Lil Nas X on a Unicorn Floatie

Lil Nas X on a Unicorn Floatie

Story by Stephanie Smith-Strickland / Photography by Ethan Gulley / Styling by Mercedes Natalia

"France looks exactly how it does in the movies," Lil Nas X reports, settling deeper into one of the sturdy plastic chairs lining our neon-lit bowling lane. Even though he's been on set all day and has an early-ish call time for a top secret music video shoot the next day, Nas still manages to seem at ease, offering a warm, toothy grin to our waitress, who is clearly very excited to be taking his order, which consists of a battery of fried foods including chicken fingers, popcorn shrimp and buffalo cauliflower. Between dispatching advice on the best bowling practices — apparently releasing your thumb first helps with your aim — he's brimming with hilariously candid observations on Europe, having recently returned from his first out of the country trip. Across the pond, the rising star made stops in France and England, where he made paninis with Gordon Ramsay and then chopped them in half with a medieval axe (in honor of his charting single, "Panini"), and performed in front of a crowd of more than 180,000 at Glastonbury Festival.

As far as once in a lifetime experiences go, the 20-year-old, born Montero Lamar Hill in the small town of Lithia Springs, Georgia, agrees that it's all been "pretty sick." From an outsider's perspective it also seems dizzyingly sudden, but that's also just the way fame tends to manifest itself in the internet age. The formula seems simple enough: an aspiring, down-on-his-luck musician anonymously buys a $30 beat and makes a catchy bop worthy of launching a thousand memes and viral videos garnering views in the millions. Yet if the science of hype were as uncomplicated or as formulaic as Lil Nas X has made it appear, wouldn't we all be more famous?

Shirt: Dior, Necklace & Bracelet: Jason of Beverly Hills, Pants: Levi's

Even for Nas, whose juggernaut single "Old Town Road" is currently enjoying a record-breaking run of 18 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, chasing fame has been a series of Mellevillian almosts in which he's had brushes with the great white whale, but never quite captured it. "I've gone viral several times already," he says. "It might not have been my face, but I know what it feels like to have my thoughts being seen everywhere." Even before his emergence as a lovable and eccentric musician with a knack for creating shareable content, Nas appears to have been behind several viral moments — some of which can still be found in internet archives. Although he's declined to comment and his team has since distanced him from the account, Nas' online footprint indicates that he was very likely the curator behind the now-defunct @NasMaraj handle, which spawned several viral tweets, including one that went on to be picked up as a Buzzfeed story in 2017.

The fictional tweet, which racked up more than 11,000 retweets and 23,000 likes, shows a picture of a sad dog allegedly named Doug, whose birthday party no other dogs attended. At the time of the Buzzfeed article the person behind the account identified themselves as 17-year-old Nasiir Williams of Atlanta, and claimed that he'd fabricated the story out of boredom. Despite having seemingly provided an alias, the location and age are a match; Nas is now 20, so he would have been 17 and residing in Atlanta in 2017. Furthermore, it seems particularly likely it was indeed him when one considers that archives show the @NasMaraj account, which enjoyed a six-figure following at its peak, largely due to publishing a series of interactive scenario threads, featured a profile photo of Nas at one time. In addition to its wholesome dog stories, the page also tapped into more edgelord style practices, often tweeting content that would be considered off-tone today; that is perhaps why Nas' team has been so determined to minimize his alleged involvement.

Still, as he secures a clunky, multicolored bowling shoe to each foot, Nas, seems to have grown into understanding the responsibility of having such sudden influence, particularly when his face and name are attached. "I do try to stay positive online," he shares, flanked by his manager who provides real-time updates on the flurry of engagements he has coming up. "I'll ask myself, 'Is this going to offend somebody?,' before I do it. A lot of the stuff I used to do years before would sometimes go too far. I know I have a platform now, so there's more of a need to make sure nothing is hurtful or too crazy. Even dealing with mean people, I can do it because I understand them. I used to sometimes say mean shit for no reason. I know that when people say things they're just thoughts that might be there today but I'm not going to care about tomorrow. What am I even gaining from acknowledging it?"

Well before the @NasMaraj account was suspended and he'd dropped out of the University of West Georgia, where he originally planned to study computer science, Nas commanded the global village that is the internet with an above-average fluency, even amongst his Gen Z peers. These days, whether it's randomly polling Twitter users to help him decide on which dog to adopt — he ended up getting two puppies named 7 and 9 — or casually cracking jokes about being the target of homophobia after coming out, somewhat strategically, on World Pride Day, Nas wields the power of social media in a way that is at once innocently charming and calculatedly shrewd.

"I've watched the music industry from the sidelines, so I learned what to do and what not to do and who I wanted to be friends with," Nas shares, his tall, lanky frame making bowling a rather endearing affair of mostly legs and elbows. Indeed, Nas has transitioned seamlessly into the celebrity sphere, making fast admirers out of stars ranging from Billy Ray Cyrus to Billie Eilish, Rihanna, Da Baby and more. "I would watch a lot of musicians try to come up by doing crazy stuff and using outrageous behavior to keep attention. I even thought about doing that, like maybe busting a car window or something to get attention, but I knew I could do it without making everything into a stunt."

"I've watched the music industry from the sidelines, so I learned what to do and what not to do."

Yet the proliferation of "Old Town Road" was, in many ways exactly that: a stunt of epic proportions. In the same way that Soulja Boy once seized upon the creative potential of intentionally naming Napster files after popular songs to deliver unsuspecting fans "Crank Dat" instead, Lil Nas appropriated the virality of memes and TikTok challenges to Trojan Horse "Old Town Road" to the top of the charts. The song was released independently on December 3, 2018, and over the course of several months, Nas obsessively hammered out a series of five to seven second videos embedded with snippets of the tune, releasing them on TikTok and Twitter. At the time, he'd dropped out of school and was living with his older sister. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but financial constraints and family tension with his parents saw him staying with her for months longer than anticipated, so naturally, there was little else to do but hope that the promise of music finally delivered.

As the song took off, Nas also leveraged the internet's openness to change by adjusting its original, more serious meaning as "Old Town Road" gained traction. The lyrics, which he'd formerly described as being representative of trying to rise above a difficult personal situation (with the "road" being an allegory for a journey toward self-improvement), suddenly became the stuff of light-hearted legend. "I changed the meaning so I could joke around and have it be meme'd out because I knew how I was going to promote it," he says. Earlier that year in July, he'd quietly released Nasarati, a decidedly hip-hop facing EP, which, while sonically falling in line with popular rap tropes, failed to make the impact he'd hoped, especially within the landscape of Atlanta where Lil Baby, Young Thug, Future and others had already all but cornered the market. "I've always liked different genres but I didn't have money; it was easier to start with hip-hop because you can rap without that many tools. The Nasarati EP was made a month after I made my first song. 'Old Town Road' only happened when I started to get more comfortable trying new things like singing," Nas admits.

And while the gamble certainly paid off — there's an irresistible quality to Nas' deliciously contrived country twang, especially when juxtaposed against the aggressive boom of 808s — the song's perfect melding of oddity and genuine musicality seemed to many like a one-off slam dunk. "A lot of people think that I'm a meme rapper and so they felt like after 'Old Town Road' I was done," Nas says. "I still get one hit wonder comments and I have two new songs on [the Billboard charts]," he continues between mouthfuls of shrimp and french fries. The songs in question, "Panini" (which accidentally interpolates Nirvana's "In Bloom"), and the Cardi B featured "Rodeo", are currently ranked 29 and 60 respectively on the Hot 100 chart; both also appear on his debut EP, 7.

Released June 21, 7's hasty rollout seemed to be a concerted effort to maximize the cultural currency of "Old Town Road," which sparked dialogues on everything from race to the boundaries of defining music by genre. Having first landed on Billboard's country chart, "Old Town Road" was unceremoniously pulled for not having enough "country elements" before being reintroduced after Billy Ray Cyrus appeared on the remix. "I was honestly surprised about how much support I got," Nas says. "It's almost as if everything that happened was a blessing in disguise. Everything that looked like it would be the end for me only made the song more popular."

Shirt: Dior, Necklace & Bracelet: Jason of Beverly Hills, Pants: Levi's

Shirt: Dior, Necklace & Bracelet: Jason of Beverly Hills, Pants: Levi's

The song's success has also put Nas in an odd position, framing him as a genre-bending vanguard who has, along with the likes of Solange, Beyoncé and others who have helped further "The Yeehaw Agenda," as culture critic Bri Malandro officially dubbed it, helped to resurface country music's rich history of Black influence. "I'm happy that people think I'm doing important work, but I'm never trying to see myself in too much of high position," Nas says, modestly of the controversy. "I'm just making music. I'm not going to say I did it so other Black country artists could have voices, because that's not the truth. If that happened, then that's awesome. I see songs that blend country and hip-hop on the rise and that's amazing to be part of. I just like to believe 'Old Town Road' has generally opened doors in a lot of directions. I mean it opened the door for me to make 7."

The 7 EP received a range of reviews, with more than a few critics observing the offering felt disjointed, but to Nas, who is very much part of a new breed of multi-hyphenate makers, creativity needn't be a streamlined process. And, just like the chaotic nature of viral fame, music shouldn't have a certain formula for success. "On 7 nothing was intentional. I didn't think to myself, Ok I'm going to make an alt-rock song or I'm going to make a rap song and include jazz elements. I just thought, I feel like this would sound good here or that would sound good there, and then I just rolled with it. There was no direction, it's just whatever comes out sounding the best," he says of his creative process. "I'm lucky because coming into music the way I did gave me more freedom to have less direction. Even now, I'll have moments where someone will be like, 'This is the worst song on the EP,' and someone else will be like, 'This is the only song I like on the EP,' and they'll be talking about the same song. I've always understood that different people like different things, and I'm in a position where I can put out whatever I want out, so I feel like I can cater to it all. I know there's a demand for more songs like 'Old Town Road' because people keep telling me to make a whole country EP, but at the same time people are still listening to 'Panini' and 'Rodeo,' so it's like you actually can do everything."

"I'm happy that people think I'm doing important work, but I'm never trying to see myself in too much of high position. I'm just making music."

On his debut studio album, Nas hopes to prove that working beyond guardrails of genres and pre-ordained creative direction can indeed open a world of possibilities. "I do feel like once I give myself a, 'You need to do this or you need to go this way,' that's when it'll be easy for me to slip up trying to recreate the same environment in a song," he confesses. Above all, he hopes to show fans a more personal side, admitting that much of the lyrics in 7 were intentionally coded, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions. "It's funny because everyone thought 'C7osure' was about leaving somebody, but it was about leaving away from a situation that wasn't doing me good," he says.

Shirt: Dior, Necklace & Bracelet: Jason of Beverly Hills, Pants: Levi's

The transition from high school to college tends to be difficult for most people, and Nas was no exception. Although he graciously side-steps providing more detail on precisely what inspired "C7osure," he does open up about how contending with financial problems and adjusting to college life indirectly impacted those around him. "After senior year I pretty much wore whatever clothes I had bought for the next two-ish years," he shares. "I didn't really have a chance to develop a sense of style because I would wear literally anything that looked alright that I could afford, which was barely anything. On top of that, college was my first time getting an F. The summer I dropped out I was supposed to go to a summer program at my school because I'd just gotten too comfortable and wasn't doing well. I was top of my class in everything in high school, so that was a huge adjustment." In songs like "F9mily," a pop-punk inflected collaboration with Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker, he does make an admittedly veiled effort to touch on frayed family dynamics, which were only exacerbated by his choice to leave school after the first year. On first listen the song feels like a playfully ironic ballad to broken connections, but according to Nas, actually comes from a much more serious place, as does the use of the number "9" in the song's title.

"I really believe in signs and I started to see seven and nine a lot right around the time I was about to come out. I was originally going to do it at Pride because I saw a banner that said, 'LA Pride, June 7 -9,' and I was like, 'Wow, there goes the numbers again.' And then my sister ended up having her baby on the ninth, so nine became my number for family. Right now we're working on coming back together," Nas says of his current relationship with his family. "We're going to have the first family reunion on my mom's side this year; we didn't really have those when I was growing up. My grandma passed last year and that was really difficult. We had already stopped having family gatherings before that so I really want to try to get better about all of that stuff."

Between planning more family events, Nas will be continuing on the festival circuit and also spending time in the studio perfecting his debut album. Having a project drop on the heels of a record-breaking single and an EP that produced two more charting songs is admittedly quite a bit of pressure, but Nas is less concerned about proving himself to naysayers than enjoying the chaos of the journey. "Honestly, I feel like I put together a certain formula for each song as far as length or not having too much of one element going on for too long, but it's not a science where I'm like, I'm going to use this melody on this song because if I do, it'll be a hit; that's not how it works. That's why for my next project I'm just thinking about whatever I feel sounds good." So far, it's a method that hasn't failed him.

Photographer: Ethan Gulley
Photo Assistant: Adam Siler
Stylist: Mercedes Natalia
Stylist Assistant: Fernanda Linhares & Kaila Taylor
Groomer: Sienree
Producer: Blair Cannon

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