Last year, Lil Nas X released the ten-song Naserati EP, a fairly generic EP of modern trap that understandably did not get many people buzzing about him. But then, there was “Old Town Road.” You probably know the story by now, but in case you don’t here are the SparkNotes: it’s a country-trap song that uses a banjo sample from Nine Inch Nails, it was the subject of much controversy when Billboard removed it from its Hot Country Songs chart and said it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version,” then Lil Nas X showed just how country he could be and released an “Old Town Road” remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus and performed the song at Stagecoach, and then the song became the No. 1 song in America, beating out the machine-generated Taylor Swift song that had been built to top the chart. It’s one of those special moments within pop that’s always worth treasuring; some random musician does something entirely new, before they’re even signed to a major label, and it beats out all the major label pop written by professional songwriters just because America really, really likes it. Sure, a meme helped it along, but the song is truly an organic hit and it’s nothing short of a miracle that it became a chart-topper. And at the end of the day, no matter what you think of the Billboard controversy, no matter how cynical you are about the meme that helped the song rise: “Old Town Road” is really good. It’s an undeniably catchy song and it doesn’t require the meme or the backstory or any gimmicks to be as catchy as it is. When it comes on, it just overtakes you.
Like Post-It Notes, “Old Town Road” was a happy accident. Lil Nas X didn’t set out to be a country-trap artist; he was just a regular trap artist until he recorded this silly one-off song that somehow became a massive hit. Now that it is massive and he is signed to Columbia, he and his major label are presumably hoping he will be able to capitalize on the success of “Old Town Road” and become a real star. It would’ve made sense if he or his team decided to fully embrace country-rap, but instead, it looks like he’s hoping for another happy accident. For debut EP 7 — which includes both the original “Old Town Road” and the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, along with six other new songs — Lil Nas X is throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Going by the sound of these songs, the outcome is possibly: nothing.
This hodgepodge of an EP includes not just “Old Town Road” twice, but also two alt-rock songs, three trap songs that recall his Naserati days, and “Rodeo,” which is probably Lil Nas X’s attempt at a second “Old Town Road” but it’s not a very good one. In addition to being called “Rodeo,” he brings back his twangy country accent on the hook, and the song features Cardi B (who he recently performed with), which is presumably an attempt to make this one a hit. But “Old Town Road” evolves into an energetic, magnetic song that could get even the most cynical person tapping their toes when the beat drops. On “Rodeo,” Lil Nas X and Cardi B sound like they’re sleeping their way through the song. It starts off boring and goes nowhere else.
Lil Nas X may have successfully crossed genres with rap and country, but alt-rock songs “F9mily (You & Me)” (produced by blink-182’s Travis Barker) and “Bring U Down” (produced by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder) — which, for what it’s worth, are not the songs that credit Kurt Cobain (that would be the trap-leaning “Panini,” which shares a melody with “In Bloom”) — are a lot less successful. They are generic, store-brand alt-rock songs that make even third-rate post-grunge has-beens like Fuel or Trapt seem interesting, and it doesn’t help that they sound like they were recorded with toy guitars. The trap songs are only marginally less generic; “Kick It” is forgettable, “Panini” isn’t a total drag, but it sounds like any anonymous nobody on mainstream rap radio, and then penultimate track “C7osure (You Like)” is sort of the EP’s saving grace. It’s not nearly as good as “Old Town Road,” but it’s the second best song on the EP by a mile, so it has that going for it. It was produced by OVO Sound producer Boi-1da and it kinda sounds like an OVO production that Drake might’ve passed on, so still nothing special, but it at least proves that Lil Nas X still has another sticky hook or two in him.
Back in April, when we named Lil Nas X one of the 10 new rappers defining 2019 (which is even more obvious now than it was in April), I said it’d be interesting to see if lightning would strike twice for Lil Nas X, but that even if it didn’t, he’d done a lot of good already. Well, judging by the sound of his major label debut, it seems even less likely that lightning will strike twice. But it’s still true that he’s done a lot of good already, and has only done more good in the last few months. Even if no one remembers any other song on 7 in a year from now — and I’ll be surprised if they do — 2019 will still go down as the year Lil Nas X broke. Better luck on the full-length, X. Until then, “Old Town Road” will ride on as the weirdest, funniest, and most addictive one-hit-wonder we’ve seen in a while.