On the infectious chorus of his latest single “Industry Baby,” Lil Nas X rapped that “I told you long ago on the road, I got what they waiting for.” It was a fun callback, winking at his breakthrough 2019 single “Old Town Road,” which dominated pop culture throughout its unprecedented 19-week reign atop the BillboardHot 100. It also let fans know that the debut album they’d been clamoring for, Montero, was on its way.
Well, Montero is finally here, and it was more than worth the wait.
Throughout his stunning new album, Lil Nas X takes big artistic swings: When you’re expecting him to go right and deliver a massive, stadium-ready pop-rap anthem, he jerks left, instead offering you an emotional R&B introspection into the nature of his stardom, his past, and his potential for growth. He then shows off that he can also do sad rock, emo, pure pop, and even a little bit of pop-punk for good measure. The album bursts with variety, as Lil Nas goes out of his way to show off his creative versatility, and it pays off in dividends.
But more than anything else, Montero serves as a comprehensive statement from Lil Nas X about the nature of his very existence in the pop industry. Never shying away from tougher topics such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and homophobia, Montero tells the story of a star who skyrocketed to fame, coming to terms with the simultaneous ubiquity and isolation of his stardom. Nowhere on the album does Lil Nas hide who he is for the sake of making another “big song.” He instead strips away the window dressing, and allows us to enter his world for a blissful 42 minutes.
Below, Billboard takes a first look through Lil Nas X’s phenomenal debut album Montero, ranking each of the songs as we go:
15. “The Art of Realization”
Sometimes, you need a brief transition, and in that sense, “The Art of Realization” works just fine. But we’re here to rank songs, so naturally, the album’s only interlude is going to land right at the bottom of our list.
14. “Life After Salem”
Introducing some sad rock late into the album, “Life After Salem” is a brooding ode to heartbreak and betrayal, as Lil Nas X asks his lover why they’re still trying to make this work. The morose track certainly accomplishes its task, offering up yet another musical flavor for Lil Nas to play around with as he self-sabotages his relationship. But in the grand scheme of an album as wide-ranging and ambitious as Montero, “Life After Salem” ends up leaving a little something to be desired.
13. “Lost in the Citadel”
In yet another act of genre versatility from Lil Nas X, “Lost in the Citadel” sees him taking on just a hint of pop-rock for an anthem of heartbreak. As the tempo kicks up, the star takes on a thin layer of angst as he looks back on a relationship that’s been left in the dust. The added guitar strains give the song a little something different from the rest of the album, but not quite different enough to turn “Lost in the Citadel” into a standout. Still, though, the pain in Lil Nas’ voice as he wails “I need time to get up and get off the floor” sticks the landing.
12. “One of Me (feat. Elton John)”
Lil Nas X has certainly made a career out of letting haters know where they can stick their criticism. But on “One of Me,” featuring pop legend Sir Elton John accompanying on the piano, the 22-year-old singer instead takes on the role of his critics, laying common critiques such as “I don’t see you lasting long,” or “You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go” over a gorgeous, dramatic pop soundscape. The track never quite treads into maudlin territory, remaining sincere throughout as Lil Nas clarifies the toll that constant denunciation can take on a person.
11. “Am I Dreaming (feat. Miley Cyrus)”
Typically, you’d see a debut project like Montero end with something of a bang. Then again, since when has the word “typical” ever applied to Lil Nas X? “Am I Dreaming,” the ethereal final track of the album, refuses to resolve the story of Montero with an upbeat banger. Instead, we get Lil Nas X, an acoustic guitar, and a guest verse from Miley Cyrus, as they survey the nature of their own respective past while begging you to “never forget me, like I’m your favorite song.” It’s an eerie, but ultimately beautiful way for Lil Nas X to close out this chapter of his discography — and it will almost certainly have you wanting to listen back for anything else you might have missed.
Did you not know you needed a semi-emo song courtesy of Lil Nas X? “Void” quickly establishes that, yes, you did in fact need to hear it — the indie guitar glissandos kick in as the 22-year-old goes on a hypnotizing journey into some love letters he’s sending to someone else (a long lost love? an old friend? himself in the future?). The track picks up steam as Nas falters between confidence in his love for the subject of his letters and his own sense of loneliness, showing off his vocal range as the song ramps up the emotional stakes. “Void” takes its titular empty space and fills it in with a stunning confessional that will have you reaching for the tissues.
9. “Scoop (feat. Doja Cat)”
When you hear that Lil Nas X and Doja Cat are collaborating on a song, you know that you’re in for some good, stupid fun. That’s exactly what “Scoop” delivers, as the pair spit bars back and forth about getting in shape so that they can get down with their significant others. It’s Take a Daytrip’s sharp production that shines in particular on “Scoop,” with a glistening guitar line taking center stage before the thundering bass is sparingly (but effectively) brought in to drop the chorus right into the dopamine center of your brain. Give it a few weeks, and just watch how quickly “Scoop” becomes TikTok’s newest trend. Based on sound alone, it’s almost guaranteed to hit it big on the app.
8. “Dead Right Now”
One of the more sobering confessionals on Montero, “Dead Right Now” sees Lil Nas addressing his past failures, his strained relationship with his mother and his fear of failure. The rapper details conversations with his father describing his chances as “one in a million,” before rebuking his former naysayers who are suddenly claiming to be in his corner. The down-tempo track takes a moment to adjust to, especially as it comes right after the dance-inducing “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” but once you lock into the unrelenting beat, the morphing synths and the fanfares populating the background, “Dead Right Now” takes shape as a heartbreaking, deftly executed entry that sounds as though it was practically ripped out of the pages of Lil Nas’ own diary.
7. “Dolla Sign Slime (ft. Megan Thee Stallion)”
Where “Industry Baby” sees Lil Nas X clapping back at his detractors, “Dolla Sign Slime” finds him putting them in their place before they even have a chance to speak. The grooving song is gloating done right, with Lil Nas X doling out his accomplishments and proclaiming he’s at the “top of the game, only twenty two,” before dismissively sneering “look at me, n—a, they ain’t look at you.”
The song is like a relaxed but more-boisterous part two to “Baby,” with the triumphant trumpets from the single now being replaced with softer staccato horns, as Nas makes it clear that he doesn’t need to be loud to be right. But the cherry on top of this flex comes when rap star Megan Thee Stallion unleashes a fiery verse, spouting off her accolades before making it clear that she is the new blueprint: “Baby, all these hoes imitate me,” she spits. “You gon’ f— a stan or the real Slim Shady?” From the jump, “Dolla Sign Slime” drips with ego as Lil Nas X hands himself the crown.
6. “Tales of Dominica”
On the contemplative “Tales of Dominica,” Lil Nas shows his own anxieties with no hesitation, owning up to the insecurities that can plague him from day to day. Harkening back to lead single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” the song fluctuates between the flamenco sensibility of Spanish guitar to subtle synth-pop as Lil Nas X describes a dreamlike world where he’s “floating in an oceanless sea” and contemplating the turns of fate that got him where he is. With swelling strings and an emotional message at its core, “Dominica” ultimately stuns as an enthralling track that’ll send you deep into your own thoughts, tackling those very same subjects to the sound of Lil Nas X’s own introspection.
5. “Sun Goes Down”
It may have been overshadowed by the two behemoth singles that came before and after it, but when you take another listen to “Sun Goes Down,” you’ll see Lil Nas X’s emotional songwriting at its very sharpest. With a blissed-out guitar accompanying the star, this hard-won retrospective on growing up queer, contemplating suicide and ultimately prevailing lands like a knife in the heart. “Sun Goes Down” was one of the early indicators that Lil Nas X is much more than a certified hitmaker — he’s an artist with a specific, clear vision of the message he wants to send. And more than most songs, “Sun Goes Down” delivers the message beautifully.
4. “That’s What I Want”
While there should be no longer be any shred of doubt that Lil Nas X’s music handily fits in both the categories of pop and hip-hop, “That’s What I Want” stands out as the star’s most pop-friendly single yet. Penned with bona fide pop hitmaker Ryan Tedder, “That’s What I Want” dials the dreamy aesthetic up to 11, as Lil Nas X wails over a thrumming acoustic guitar and some glittering keyboards that he’s on the lookout for the perfect partner. Lyrics like “It don’t feel right when it’s late at night/ And it’s just me in my dreams” may sound as though they’ve been pulled directly from the pop playbook, but Lil Nas X sells it with a stunning ease, declaring once and for all, “That’s what I f—ing want.”
3. “Industry Baby (feat. Jack Harlow)”
Make no mistake: “Industry Baby” is much more than a victory lap for Lil Nas X. From the opening brass fanfare to the final strain of the song’s chorus, Lil Nas X’s defiant single was the final nail in the coffin of anyone who still wanted to detract from his accolades. Lil Nas deftly switches into full-on hip-hop to flex on literally everyone who ever doubted him, before declaring during his second verse that he is, after all, a “pop n—a like Bieber.” The simple, drumline-infused production from Kanye West and Take a Daytrip adds necessary drama to the stunning single, while Jack Harlow’s verse gives some variety (and one of Harlow’s best outings) on a song that you just can’t help but dance to.
But of course, that wasn’t enough to satiate Lil Nas X’s appetite for chaos, so he unveiled the music video, featuring shower scenes, causal prison breaks, and some top-tier dancing, all to continue pissing off anyone who remains uncomfortable with his presence in pop music. “Industry Baby” still stands as one of his most enigmatic songs, even amidst an album’s worth of certified bops.
2. “Don’t Want It”
“I’m f—-n’ living proof that if you want it, you can have anything right before your eyes.” On an album as surprisingly pensive as Montero, finding this gem of a statement embedded at the end of the first verse on “Don’t Want It” is a bit of a wake-up call. This thrumming, pitch-perfect hip-hop track excellently encapsulates the dichotomy of Lil Nas X and his outstanding debut album.
In one breath, the rapper is touting his accolades once again, even playing clips of himself hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100 and taking home Grammy awards. In the next, he’s singing about being stuck in the same patterns of sadness and apathy. He switches effortlessly between these two ideals, as the bumping production (from Nick Mira, DT and Take a Daytrip) skillfully weaves an interpolation of “Hush, Little Baby” between the infectious beats and ground-shaking bass. By the time Lil Nas announces that he’s going to “tell the reaper he don’t want it,” he’s already made clear that “Don’t Want It” is one of his best showings yet.
1. “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”
If anyone ever doubted whether or not Lil Nas X would be able to transition the viral success of “Old Town Road” into a sustained, chart-topping presence in the global music industry, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” provided them with a swift, unilateral answer. Months after the song and controversial music video dominated practically every pop culture conversation, the titular track off of the rapper’s debut album still stands as his best song to date. The mesmerizing, flamenco-inspired production — courtesy of Omer Fedi, Take a Daytrip and Roy Lenzo — takes new creative strides for the young star’s discography, and manages to spin pure gold out of relatively simple musical concepts.
But more than simply working as a certifiably excellent pop song, “Montero” also carries with it a powerful message to the rest of the world that most of the vitriolic comments following its release seemed to conveniently miss. More than practically any artist who came before him, Lil Nas X has made his identity as a gay man an inextricable part of his public image, his humor, and his music. He’s gone out of his way to ensure that his success is never in spite of his sexuality, but rather, in part, a byproduct of it. In the song’s lyrics, Lil Nas X takes gay romance, love and sex, and places them at the forefront, daring anyone to question the validity of his feelings. When zealous homophobes declare that he’s “going to hell” simply for being who he is, he releases a music video of himself pole dancing down into the fiery pits, and offering the devil a quick lap dance. He proclaims his queerness loudly and without shame, while simultaneously refusing to compromise the musical integrity of the song.
At its core, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is a song about creating a world for yourself where you can love by your own rules. And it’s for that reason that it will stand not only as one of Lil Nas X’s greatest artistic achievements, but also as a subversive turning point for the music industry at large.