Magical things keep happening to Lil Nas X. Crazy, serendipitous things. Take last Sunday, just two days before his 20th birthday: He's sitting in the stands at L.A.'s Staples Center, when out of nowhere the ball in play falls into his possession. "Like literally, I was at the Lakers game, and the ball flew in my hands," he says. "It was just a sign in a way. Or, at least, that's how I felt. And I'm not even a superstitious person, but yeah."
The next day he met an even bigger fate. Having already consumed the nation in a debate over race, genre and their unholy miscegenation over the last century in the music industry, his country-trap ditty "Old Town Road" topped the Billboard Hot 100. It wasn't totally unexpected, especially after he released a twangy remix last Friday featuring another country disrupter, Billy Ray Cyrus. But in the aftermath of Billboard removing "Old Town Road" from the Hot Country Songs chart the week prior — while declaring that the song "does not embrace enough elements of today's country music" — his success proves the gatekeepers comically incapable of reining him in as he hops genres, busts formats and breaks all the old-school taboos.
Every few years it feels like another artist emerges from Atlanta who challenges tradition and reinvents the sound of music. It's something hip-hop heads and pop prognosticators have been hyper-tuned to over the last decade. What we're still learning to grasp is how a generation of digital natives is reconfiguring the way songs are made, marketed, even manipulated online for mass consumption. Lil Nas X happens to be expert at all of the above — an Atlanta-based artist who's an Internet baby, first and foremost, raised on a steady diet of memes. Among the last decade's rotating cast of ATLiens, his blueprint bears more in common with Soulja Boy's early social media sorcery than Future's modulated robocroon.
It took some luck to lasso in everything from the Yeehaw Agenda to a potential cowboy-hat wearing Will Smith for the soon-promised second video, but the real magic behind the college dropout's No. 1 hit might be hidden in his algorithmic skills as a viral meme-maker. New York magazine's politics and tech blog Intelligencer linked him to a suspended Nicki Minaj stan account on Twitter (@nasmaraj), known for creating elaborate choose-your-own-adventure scenario threads and tweetdecking its way to virality. Lil Nas X denied any association with the account during our conversation, but he does admit to being "Internet savvy." His innate understanding of the matrix led him to label "Old Town Road" a country song when he uploaded it to streaming platforms like SoundCloud. But he's less beholden to any radio format than he is to the shape-shifting nature of online identity. It's even inherent in his approach to songwriting. But don't dismiss his musical talent for mere trolling. If the worldwide web is his wild west, he's one black cowboy who's transferred his skills from URL to IRL.
When we spoke by phone on Monday, just a few hours before "Old Town Road" became the No. 1 song on this week's Hot 100, he was in a hotel room in L.A., where he'd been for a week, "making a lot of music, and having a lot of interviews and meetings," he told me during a 25-minute phone call sandwiched into his packed schedule. The only plans he had for his birthday the following day were to "celebrate by being happy where I'm at," he said. He sounded present despite the whirlwind around him, and surprisingly hesitant to claim any credit for capitalizing off of the surrounding controversy — "I never want my name to be more hot because of controversy than my music, but it's also bringing attention, so it's like a blessing and a curse," he said at one point — even as he smartly reaps the benefits.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
A lot of people are calling what happened to you — in terms of Billboard taking down the original song off the country chart — evidence of enduring racism and segregation in the music industry. Did you ever think that your song would spark such a historic cultural moment?
Initially I was like, "I think I'm being discriminated against." But then as I went on to think about it, I felt like it was more of a purist situation, like, "We want this to stay this way." And even though they have a lot of changes going on with country [music] — like a lot of pop country and even the [songs] with trap influence — maybe this was [them saying], "Hey, we let some stuff fly, but this was too far." You feel me?... One of those scared [responses], like, "We don't want this to evolve this far," basically.
Every year there's some new artist that emerges from Atlanta who totally changes how we listen to music. But it seems like you're more of an Internet baby than anything else.
Definitely. That would probably be the best term for me.
What are some of your earliest experiences using the internet?
I started using the Internet heavily right around the time when memes started to become their own form of entertainment. I started to get into every side of the Internet around 13-ish. Not even intentionally, just learning how it works and how to use it to my advantage.
When did music and the Internet begin to intersect for you?
When I started to make music I wasn't as serious at first. I would make some songs that I really felt like making [but] I would make other songs that I felt like people wanted to hear from me. Once I started to make music that I wanted to make, I didn't care at that point. "Old Town Road"'s the peak of me doing whatever I want to do with music. I was like, "This one is special," and I promoted it heavily on my account on Twitter. Then it caught onto Tik Tok, and the rest is history .... I was like, "OK, this is my destiny."
And It looks like you might pull this epic music video off. Will Smith says he's down.
Yeah. This is gonna be insane. Oh, and what's being planned is gonna be perfectly executed. You know, it's Will Smith in like my second music video ever. So that'll be a big upgrade.
You've talked about writing lines that you knew would be meme-able. Which ones stick out?
Even though it's something so simple: "I got the horses in the back." I was like this is gonna be the highlight of the memes right here. And then, "The cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty." ... "Riding on a horse / You can whip your Porsche," I was like, "These are all quotables." I was just doing that the entire month of making the song: "Put this right here ... oh, this is gonna be the best plan ever." And, you know, it worked. So it's a manifestation of itself.
So you worked on it for about a month?
Yeah, just switching melodies and flows in and out, seeing what would fit best. And you know, I had to do that wait time anyway, because whatever way I was making money at that time, it wasn't definitely not a lot. And it was my first studio made song, because I was like this can't be no butt-quality song.
Being that you're pretty crafty on the Internet, I almost have to wonder if you had anything to do with the whole Yeehaw Agenda exploding in recent months?
Yeah, that was crazy. That was definitely not intentional. I didn't even know that was going on at the moment. It was like a fall-into-place thing.
Once you saw it, did you make conscious moves to capitalize on it?
Not necessarily. I was already doing what I was planning on doing for the song. That was just a bonus. That was just luck that that happened.
How intentional have you been in every other step of the way — in terms of releasing the song and labeling it country, milking that controversy when it came about, and then planning the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus?
When I uploaded the song and I labeled it country I knew the song was country-trap, but I feel like if I had to choose — which I had to — I thought it would lean more on the country side. So I labeled it as country. And this is during the time I'm not expecting my song to actually hop up on charts. So, it wasn't intentional. I'm not expecting to have the No. 1 spot on the country charts, but it happened.
Do you consider yourself a fan of country music?
I'm a fan of all genres of music. I have a few country songs I like. I'm not gonna say I'm a huge country fan but, you know, I listen around.
When did you first reach out to Billy Ray Cyrus, and when did y'all record the remix?
December 4th is when I first was like trying to get him on the song through Twitter. I was like, "Everybody retweet this. Please help get Billy Ray on it." But once I got with Columbia [Records], it was easy to get in contact with him. We got together, we did it and it came out amazing. It's like a moment.
What kind of doors do you think the success of the song will open up for what you hope to do next?
It opens several doors for me and it feels like a weight lifted off of my shoulders. It's like I got this now and it's nothing that's gonna stop what's about to happen. So it puts me in a good position.
I'm sure a lot of people are betting on you being a one-hit wonder.
Yeah, definitely, a lot.
I imagine it's because the things that made this song a huge success are also the same things that could end up boxing you in — if you try to duplicate it the sound will get old, but if you don't replicate it people won't recognize you in it. So what's your way around that?
I'm already Internet savvy, so it's nothing to promote. Plus, I have an entire label behind me now. I have my name and I have a growing fan base, so I'm gonna do whatever I want. And I feel like people are gonna like it because people always think they know what they want, but they don't know what they want. So that's always gonna be the situation.
What's your reaction to the theories linking you to the @nasmaraj (Nicki Minaj stan) Twitter account? It would really add an incredible layer to your story if it's true.
It's like a big misunderstanding and it's not one that I even want to give the time, because I'm never putting someone as the face of my career. So I don't even speak on it. I just don't even acknowledge it, really. I know even more things are being made up and they're gonna be out there. It is disappointing when a big blog will post something without me talking about it but, I mean, it happens.
A couple of days ago, you tweeted: "I have been recording a documentary for four months as a social experiment after dropping Old Town Road, and you all are a part of it."
Yeah, I say some things but a lot of times it's as a joke. But the funny thing is I did record a video back in January. I was gonna do videos of "Old Town Road" going up each day, but [realized] I don't have time for that and I don't have the phone space. So that didn't happen. But that tweet was just like comedy.
How do you respond to people that say y'all are taking Lil Nas X too seriously, he's really like trolling the industry, or this is more of a joke to him than it is to us?
I mean, hey, you feel how you wanna feel. I know the truth. And people know the truth. Even if they like ["Old Town Road"] as a joke, they're not liking this as a joke and putting it at No. 1, too, so something's going on.