Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Lil Nas X's Top 40 Breakout Hit 'Old Town Road'

Courtesy Photo
Lil Nas X

In just three weeks on the chart, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" has bound all the way to No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the young breakout rapper's first top 40 hit on the listing.

The song's success, spurred on by a series of TikTok videos and other viral memes, resulted in a bidding war that culminated in the artist (real name: Montero Lamar Hill) signing to Columbia Records -- and recently saw a co-sign from Justin Bieber, who commented on his Instagram story, "This shit bangs." 

The breakthrough of "Old Town Road" is already one of the most fun and exciting stories of early 2019. But what's at the heart of Lil Nas X's crossover breakthrough? How repeatable is it? And will the song ultimately be able to escape its own virality? Below, five Billboard staffers debate these questions and more. 

1. What part of the extremely 2019 success of “Old Town Road” do you find the most interesting and/or fun?

Tatiana Cirisano: The country-tinged song is coasting the wave of the, ahem, Yee Haw Agenda that’s taking over the internet. For the unacquainted, cowboy memes are suddenly unavoidable on Twitter, while artists from Solange to Cardi B and Lizzo have reclaimed the cowboy narrative by incorporating Western imagery in their performances. What we’ve got here is the perfect storm of music meme-ability and cultural relevance: “Old Town Road” was released just before the Yeehaw Agenda reached a peak, got swept up in the pop culture moment, and became a separate meme on TikTok itself. Serve that success up with a side of yee-yee juice.

Bianca Gracie: The first thing that drew me to the song was its unexpected country inspirations, coming from a rising young black rapper from Atlanta. We’re currently experiencing another wave of the Yee Haw renaissance in urban music (shout-out to Young Thug, Solange and Megan Thee Stallion!) -- the last one that comes to mind was in the mid-’00s with Nelly and Bubba Sparxxx. So “Old Town Road” came at the right time!  But aside from that, I love that Lil Nas X managed to integrate the genre’s classic banjo-swinging sound into something that you can actually turn up to in the club!

Carl Lamarre: I think the memes are priceless. The video was released last December, and had a resurgence earlier this year due to a viral explosion on the video-sharing social media app TikTok. There, everyone morphed into a country figure, trying out their best Magnificent Seven impression. Somewhere, Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are gleefully clicking their cowboy boots.

Jason Lipshutz: "Old Town Road” is a particularly weird case of a viral song impacting the mainstream. A large part of that has to do with the composition of the song, an under-two-minutes combination of an exaggerated Southern drawl and Nine Inch Nails sample from a rapper with a knowingly derivative moniker and other songs that sound nothing like this one. Yet it also has to do with how quickly all of this -- “Old Town Road” blowing up on TikTok, Lil Nas X signing a deal with Columbia, and now the song hitting the Top 40 -- has taken place. “Old Town Road” doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry yet! Maybe the instantaneous hit is something we just have to get used to. 

Ross Scarano: Hip-hop’s ability to absorb virtually anything, process it, and serve it back to the world, even more successful. That never fails to impress me, even in the case of a song as winkingly silly as “Old Town Road.” I also appreciate the line you can draw from Young Thug’s proto-Yee Haw Agenda Beautiful Thugger Girls to now.    

2. How much bigger do you see the song getting from here, if any?

Tatiana Cirisano: At the rate “Old Town Road” is charging up the Hot 100, I don’t see it slowing down yet. But how much bigger the song can get? It depends. Are listeners playing the song to understand the meme, or are the memes helping fans discover a song that has legs on its own? I reckon the answer is a mixture of both -- if it were solely the former, I doubt we’d see such an impressive spike (leaping from No. 51 to No. 32) on the Hot 100 this week. Recent endorsements from the likes of Justin Bieber, Florida Georgia Line and Rico Nasty should keep the momentum going, as should Nas’ new record deal with Columbia (and prior bidding war). Plus, a soon-to-come music video for the track is sure to lend it another surge in streams down the line.

Bianca Gracie: The song just cracked the Hot 100 a few weeks ago, and it's definitely going to keep rising. Its co-signs should likely boost streams even more as other artists discover it. I wouldn't be surprised if it cracks the top 20 before summer begins. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if Lil Nas X is booked for the upcoming festival season just yet, but bringing this song to the live stage will no doubt take it higher: Can you just imagine the madness if a huge crowd filled with young teens broke into “I GOT HORSES IN THE BACK!” shouts while whipping around imaginary lassos at Made In America or Firefly?

Carl Lamarre: Since the meme compilation gave the record its second wind, "Old Town Road" continues to flourish. Not only has the song galloped its way into top 40 territory, but now has the chance of being in rarified airspace of dare I say, the top 20? With X inking a deal with Columbia last week, the record is going to get a massive push from the marketing and promotions side. Once radio gets their hands on this song, it's only going to be the beginning for the ATLien. In case you don't believe me, look what happened last summer with Sheck Wes' "Mo Bamba" and Flipp Dinero's "Leave Me Alone" after their own respective artists signed to majors. 

Jason Lipshutz: I could see it going top 10, at least. “Old Town Road” appears to be blowing up during a seam in the release calendar, in which most of the winter smashes have begun to melt away from public consciousness but the summer song heavy hitters have yet to fully drop. That fortuitous timing is helping Lil Nas X not only dominate streams but the attention of chart watchers. Let’s face it: “Old Town Road” is a fascinating fluke hit, but probably wouldn’t be the topic of this conversation if it had begun rising during the competitive summer months.

Ross Scarano: The top ten of the Hot 100 is vulnerable right now, and the velocity of “Old Town Road” -- which already leapt from No. 83 to No. 51 in a week -- is impressive. It’s already outpacing the climb of Blueface's “Thotiana,” which has peaked at No. 9 so far. I’d put money on Lil Nas X hitting the top 10.

3. Is this the start of a long and successful career on the charts for Lil Nas X, or will it likely prove an unrepeatable fluke?

Tatiana Cirisano: It’ll be tough for Lil Nas X to replicate the success of “Old Town Road” for sure. But I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him. His self-released 2018 project Nasarati shows promise -- try the dance-influenced “In The Bank” or Bobby Caldwell-sampling “Carry On” -- and his recent string of singles showcase his versatility beyond the country-inspired experiment of “Old Town Road.” Plus, it only takes a scroll through his must-follow Twitter and Instagram accounts to see that the kid’s got charisma. But it’s “BANZUP,’” an acoustic guitar-backed premonition about making money released just before “Old Town Road,” that stands out to me as his next potential hit. “18 set me up for 19/ It’s gonna be a killer year,” he raps, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s right.

Bianca Gracie: Honestly this seems more like a flash in the pan, and not so much a reflection of a long-term career. When a song becomes an instant viral hit like this, it comes with a challenge for artists as they try to figure out how the heck they’ll top it. And more often that not, they never seem to do so. In Lil Nas X’s case, I think he caught lightning in a bottle with “Old Town Road,” and is at risk of getting lost in the next wave of rappers who are ready to enjoy a quick hit. As much as the song is fun, it’s still a bit gimmicky. But it’ll be interesting to see if he can showcase some versatility with his new music, especially following his recent signing to Columbia -- now he has something to prove.

Carl Lamarre: I don't think Lil Nas X is going to be a flash-in-the-pan kind of artist. For one, Nasarati is oozing with potential. "Carry On" is quite the contrast from the country-tinged "OTR," and exudes a more serious tone from X. On that song, he ruminates about his grandma's death, his personal woes and more.  Another unique gem from his catalog is "No Love," where he somberly speaks about a broken relationship he once endured. A healthy balance of mainstream hits and deep records bodes well for any artist, and I think X is mindful of that. 

Jason Lipshutz: It’s too early to tell whether Lil Nas X will be able to avoid one-hit wonder status, although the machinations of the modern music industry certainly make it easier to avoid instant obscurity after a single takes off. Even if the success of “Old Town Road” is never repeated, its creator is now on a major label, which is no doubt already strategizing how to keep him in the spotlight past its expiration date. More singles, new collaborations and a debut album could all already be in the works. Even if Lil Nas X never hits another home run, he’ll certainly receive several more swings of the bat beyond his debut hit.

Ross Scarano: Deploying country signifiers in a song that has a music video made up of Red Dead Redemption footage, with lyrics that have spawned a meme on TikTok just as the app is starting to reach its tipping point, amidst lots of good online joking and thinkpiecing about the Yee Haw Agenda? “Old Town Road” is the definition of unrepeatable. However, Lil Nas X’s other music indicates that he’s a canny listener, interested in playing with other sounds and styles (check his bounce-inspired single “Grab That”). He’s funny and seems curious. Solid recipe for continued success.

4. What other hit song from recent years does “Old Town Road” most remind you of?

Tatiana Cirisano: Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams.” Both are career-launching, somber rap songs that borrow a rock sample (Sting for Juice, Nine Inch Nails for Nas) and interpolate genres we might not expect to find in a hip-hop song. Both songs were the artist’s first commercial hit, too, and sprung seemingly out of thin air, benefitting from a younger swath of listeners who aren't afraid to embrace a sound that’s a little off-center. That said, “Lucid Dreams” stands to be the more impactful of the two -- I don’t see “Old Town Road” vying for No. 1 on the Hot 100 as “Dreams” did.

Bianca Gracie: This is quite recent, but Pinkfong's "Baby Shark" immediately comes to mind. It was (and still remains) a viral dance movement with kids that somehow ended up biting into the Hot 100. Much like “Baby Shark,” “Old Town Road” is quickly becoming its own phenomenon. These memes aren’t going to stop any time soon!

Carl Lamarre: Lil Tracy's "Like a Farmer" comes to mind. From the ad-libs to the accent, to the actual lyrics ("He want beef, I'ma have to get him slaughtered"), "Like a Farmer" was the perfect gumbo of country and trap. What's even better is Tracy's "Like a Farmer (Remix)" with Lil Uzi Vert, whose ode to the everyday farmer spiced up the record: "Yes, I have a tractor; you don't like to fly/ Took her on a trip to Texas, treat it like Dubai."

Jason Lipshutz: This is going back a decade, but I’m going with The Lonely Island’s “I’m On a Boat,” featuring T-Pain. That was an example of three goofballs attempting to satirize hip-hop excess and stumbling into a legitimately good hip-hop song; it even received a Grammy nomination in a rap category. While The Lonely Island paid homage to a genre and then inadvertently scored a hit within it, Lil Nas X has inverted their game, honored country tropes as a rap outsider looking in, and been able to ride those tropes to achieve unexpected success. Just think of “Ridin' on a horse, ha, you can whip your Porsche” as a spiritual sequel to “You can't stop me, motherfucker, 'cause I'm on a boat.”

Ross Scarano: On a conceptual level, “Old Town Road” is a sort of photo negative of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” Skip to the oft-quoted “horses in the back” line and you have a black artist affecting a twangy “white”-sounding voice, with lyrics deploying country music and Western movie stereotypes crossed with hip-hop references. It’s humorous and ironic. Just like Iggy Azalea explaining how real she is.

5. Ignoring everything about its viral takeoff and fascinating cultural crossover: On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate “Old Town Road” as a song?

Tatiana Cirisano: I give it a 5. “Old Town Road” strikes me as one of those unavoidable hits you try to roll your eyes at, but sooner or later, it just gets you. The chorus is an undeniable earworm, and Nas’ delivery of those first few lines (“I got the horses in the back…”) slaps. There’s something weirdly charming in this sad tale about a lonesome cowboy. Still, the rapper seems to be running out of country references by the second verse (“bull ridin’ and boobies”?), at which point the track loses its steam. And Nas’ quasi-country accent sounds just an inflection too forced (Kurt Vile called, he wants his shtick back).

Bianca Gracie: I’ll give it an 8, only because I wish it played longer. “Old Town Road” is bloody catchy and so humorous. I can’t remember the last time a rap song, or any song for that matter, made me physically laugh out loud with actual joy and not awkward cringe. Young rappers are currently weighing the genre down with somber melodies with lyrics to match, so I commend Lil Nas X for breaking the mold a bit with something this fun and refreshing. 

Carl Lamarre: "Cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty"?! That's makes the song an automatic 10 for me. I'm sure Wrangler is currently seeing an excellent sales boost from that name drop alone. 

Jason Lipshutz: A 4. The overly affected drawl, anonymous trap beat and cliched cowboy lyrics in the main section of the song all read as novelty to me; as soon as Lil Nas X spits, “I got the horses in the back/ Horse tack is attached,” I’m out. Which is a shame, because the intro and outro, in which the titular phrase is exalted over a gentle mix of strumming and finger-picking, is pretty beguiling on its own. That repeated snippet could, in fact, stand on its own as a great country-adjacent tune if it had been filled out the right way, and not with what sounds like parody rap. There aren’t many songs that possess the structure and sound of “Old Town Road,” which should be acknowledged… but it also doesn’t mean that I’ll be saddling up to it anytime soon.

Ross Scarano: Let's say 6. The song is cleverer than it needs to be, the porch line in particular, and doesn’t out-stay its welcome. But of the Lil Nas X songs I’ve heard, it’s not the one I’m most interested in.