Lil Nas X Embraces Black Queer Sexuality — And Becomes An 'Industry Baby'

Aug 2, 2021
Originally published on August 2, 2021 7:20 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the weekend, we got a snapshot of where part of the music industry stands right now on LGBT issues. The music festival Lollapalooza dropped rapper DaBaby from its lineup after he made homophobic remarks. And at the same time, the top two spots on YouTube's music video charts were both held by Lil Nas X, an artist whose videos unapologetically embrace queer Black sexuality. Those two singles are a big shift from his first viral chart-topper, this earworm from 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road. I'm gonna ride till I can't no more.

SHAPIRO: This shift in his artistry may also be part of a bigger change in the music industry. Jazmine Hughes explored that in a profile of Lil Nas X for the New York Times magazine. I asked her how Lil Nas X is paving the way for longevity.

JAZMINE HUGHES: At some point during our time together, we were sitting at lunch, and I asked him, how much of your life is dedicated to proving people wrong? And he said, almost all of it, right?

SHAPIRO: Almost all of it.

HUGHES: So I think that it's easy to look at "Old Town Road," which we know is a huge viral success because he recorded the song, attached it to memes, went viral on TikTok, and then it sort of blew up. It's easy to look at that and think that this was all a lucky mistake, right? But he did this all incredibly intentionally. What's funny about Nas is that, like, before he became a successful musician, he was a Barb. He was like a soldier and a Nicki Minaj online stan, right? So he spent all of his waking hours online. I mean, there are some points in high school where...

SHAPIRO: Like, learning the rules of social media battle.

HUGHES: Kind of like forming the rules of social media battle. But there were times where he was spending, like, 18, 19 hours a day online, so he knows the internet better than, I think, most people in this world do. So yes, he had, like, this incredible stroke of luck when it came to "Old Town Road" and everything that came with it, but I don't know. There's a lot of intention there that I think that...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

HUGHES: ...Sometimes people discount.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk a little about his latest video, "Industry Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDUSTRY BABY")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) Baby back, ay. Couple racks, ay.

SHAPIRO: Can you just briefly describe it in a way that's safe for public radio?

HUGHES: (Laughter) Yes. So for a video he released earlier this year called "Montero," a promotional item he released were these Nikes called Satan Shoes, which purported to have a drop of human blood in them. He made 666 pairs. And so this newest music video, "Industry Baby," is about, like, what happens after Lil Nas X, like, you know, pretends to lose this lawsuit, and then he goes to jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDUSTRY BABY")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) I blew up. Now everybody trying to sue me. You call me Nas, but the hood call me Doobie. Yeah. And this one is for the champions...

SHAPIRO: And has a lot of sex in jail.

HUGHES: We're all familiar with, like, what might happen to people, particularly men, when they're in prison with a bunch of other men. So, you know, what Nas has done over the course of his admittedly short career is to take what seems like a punishment and turn it on its head and say, what if I actually had the best time?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDUSTRY BABY")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) You was never really rooting for me anyway. When I'm back up at the top, I want to hear you say, he don't run from nothing, dog. Get your soldiers. Tell them that the break is over.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you talk about turning punishment into celebration. That's also what happened in his previous monster hit video this summer, "Montero," where he, like, goes to hell and gyrates on Satan's lap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me in the morning. I'll be on the way. Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me out by your name. I'll be on the way like...

HUGHES: So Nas grew up with the church being part of his life, right? His father is a gospel singer, and there was a point where he was going to church every Sunday. And so he's no stranger to the variety of outcomes that queer people are often told by homophobes or, you know, like, quote, unquote, "people who really care" about what might happen to him - whether he goes to hell, whether he'll go to jail or he'll do this, that and the third.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Champagne and drinking with your friends - you live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend. I'm not fazed, only here to sin. If Eve ain't in your garden, you know that you can. Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me in the morning. I'll be on the way.

HUGHES: And so what he has done with "Industry Baby" and also with "Montero" is, again, to say, like, what if I took the thing that all these people have been, you know, warning me about my entire life and then carried it on to its logical end? It's almost like he's saying, homophobes don't actually have that great of an imagination, and I do. So yeah, you can tell me I'm going to go to hell, but you haven't told me what's going to happen when I get there, and that is for me to fill in.

SHAPIRO: He's young. He's only 22. And you spent a lot of time with him. Did you get the sense that the facade of being impervious to all the homophobia and hatred - that it ever drops? Like, do you get the sense that it ever actually gets to him?

HUGHES: Oh, absolutely. I think that he has an incredible team of people around him. He has, you know, a few older Black women who I think are really sort of, like, big sisters to him, that are in his team but are also his best friends that keep him humble. But also he's, like, a 22-year-old living in Los Angeles, right? So he's, like, doing all the healthy mindfulness things that I think...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HUGHES: ...You and I would do if we were, like, 22-year-old gazillionaires (ph). So he, like, reads a lot of self-help books, and he, like, spends a lot of time with his family. And he is, like, a really thoughtful, generous, well-grounded person, almost to, like, an astounding degree. So while I think it bothers him, as it would bother anyone - and I've had, like, a peek at the sort of reactions he gets online - I really do think that he has a solid protective measure against this.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that he honed his social media skills by being part of Nicki Minaj's online army before he became famous. And he's been using those skills on Twitter all summer long. I want to read something that he wrote in response to a person who has since deleted their tweet. But this person basically listed a bunch of artists who were not as vocal about their sexual orientation, from Elton John to Queen Latifah, and kind of said, you know, why can't you be more like them? And Lil Nas X said this - many, if all, of these artists had to hide their sexuality for the majority of their career. You seem to only respect gay artists when the gay part is tucked away. You don't like me because I embrace my sexuality instead of hiding it and never speaking on it for your comfort. What does that tell you about the kind of pop star he's trying to become?

HUGHES: I think there's been all this undue attention paid to whether or not he's a one-hit wonder. But what I actually think is really phenomenal about Lil Nas X is this particular thing - right? - where he is a gay pop star who's come out at the height of his fame or - you know, for all we know, he could somehow get even bigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) Man, I snuck into the game - came in on a horse. I pulled a gimmick. I admit it. I got no remorse.

HUGHES: But people like Elton John - you know, Elton came out towards, like, the tail end of his career. George Michael came out way at the end of his career. We have so many gay pop stars but so few openly gay pop stars and even fewer gay pop stars who are explicitly sexual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) And I'm sexy. They want to sweat me.

HUGHES: We have people like Sam Smith or we have people like Troye Sivan who make their queer identity part of their art. But what Lil Nas X does is he makes gay sex just as part of his entire persona as a, you know, name literally any straight pop star ever.

SHAPIRO: Jazmine Hughes is a staff writer for The New York Times magazine.

Thank you so much.

HUGHES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) It's another way. All my hittas (ph) on go and I hope that you know it. I can't even close my eyes, and I don't know why. Guess I don't like surprises. I can't even stay away from the game that I play. They gon' know us today. Yeah. Man, I snuck into the game - came in on a horse. I pulled a gimmick. I admit it. I got no remorse. Nobody tried to let me in. Nobody opened doors. I kicked them down. They didn't have a choice. Dun dun dun (ph). They tried to next me, ay, but I'm blessed, see. Ay, no flex, but my checks giving vet tease. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.