It’s been a wild couple of years for Montero Lamar Hill, better known as rapper and singer Lil Nas X. He first rose into prominence with his smash hit “Old Town Road,” which became the biggest song of 2019 in the US, spending a record-breaking 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song is, as of March 2021, certified 14x platinum by the RIAA, the most of any song ever. Then Nas followed it up with “Panini,” which peaked at number-five on the Hot 100 and was a moderately big hit, albeit not even half as big as “Old Town Road.”
Whether Lil Nas X would be recognized by the recording academy that year was a little uncertain. Would he follow the footsteps of one-hit wonders like Magic! and Lil Pump and get completely shut out? The likeliest scenario seemed to be that he would net one to three noms (namely Record of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best Music Video for “Old Town Road”). At most four, adding Best New Artist to that combo. But not many expected the viral sensation to pick up six noms, the most by any male artist and second most overall (tied with Billie Eilish). Among those six noms, the one that stood out the most was Album of the Year for his EP “7,” which got mixed reviews and lacked momentum outside of its two hits. Nas would end up winning two of those six noms, scoring wins for Music Video and Pop Duo/Group Performance.
Fast forward to 2021: Lil Nas X has made headlines again with his viral hit “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The song had been teased for almost a year until it was finally dropped on March 26, to major success. The track immediately polarized audiences with its controversial music video, which features Nas giving the devil a lap dance after descending from heaven on a stripper pole. This obviously ruffled some feathers, with conservative media bashing Nas while others applauded the song, even calling it a milestone for queer musicians. It topped the Hot 100 in its debut week and put Nas back in the spotlight, especially after his previous single “Holiday” relatively underperformed, topping out at number-37.
Will we see Lil Nas X back at the Grammys in 2022 for this big moment? Well, “Montero” and “Old Town Road” do share similarities. First, both songs are viral hits, propped up by a big TikTok audience. And both songs were also helped by controversy: while “Montero’s” debate focuses around religion and sexuality, “Old Town Road” made waves due to it being removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, which sparked conversations about the representation of Black artists in predominantly white (and conservative) genres like country, as well as the bigger subject of genre in general — what makes a song “country enough,” and who gets to decide that?
That said, “Montero” will need to have legs in order for it to maintain momentum. Due to smart promotion, multiple remixes, and just the overall appeal of the song, “Old Town Road” dominated the spring and summer of 2019, so it was probably too big to snub. “Montero” on the other hand could be shorter-lived, potentially leading to a decline when the controversy eventually wears off. And while Nas is someone the nomination review committee might want to recogize again given the abundance of love for him the last time around, as well as to spotlight a queer Black artist, the song will need to make the voters’ top 20 before the committee even gets a say. That could be a roadblock if it doesn’t keep up its hype for long enough to be remembered during voting this fall.
But we shouldn’t underestimate Lil Nas X; after all, he’s still a six-time Grammy nominee and a two-time winner, and the Grammys love reaffirming that their Best New Artist nominees and winners were the best picks and not passing fads. That said, will “Montero” be big enough to leave a lasting impact through the year, or will it be forgotten in a month or two? Either way, I hope to see Lil Nas X continue to open the door for queer Black artists at the Grammys; you can’t just nominate H.E.R. and Brandi Carlile every year and declare mission accomplished!
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