differently now that he’s out. “A lot of the new stuff would be a conversation piece, especially with me being in the mainstream,” he says. “I definitely touch on [sexuality] a lot. This album is much more personal, and much more Lil Nas X plus Montero, which is my real name. It’s less of a character being portrayed.”
Today’s most compelling stars—Billie Eilish, Lizzo—draw you into their orbit with vivid render-ings of uncomfortable desires, dark fears, and deeply held hopes. If his new music turns out as good as it should, Nas has the potential to make history, and not just for his chart metrics. His story as a young Black gay musician has rarely, if ever, been heard in the mainstream. “I am at a point where I have to be my biggest rooter,” he says, with the air of a coach giving his star player a pep talk. “Go Nas.”His blooming self-confidence is on full display in Rihanna’s Fenty Skin campaign, which came out a few weeks before we spoke. In one shot, he snarls bare-chested into the camera, grills gleaming. He is, in the words of Ri, unapologetic. “Growing up, I used to feel bad about my skin or my lips or any of my facial features. This is up until two, three years ago.There was a lot of self-hate within me.”
But in the Calvin Klein FW20 campaign, there is a photo by Ryan McGinley of Lil Nas X’s pursed wet lips, open slightly.
“What a change for you to feel such pride,” I say.
“Yeah,” he replies, with a smile that could power all the lights in Southern California. “In the last two years, that’s probably one of the most unexpected changes.” World fame is one thing. Loving every part of himself? Lil Nas X is getting there, too.
CR FASHION BOOK Issue 17 will be packaged alongside CR MEN Issue 11 and will be available on newsstands and online starting October 9, 2020. To pre-order a copy click here, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issues.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROE ETHRIDGE
STYLING BY IAN BRADLEY
HAIR BY BRITNEY THOMAS
GROOMING BY CHRISTINA GUERRAEND
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