For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 2. we remember the year in Lil Nas X — a singular pop-rap sensation who laid any remaining doubts about his longevity to rest.
Colossal debut singles are often a double-edged sword – at once, launching an artist out of the shadows of obscurity, while also threatening to devour them whole. When the colossal debut single in question is the historic “Old Town Road,” the stakes — namely, the viability of Lil Nas X as a pop star and career artist — are at the highest they’ll ever get.
With a staggering 19 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the distinction of earning an RIAA diamond certification faster than any other song in history, “Old Town Road” was incomprehensibly massive – though due to the presence of some comedic lyrics and its cheeky combination of country and rap tropes, many listeners largely dismissed it as a novelty success. His subsequent debut EP 7 spawned a less-culture-shifting hit in “Panini” and was nominated for album of the year at the 2020 Grammys, but drew mixed reviews and left some listeners unconvinced about his long-term prospects.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 1: Taylor Swift
Lil Nas X closed 2020 in a state of limbo. “Holiday,” his first post-7 single, drew relatively paltry success in comparison to “Old Town Road” — peaking at No. 37, and providing extra fuel for the “one-hit wonder” (or, for those who noted that “Panini” also hit the Hot 100’s top 5, “two-hit wonder”) whispers that trailed his name. And then came 2021.
At the top of the year, Lil Nas starred in a Logitech Super Bowl commercial soundtracked by the then-unreleased “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” a song named after Lil Nas’ real name to preview the stark personal pivot of his songwriting for this track and his imminent debut album of the same name. This strategy, using snippets of future singles in the background of various ads and TikToks, became one of Lil Nas’s biggest assets on his road to dominating the year. And once it was released in March, “Call By Your Name” was more than a juggernaut — it was the single largest pop culture moment of the early year. Blasting in at No. 1 on the Hot 100, “Call Me By Your Name” harnessed the indestructible power of an irresistible hook combined with a bombastic visual.
Produced by Take a Daytrip and Omer Fedi, “Call Me by Your Name” married notes of flamenco with a foundation of handclap-accented pop-rap. The infectious single was simultaneously an introduction to a new musical era for Lil Nas and a joyous (if lyrically melancholy) ode to Black queerness that toed the line of autobiography. With fans already hungry for the song thanks to the months-long snippet campaign on TikTok, “Call Me by Your Name” was received ravenously by fans – who kept it in the Hot 100’s top 10 for 19 weeks.
It was the accompanying music video, however, that cemented Lil Nas as one of the most controversial and singular figures in entertainment for 2021. The Tanu Muino-directed clip is a tapestry of subverted cultural and religious scenes (Garden of Eden, the Coliseum, Marie Antoinette), complete with Lil Nas giving Satan a Calvin Klein-clad lap dance. Naturally, controversy, moral outrage and social media chaos ensued – but ultimately, a child of the Internet will always beat trolls at their own game. Lil Nas deftly utilized his meme prowess and clapback abilities to vanquish his detractors while promoting the song. Only someone truly adept at social media could conquer the towering legal backlash of those blood-laden Satan Shoes. (Then again, there’s nothing that a good Spongebob meme can’t fix.) “I had nine months to plan this rollout,” he taunted conservatives and other haters as the arrows flew in his direction. “Y’all are not gonna win bro.”
One of the most important hallmarks of pop superstardom is the ability to craft seismic culture-shifting moments like “Call Me By Your Name.” Conversely, the smaller moments that display considerable musical growth for a star still figuring out his sound are equally as important. In May, Lil Nas dropped the first promotional single for Montero: “Sun Goes Down.” The cathartic and autobiographical dream-pop number showcased a more vulnerable side of his artistry ahead of his debut album. With heartbreaking lyrics like “Always thinkin’, ‘Why my lips so big?/Was I too dark? Can they sense my fears?’,” Lil Nas granted us a peek into a completely different side of his artistry.
Later that month, Lil Nas made his SNL debut complete with raunchy choreography and a wardrobe malfunction – a rite of passage that always marks the arrival of a newly established pop superstar. The next month, Lil Nas graced the BET Awards stage for a “Remember The Time” era Michael Jackson-inspired rendition of “Call Me By Your Name” topped off by a steamy gay kiss. His performance at that ceremony challenged the specific brand of homophobia within the Black and hip-hop communities, while also etching him into the lineage of iconic pop stars like Jackson.
Lil Nas X’s existence at the crux of conversations concerning several different genres (country, rap, pop, etc.) has always set him apart. But with the debut of “Industry Baby” in July, Lil Nas traded the digestible Top 40 crooning of “Call Me By Your Name” for swaggering rap verses, effervescent horns, and a Jack Harlow feature — emerging as Lil Nas’s most straightforward hip-hop radio single yet. Entering at No. 2 on the Hot 100, the Kanye West-produced “Baby” was another irrefutable success for Lil Nas X.
In just four months, Lil Nas launched two of the year’s biggest singles – and both with excellent music videos to match. The Christian Breslauer-helmed clip found Lil Nas breaking out of Montero State Prison while polishing his Grammys and seamlessly executing Sean Bankhead choreography along the way. Despite this being a more traditional rap single with a straight male co-star, Lil Nas refused to dim any part of himself for the sake of palatability, hence the clip’s memorable all-male nude shower scene.
The song also featured the union of Lil Nas and a peer who also has social media in the palm of his hands — Jack Harlow. The “Whats Poppin” rapper’s looks and charisma (“I didn’t peak in high school, I’m still out here gettin’ cuter”) have earned him new legions of fans on TikTok and Twitter, just like Lil Nas. The pair’s vibrant joint performance of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards set the stage for his three wins at the ceremony including Video of the Year for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).”
Nothing tests the stability of an artist’s star like an album release – since hit singles don’t always translate into blockbuster albums. But upon its release in September, Montero put any such worries to rest, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 126,000 equivalent units; it was held from No. 1 only by Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, the biggest album of the year at the time. The revelatory album featured collaborations with such superstar guests as Elton John, Doja Cat, Miley Cyrus and Megan Thee Stallion. Critics greeted Montero with rave reviews, a reception reemphasized by the album’s seven total Grammy nominations in November, including album of the year (Montero) and record and song of the Year (“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”).
Alongside the album’s launch, “Industry Baby” vaulted to No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming Lil Nas’s third career No. 1 hit. In addition, “Thats What I Want” emerged as the album’s next burgeoning hit, debuting at No. 10 on the Hot 100, while the Doja Cat-assisted “Scoop” became an instant fan favorite. At every turn, Lil Nas embarrassed his detractors this year — especially particularly obsessive ones like Boosie Badazz, a rapper that has relentlessly launched homophobic attacks at Lil Nas throughout the year.
In such a crowded pop arena, it is more difficult than ever to truly dominate a whole year. Lil Nas X, however, has done so from January to December. From a hilarious Maury spoof to a making TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021, Lil Nas X defined the year. He conquered 2021 by being his most authentic self, smartly utilizing his innate understanding of the Internet, and making songs that were simply undeniable. The crazy thing is, at 23 with just one full-length album under his belt, he’s clearly just warming up. A year ago, some were quick to say it was the end for him, but with 2021 on its way out, Lil Nas proved that he’ll go and do it again and again and again.
Later today: Billboard names our greatest pop star of 2021.