Lil Nas X Faces the Likability Trap

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Written By Pinang Driod

The comeback single for the prankish rapper Lil Nas X has flopped in the best way possible: by debuting, on the Billboard Hot 100, at No. 69. “We did it boys!” he posted on X (formerly Twitter) upon news of the song’s chart placement. “We reached the funny number. be very proud of yourselves. this is our moment!”

The response was perfectly Lil Nas X—incorrigible, lovable, and a little sad. He’s been on a winning streak since 2018, when, as a previously unknown teenager, his track “Old Town Road” became the No. 1 song in the United States for a record-setting 19 weeks. Subsequent smashes, released after he took the PR risk of coming out as gay, have disproved speculation that he’d be a one-hit wonder. And although his knack for slapstick TikToks and tweets have made him a cultural jester of sorts, he also earned a Grammy Album of the Year nomination for his surprisingly solemn, emo-ish debut, Montero.

Now, however, he’s taking a loss in public. His first new song in two years, “J. CHRIST,” didn’t just fail to launch in popularity after its January 12 release. Its video—featuring Nas dressed up as sexy Jesus, sexy Moses, and sexy Noah—caused so much offense among Christians that Nas felt compelled to apologize. “I know I messed up really bad this time,” he said in a four-minute Instagram video that also addressed his marketing stunt of gorging on communion wafers. “And I can act unbothered all I want, but it’s definitely taking a mental toll on me.”

The career hiccup arrives just in time for a new HBO documentary, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero, out this past weekend. Like a lot of recent films about pop stars that were produced with their subject’s involvement, it’s basically a highlights reel presented as revealing journalism. But watch close and you see signs of generational and personal tensions that are catching up to Nas. He’s a provocateur, a troll, an individualist … but he also really, really wants to be liked.

His intrinsic likability is the main thing the documentary has going for it: Nas’s expressive face, quick wit, and talent for self-deprecation command nearly every frame. Preparing for his first-ever world tour in 2022—it was staged as a three-act hip-hopera, with dancers in skimpy, fairy-tale looks—he’s frank about his performance anxieties. After he screws up at one dance rehearsal, he explains, “My mind is hardwired since a kid that when you fuck up, like, one time, then it’s kind of like, you have to quit the whole thing. You know, I was always a brat growing up.”

That “brat” clearly accumulated baggage during his childhood in Georgia, judging by the movie’s portrayal of his relationship with his family. His father, stepmother, and brothers all appear to now support him in his efforts to be the gayest celebrity alive—but Nas worries that they secretly disapprove and are humoring him only because he’s an “asset” financially. This isn’t exactly challenged by one brother saying, “We used to have a love-hate relationship. As we grow, we start liking each other more. And then, boom, he got rich. Oh! There you go.”

Nas is especially anxious about his father, a gospel singer. When Nas came out, the star recalls, his dad suggested that the devil might be tempting him into sin. He and his dad are on good terms now, and Nas says he “understood” the judgmental response: “I mean, you gotta think about it. Your son gets rich and famous, and suddenly he’s gay. It just sounds like all of the things [that] the YouTube things warn you about.”

The attitudes of people like his father clearly inspired Nas’s 2021 hit “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” whose video featured the rapper giving Satan a lap dance. That this allegory for sexual awakening might offend groups who already weren’t inclined to cheer for a gay, Black man should have come as no surprise—but Nas seems fascinated by the disapproval of conservatives. When protesters turn up outside one show in the documentary, Nas reflects that their commitment to their cause is “kind of dope.” He even sends them pizza (albeit topped with pineapple). Viewers get the impression that he feels like he can solve any problem, including homophobia, with enough charm and smarts.

This attitude is recognizable. Explaining Nas’s significance to the gay community, one fan in the documentary gives this testimony: “All my life, I was trying to be perfect, get the perfect grades, be the perfect son. I thought that being perfect would make up for this one flaw.” The fan is describing the “best little boy in the world” syndrome that a lot of queer people develop, trying to counteract unmeetable cultural expectations for how they should live their life. Making peace with other people’s disapproval is hard for anyone; one can imagine how difficult it might be for a social-media star whose career is built on attracting likes.

Nas’s mastery of meme-ry has, in fact, given him another source of approval anxiety: internet commenters’ accusations that he’s more gimmick than artist. Long Live Montero presents his dedication to nailing his tour choreography as an effort to prove these haters wrong, but the film could have delved more into what makes him distinct as a musician. Montero really was a remarkable debut album, wrestling vividly with suicidal thoughts and the loneliness of growing up queer. On Nas’s hits to date, his gruff voice and oddball production lend the slightest swish to the overblown masculinity of mainstream hip-hop, striking the ear as novel. He’s famous in large part because he’s writing clever new standards in a homoerotic tradition: the jock jam.

“J. CHRIST” is definitely a jock jam—you can tell because its video features a basketball match between him and Satan. But it fizzled because it’s a work of triangulation, trying and failing to solve the equation for universal appeal. The musical choices are familiar, and the lyrics are so self-aware as to be empty: “Is he ’bout to give ’em somethin’ viral?” Its video’s biblical references are clearly trolling, but they’re also mismatched, pointless, carrying none of the delightful shock of his past work (though the angelic cheerleader outfits he and his dancers wear are pretty fresh). This is apparently on purpose: In a number of joking-but-maybe-not-joking posts before the single’s release, Nas said he wanted to repent for his past sinfulness. That’s why, he has said, he’s now dunking on Satan rather than grinding on him.

It’s valid to question the sincerity of someone who recently forged Jerry Falwell Sr.’s signature for laughs on Instagram—but Nas seems earnest when he says, as he does repeatedly in Long Live Montero, that he’s on a spiritual journey. “J. CHRIST” presents itself as a step on that journey, but it feels more like a detour, reacting to external inputs rather than putting forth an updated vision of who he wants to be. Of course, the life of a pop revolutionary is never straightforward: One segment of the documentary spotlights Little Richard as a predecessor in public queerness; what’s unmentioned is that he ping-ponged between provocation and piousness for decades.

Nas’s growing pains are poignant because, on some level, they’re not just his own. He’s part of a generation that has largely spurned organized religion, has found validation in online self-expression, and is now—after just a quarter century of life—worried that it’s “aging like milk.” On “Where Do We Go Now?” a new ballad that plays over Long Live Montero’s credits, Nas sings, “I just wanna be somebody new inside.” It sounds like a plea to be born again, as someone whose meaning comes from within.

Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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