On Tuesday, March 30, Lil Nas X’s head was in his hands as he fought back tears.
For four days, he had been sitting at the center of the biggest entertainment controversy on the internet, as thousands of conservatives railed against the satanic imagery in his new music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” Meanwhile, Nike was filing a lawsuit in response to his Satan Sneakers, which contained droplets of human blood. For a second, it seemed the blowback was getting to him.
“I’ve been trying to act like everything’s OK, but the truth is...” he told his followers during an Instagram livestream, struggling to make it through the sentence. Then he tried again, sniffling, “I’ve been trying to act like everything’s OK, but the truth is...” This time, Nas X pulled his hand away from his face, flashed a smile, and yelled, “I want everybody to stream ‘Call Me By Your Name!’” Dancing around his room with an arm raised high in the air, he hollered, “Ayyyyyyy, let’s gooooo!”
He knew exactly what he was doing. Roughly 100 hours into the rollout for “Montero,” Lil Nas X had everyone where he wanted them. For nine months, he had been carefully strategizing every step of the elaborate marketing plan, and his tactics were working. He was in the midst of a legendary run of clapbacks in response to close-minded critics, who ranged from conservative pastors to Fox News anchors to whatever you want to classify Joyner Lucas as. Two years after riding controversy to historic success with “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X was the most talked-about person on the internet again. Exactly like he planned. Just a few days later, the song debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to admit that Lil Nas X isn’t a one-hit wonder. With “Old Town Road” follow-ups like the five-times platinum 2019 single “Panini,” he had already proven his ability to keep making catchy songs. But this past week, Nas X made something else very clear: he’s one of the best internet marketers we’ve ever seen in music.
Explaining his pre-release mindset to Anthony Fantano during an interview on March 31, Nas X said, “I was like, ‘I’m gonna put this out and I’m going to fucking milk the shit out of this.’ I’m going to have fun with it, too. Nobody is about to beat me at this internet shit. I don’t care who they are.”
There were many aspects of his rollout plan, but the most talked-about part was the satanic troll. By showing himself descending to hell in the music video, Nas X flipped long-running homophobic narratives on their head, exposing the hypocrisies of many conservatives in the process. As the song’s co-producer duo Take a Daytrip pointed out on Twitter, “To all those outraged y’all do realize if no one ever said that ‘all gay people go to hell’ and instead treated the LGBTQ community equally in the eyes of God that there would’ve never been a Satan shoe or a music video that depicts Satan in it… Right?
Just like the “Old Town Road” Billboard chart controversy helped Nas X build buzz, the backlash to the satanic imagery in the “Montero” rollout only brought him more attention. And it was all by design. Speaking with Fantano, he admitted that he saw the reactions from conservatives like Candace Owens coming a mile away.
“She fell right into the trap, I guess,” he said. Then he added, “Of course I want to piss some people off with this, but I also want to make a point with this, too.”
Lil Nas X is aware that the totality of viral tweets about “Montero” will be seen by more people than the video itself, so his job wasn’t done on release day. By baiting conservatives and pointing out the flaws in their logic online, he was continuing the conversation he started in the video, and doubling down on the initial point in even more effective ways. The backlash became part of the art.
The trolling was only the tip of Nas X’s internet marketing iceberg, though. Since the song dropped, he’s been deploying little tricks that most artists wouldn’t consider in a rollout like this. On March 29, for example, he tweeted, “wow can’t believe they said this,” and dropped a mysterious-looking link. When fans clicked, it auto-populated a tweet for them to share that said, “this satan 👺 shit is so sad 😪 wtf! im never letting my kids 👨👩👧👧 listen to lil nas x’s new smash hit single “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) 👎🏾 which has a new version out right now on all streaming🎶 platforms!!! 🤬 ”
Many of his followers shared it, adding to the hype and controversy around the song. The trick utilized Twitter’s intent tweet feature, a functionality that only an artist with Nas X’s second-nature relationship with the internet would think to use.
Meanwhile, he was in the midst of uploading a series of follow-up “Montero” videos to his YouTube channel. The first, titled “MONTERO but ur in the bathroom of hell while lil nas is giving satan a lap dance in the other room,” features a distorted version of the song that sounds like it’s coming through the walls of a nightclub, while a static image of a crimson-lit bathroom displays on the screen. A day later, as the satanic backlash heated up, Nas X leaned into the controversy by uploading a video titled “SATAN’S EXTENDED VERSION” and an instrumental version called, “Lil Nas X – MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) [But Lil Nas X Is Silent The Entire Time].” Finally, on April 5, he uploaded a behind-the-scenes video with the title, “[Official Video except its not the official video at all].”
Joke uploads like these show up on meme accounts whenever a song gets popular (who can forget classics like “Gucci Gang but it’s been Google Translated over 500 times”?) but we’ve rarely seen an artist use them on their own YouTube channels to bring extra attention to their work. It wasn’t the only trick he pulled from the page of YouTubers, either. Early in the week, he uploaded a fake apology for his Satan Sneakers, riffing on the history of incincere apologies from disgraced YouTubers.
As most of us have realized by now, of course, Lil Nas X isn’t like other artists. His internet rollout plans aren’t an afterthought; they’re a key part of the whole experience. On its own, “Montero” is a catchy song, but it wouldn’t have made the same level of cultural impact if it weren’t for everything that came after its release. The song served as a catalyst for Nas X to make cultural statements in real time as people reacted to it, all while drawing more attention to the music. When it comes to Lil Nas X releases, the song is only one part of the equation.
As the rest of the music industry struggles to adapt to the evolving internet landscape, Nas X is 10 steps ahead. Labels are still following the remix-heavy, TikTok-oriented blueprint he laid out with “Old Town Road,” but he’s already leaving that behind (he told Fantano that “Montero” won’t have a bunch of remixes) as he pursues new methods.
While “Montero” sits at No. 1 this week, he’s continuing to roll out new aspects of his marketing campaign, releasing mobile games (Twerk Hero), encouraging meme joke formats on Twitter (“my mom took my phone away so now i have to watch the call me by your name music video on my [insert outdated piece of technology]”), starting various trends and challenges, sharing Minecraft skits, promising to collaborate with fans who created heavy metal covers of the song, and more.
Lil Nas X understands better than anyone that fans don’t just want to listen to music in 2021. They want to engage with it, reinterpret it, and use it to create something of their own. He knows that the work has only just begun when a song hits streaming services, and there are opportunities to create controversy, spawn memes, create viral challenges, and inspire thinkpieces like the one you’re reading right now.
It’s all working for Nas X. Each day, “Montero” continues to outpace itself on Spotify, climbing to No. 1 on the global charts and setting new career bests for the 22-year-old rapper. In the process, he’s positioned himself as the most internet savvy artist of his time. We’ve seen rappers like Drake come along and adapt to the internet extremely well, using it as a tool to make himself stronger, but Nas X is different. It’s obvious how much social media molded him as an artist (especially when you factor in his alleged start as a Nicki Minaj stan account and Tweetdecker). He didn’t need to adapt to social media. He was born on it.
Our introduction to Lil Nas X was as a forward-thinking artist who disregarded antiquated ideas about genres. What he might end up being remembered for the most is becoming one of the first artists to really understand how to take full advantage of the social media era. Musicians have always been lauded for their ability to reflect the times, and Lil Nas X might be the most extreme reflection of the social media era in music right now. Of course, there are downsides to social media-first artists. No one wants cheap gimmicks to take precedence over the music itself, and we’ve already seen the dark side of internet troll rappers like Tekashi 6ix9ine. What makes Lil Nas X’s “Montero” rollout exciting, though, is the way he was able to extend the artistry of the video into the marketing plan, while communicating an important political message. If he can keep pulling off stunts like that, he’ll have staying power. The talk of a short career will stop.
“This is a testament that I can always make it happen,” he told Fantano. “If something happened once, then you never know if it’ll happen again. But if something happened twice, then it’s bound to happen a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth time. I’m looking for a long, successful career, and that’s what I’m going to have. There’s really nothing that’s going to get in my way of that.”