When Lil Nas X was growing up in the small, conservative community of Lithia Springs outside Atlanta, Georgia, he was sure of two things. One: he wanted to be an entertainer. Two: he would never come out of the closet. Only one of those predictions proved to be true.
As a teenager who blasted SoundCloud rappers in his headphones and spent all his free time scrolling through Twitter, Lil Nas X quickly learned that it was easier to blend in than risk being different. He knew people who had come out at high school, and saw the pain, bullying and homophobia they experienced. He told himself he wasn’t cut out for it. So he dressed in his cousin’s hand-me-downs and, when he could afford them, purchased safe, muted clothes from Zara and H&M. He watched fashion shows on his smartphone, but never thought he would be brave or rich enough to wear such explicitly queer outfits.
Everything seemed like a dream or a movie. It was like the world was playing a prank on me
“The honest truth is, I planned to die with the secret,” Nas says now of his sexuality. We meet two weeks before the California lockdown, and he digs into the plate of spicy fusilli in front of him, a quick lunch at a West Hollywood restaurant after the Guardian photoshoot and before his afternoon power nap. Hesitant and shy at first, he becomes increasingly playful as our lunch goes on. Today he’s dressed in a matching, traffic cone-orange Heron Preston denim combo – a contrast to the soft, Edwardian-esque outfits he modelled hours earlier, strutting shirtless in a flower crown while belting out Doja Cat’s viral hit Say So.
Was that really his plan, I ask, never to be himself? “Yeah,” he says. “But that changed when I became Lil Nas X.”
Today, 20-year-old Lil Nas X (Nas to his friends) is a far cry from his teenage self, Montero Lamar Hill from Lithia Springs. In 12 months, he has gone from “the black cowboy with the song on TikTok” to a global superstar. He is simultaneously a Gen-Z success story, red carpet fixture, Billboard record holder and, perhaps most surprising to Lil Nas X himself, a queer figurehead.
The key to this success has been his track Old Town Road, an infectious blend of hip hop and country, right down to lyrics such as “Ridin’ on a tractor/Lean all in my bladder” and “Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty”. The crossover hit was embraced by everyone from Rolling Stone magazine to teens on TikTok, prompting Lil Nas X to quickly release a version featuring country titan Billy Ray Cyrus, known to one generation for his 1992 hit Achy Breaky Heart, and another for being Miley’s dad. “Everything seemed like a dream or a movie,” Nas says of his whirlwind 2019, culminating in six Grammy nominations, including best record for Old Town Road and best album for 2019’s 7. “It was like the world was playing a prank on me.”
Just two years ago, he was a silly, meme-loving 18-year-old who was still figuring it out. He slept on the floor of his sister’s apartment and was about to drop out of college, giving up on the computer science major he half-heartedly pursued at the University of West Georgia. One day, while procrastinating over his course work, he wrote his first song. The track, Shame, saw Nas lean into the rough-edged, macho qualities of the rap styles he grew up listening to: Drake, Lil Uzi Vert and Rae Sremmurd. “It was just me acting really hard,” he admits. “Which I did a lot of in the beginning. Because it felt like that’s what I had to do.”
He took on a straight persona for those early songs, lewdly rapping that he “might go and fuck ya motha” on the unpolished and unmixed track Nasarati, formerly available on the rapper’s SoundCloud page. Merely mentioning the song makes him cover his face in embarrassment, hiding his high-beam smile, and shaking his head. “You heard it?” he says when I point out that nothing on the internet ever truly disappears. “Oh goddddd.”
He is currently recording his first proper album (he considers 7 to be an EP), and after a year of talking about Old Town Road says he’s tired of answering the same questions. “You know, ‘What was it like working with Billy Ray Cyrus?’” he drones, rolling his large, hooded eyes. “It was great, by the way,” he quickly adds.
For better or worse, these questions will not stop any time soon. The song was made in a $20-an-hour studio, on a laptop with a beat found on YouTube (which illegally sampled Nine Inch Nails’ track 34 Ghosts IV). Nas had already amassed a 20K following on Twitter, with an account mainly known for memes and jokes. When he posted the song there, his life would change dramatically. “Country music is evolving,” he wrote, finding a video of a cowboy riding a bull to accompany the song.
Old Town Road took off on the video-centric TikTok, soundtracking clips of teens shedding their suburban attire for cowboy hats and boots, and switching seamlessly between square dancing and hip hop moves. The genre was dubbed “country trap” and quickly charted high on the Billboard Hot Country Songs list. Then Billboard stepped in and yanked it off the chart, claiming the track lacked the necessary “elements” of the genre, without specifying what those elements were. Many accused Billboard’s decision of being rooted in racial bias. White artists have long borrowed sounds from black rappers, infusing their music with an “urban” edge, with little to no pushback from genre-based music charts. It felt like the epitome of hypocrisy.
I’m trying to – no, I will build myself up as a superstar, and fashion will be a big part of that
But the outrage that followed Billboard’s decision only helped boost Old Town Road’s popularity. The Billy Ray Cyrus collaboration hit No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early April 2019, holding that position for 18 more weeks and beating the previous record (held jointly by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men for One Sweet Day; and Puerto Rican artist Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber for Despacito).
A year later, Nas says he still struggles to understand why Old Town Road prompted the kneejerk reaction from Billboard’s country purists. “I think maybe it leaned too much on the other side for them,” he says, adding that because his earlier music features more traditional rap sounds, they assumed “Oh, this is him? Then this is all he’s allowed to do.”
The predictable outcome of all this would have been for Lil Nas X to remain a one-hit wonder, enjoying the flash-in-the-pan success of Rebecca Black’s Friday and Psy’s Gangnam Style as the internet moved on. Instead, he has grown into the rare kind of pop star who is able to appeal to multiple demographics. Kids love him for his tunes and fun dances (as proven by a video of Nas visiting an elementary school, where the pupils shriek in pure glee as they dance to Old Town Road). Meanwhile, the fashion crowd appreciate his bold, gender-bending style; conservatives in the south vibe with his cowboy persona; and LGBTQ+ fans relish the much-needed, intersectional representation he provides.
It was after performing to a crowd of thousands at Glastonbury with Miley Cyrus last summer that, amid increasing speculation about his sexuality, Nas decided to come out, casually, in a tweet. “Deadass thought I made it obvious,” he wrote, accompanied by a deluge of rainbow emojis. “There was nothing really holding me back any more,” he explains today.
In coming out, Nas joined a growing cohort of young entertainers challenging the idea that queer rappers cannot experience mainstream success, from Kevin Abstract of hip hop “boy band” Brockhampton, to the experimental Tyler, the Creator, to the openly bisexual female rapper Doja Cat. Grateful that the announcement hadn’t killed his career, he began pushing the limits with increasingly outlandish red-carpet looks. He wore a neon-green suit, created by the hip black designer Christopher John Rogers, paired with feminine leopard print gloves to the American Music Awards in November last year. Two months later, he was at the Grammys in a leather, Barbie-pink Versace suit, with a harness and see-through mesh T-shirt. As the red carpet looks grew campier, the reactions became more extreme. Pastor Troy, a hardcore rapper, also from Georgia, went on a homophobic rant in response to Nas’s Grammys look, writing on Instagram and Twitter: “Welp I guess I won’t be winning a Grammy… If this is what I gotta wear. They love to push this shit on our kids!!” Lil Nas X shared the rant with his 4.3 million Twitter followers and wrote in response, “Damn i look good in that pic…”
Nas credits his stylist, Hodo Musa (who worked on the Guardian Weekend shoot), for his increasingly eye-catching looks. Yes, he possessed a mild interest in fashion as a teen, he says, but he didn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of it. “I’m trying to – no, I will build myself up as a superstar, and fashion will be a big part of that,” he says.
It’s perhaps strange that, unlike musicians from Troye Sivan to Frank Ocean (whose track Biking holds a top spot in Nas’s playlist right now), he does not explore his sexuality in his music. “I 100% want to represent the LGBT community,” he says, adding that he also worries about the safety and wellbeing of fans who may grapple with the decision to come out. “I don’t want to encourage them to do something they don’t 100% want to do. Especially in, like, middle school or high school. Because it’s just super hard.”
“It’s easier for me,” he says. “I’m not depending on anybody. There’s no one who’s going to kick me out of the house – nobody to start treating me shitty.” This may not be the case for “another 20-year-old who doesn’t quite have it figured out and still lives with his parents”. What about his own parents? “My family knows now. But it’s not something that’s ever brought up or we speak about. We’re quiet on it. Nobody’s like, ‘Oh, you got a boyfriend?’”
Does he want that question? He tilts his head and thinks long and hard. “It would have to be something I grew used to hearing. I don’t want it to be something we never talk about. Because what about the kids in my family? I would like it to be a healthy medium between, ‘Who are you fucking?’ and just not saying anything.”
For the record, Nas’s love life remains a mystery, despite him saying, last year, that he was “somewhat” in a relationship. His family – which includes seven brothers and sisters – also remains behind the scenes. “I should talk to them more,” is all he will say. He is not in contact with his mother, and hasn’t been for a long time. When pressed on this, he becomes tight-lipped, saying only that, “People have to be willing to help themselves first before you can help them.”
My family know I’m gay now. But it’s not something that’s ever brought up or we speak about. We’re quiet on it
Piping hot mozzarella sticks are brought to our table, and he eagerly bites into one as the song Lucid Dreams plays in the background, Nas singing along softly. It’s a track by Juice WRLD, a rapper who also created a massive internet fanbase for himself, before dying of a drug overdose late last year. When the news broke, Nas performed a cover of Lucid Dreams on stage.
In many ways, the two young artists are sharply divergent examples of what sudden, internet-born fame can look like. Since the success of Old Town Road, Nas has had to rethink what he shares. For one, he no longer runs the meme accounts on which he mastered the art of posting viral tweets and jokes. He refuses to own up to running @NasMaraj, a Nicki Minaj fan account, despite sleuthing fans and journalists all but confirming he did through analysis of IP addresses and time stamps. When asked about being a Nicki Minaj “barb”, or superfan, he gives a devilish grin and speaks into the recorder lying on the table, as if delivering a message directly to the internet. “Quiet on that,” he teases. “Um, that’s never happened.” I can’t quite tell what he would be embarrassed about, other than the idea of fanboying for another rapper.
But Nas has to be careful of his digital footprint. He learned this lesson the hard way in February when he tweeted a glamorous red-carpet photo of R&B singer SZA with a line that suggested they were dating. He wrote, “clean for her. cook for her and everything i do is for her. and if she cheats? that is on me!” As with a lot of memes, the joke didn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny; it was just Nas’s way of heaping praise on SZA. But many took him literally. “One morning show on YouTube was like, ‘Lil Nas X says he’s not gay any more!’ And it has a hundred thousand views.” He worries more that when he is being serious, people will think he’s kidding. Case in point: he felt compelled to write “no joking” before asking his Twitter followers how best to provide help during the coronavirus pandemic.
He is even more cautious when it comes to politics. Last year, the first openly gay Democratic presidential nominee, Pete Buttigieg, asked him to appear in a campaign video. Nas turned down the offer. “I’m not too into politics,” he says now. “I don’t know his political history or motives. The only thing I know… Wasn’t he from the Democratic party?” Yes. “See. All I know is he’s from the Democratic party and he’s gay. So it’s like… I don’t want to base my support off, ‘Oh, you’re gay, I’m going to support you.’” His words are coming faster now. “Yeah, you’re gay. But I don’t know everything you’re planning when you’re running the entire country.” He returns to eating his food, retreating back into his calm, subdued demeanour as quickly as he came out of it. “But, yeah. That was the reason I said no.”
Later, Nas tells me that politics depresses him. As a teenager, he closely followed the protests over police brutality and mass shootings. It frustrated and saddened him to see that nothing really changed. “It got hard to leave the house,” he says. “I guess ever since that, I’ve tried to stay away. Politics gets me very upset.”
The more Nas talks, the more it becomes obvious that what he is deeply suspicious of is less politics than the individual Americans delivering it. “I don’t want to say I support this one person because they’re doing this one thing. Because I don’t know what else they’re doing, or what they’re going to do.” He says he hasn’t yet registered to vote in this year’s presidential election, but “of course I’m going to vote. I encourage my fans to vote.”
When Nas came out, he told his fans to listen closely to the penultimate track on the 7 EP, titled C7osure. The muffled-sounding mid-tempo ballad is all about leaving a stifling past behind for a liberated future. Lines such as “I know it don’t feel like it’s time… But I look back at this moment, I’ll see that I’m fine” suggest the internal conversation Nas had with himself before reversing his decision never to come out.
Like any other 20-year-old, he is still figuring out who he is. He reads books about Buddhism to “get a better understanding of life and how to handle things”, and says he’s inspired by HBO’s teen drama Euphoria. “I would love to do a version of that somehow,” he says of the boundary-pushing show that features a trans lead, queer relationships and lots of drug use. The songs on his new album will explicitly explore his queer identity, he says; his form of social advocacy will be “through my art”.
We pay the check. Nas is ready for a power nap. After that, he’s attending a concert by Noah Cyrus, the youngest daughter of Billy Ray.
I sense that Lil Nas X is still not done coming out to the world. He stands up from the booth, his 6ft 3in frame on full display, and says goodbye. He’ll share the rest of himself when he’s ready.
Lil Nas X’s debut EP 7 is out now.