Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Lil Nas X is our unlikeliest pop star. After spending his high school years chasing internet virality across social media, a song he recorded during a $20 studio session using a $30 beat would go on to become the longest reigning Billboard Number 1 of all time. With “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X twanged country tropes over a trap beat, kicked off a yee-haw agenda and launched a pop career off the back of a novelty hit. It’s a little bit like Weird Al becoming Beyoncé after “Eat It.”

The artist born Montero Hill is in the middle of his first proper tour, dubbed “Long Live Montero,” and dropped by the Anthem on Sunday. The night proved to be a celebration, not of just his improbable rise, but of the artist himself: a 23-year-old Black gay man at the top of pop music in a country where his mere existence triggers conservative snowflakes.

The audience at the sold-out show knew what they were in for before they even found their seats, thanks to a “Playbill”-styled handout, emblazoned with an illustration of the artist in a butterfly motif. In a note of introduction, Lil Nas X promised, “You will see me in a play about me, starring me as me, with music by me,” and he did not disappoint.

The “Long Live Montero” concert is less standard-issue arena show and more shock-and-awe, three-act musical revue. In front of projections of digital fantasy locales — Versailles via Malibu Barbie, hell by way of Lisa Frank — Lil Nas X and his eight jaw-dropping dancers vogued and twerked through his modest but hit-laden discography, ramping up choreography and costuming with each movement. This is Chippendales or “Magic Mike” for a young crowd where old ideas about sexuality, of who can perform for whom, don’t matter.

Lil Nas X and rap’s reckoning over Black manhood

In his music, Lil Nas X plays with genre as much as gender for an audience unfazed by either. His first hit brought together country and rap, but his songs are just as likely to have pop-punk melodies, club beats or interpolations of Nirvana. Onstage, he appended nods to Kanye West’s “Runaway” and “All of the Lights,” and even performed a ballroom routine to a song, “Pure/Honey,” off Beyoncé’s new album. Lil Nas X’s concert is everything, everywhere, all at once.

Take his performance of “Old Town Road.” Originally based on a sample of an instrumental by Nine Inch Nails, the song veered into a cover of “Pony” and then the familiar tremolo lick of “Miserlou,” a song that evolved from folk song to surf rock to Tarantino fodder to Black Eyed Peas sample over a century. Here, it shifted into Lil Nas X’s “Rodeo,” another country-rap hybrid with a riff so similar to “Barracuda” that Heart is listed in the credits. If pop will eat itself, then Lil Nas X is going to eat.

Throughout his set, Lil Nas X proved how easily he can melt down pop forms into form-fitting gold-plated armor, even if he can’t quite create new ones yet. While the three-act set served as a metaphor for his journey of self-discovery and industry dominance, it also hinted that he’s just getting started, with a title card promising that this was the “end of the beginning.”

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