…I guess we were bound to get here eventually.
The debate over what makes a song “country” or not has been raging ever since the genre was first established, but it picked up in intensity over the last decade as the Bro-Country and Metropolitan trends brought influences from all sorts of other flavors of music into this genre. You can probably name the prime suspects in this caper (Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, etc.), but the fact is that these artists and other like them found both a receptive audience and a ton of success, spawning dozens of imitators and wannabes all trying to cash in on the action. While I wasn’t opposed to this experimentation (heck, I have a window seat on the Thomas Rhett bandwagon), deep down I wondered: Is there a breaking point somewhere, and what happens when we reach it?
Enter Montero Lamar Hill, known professionally as Lil Nas X, an Atlanta-based artist and recent Columbia Records signee. Riding the dual waves of the short-form video app TikTok and the viral spread of the “Yeehaw Challenge,” Lil Nas X hit the Billboard charts in late March with “Old Twon Road,” a country-rap fusion that appeared on both the Hot 100 and the Hot Country Singles charts. You-know-what hit the fan shortly afterwards: There was the backlash for the song appearing on the country charts, and then the backlash for Billboard removing the song from the country charts, and…yeah, that’s about where we are right now.
I have basically zero knowledge or experience with rap (didn’t Ludacris show up on a Jason Aldean single way back when?), but I’m going to set the genre label controversy aside for a moment and try to answer a simpler question: Is the song any good? Unfortunately, the answer is “not really”: It’s a plodding, confusing track that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to say. (And yet it’s still better than anything Jordan Davis has ever done.)
The production opens innocently enough with some simple banjo strumming (it honestly sounds more like a mandolin to me, but I will trust the Internet’s judgment on this one), but it’s quickly overwhelmed by a loud, in-your-face trap beat (derived from a Nine Inch Nails song) that does most of the heavy lifting. These sorts of beats aren’t unheard of in country music, but they’re rarely this prominent, as this might be the first song I’ve ever heard that essentially tries to carry the melody with the percussion. Now, for the crazy part: I think the arrangement is kind of okay from an instrumentation perspective, as the cold, darker tone of the beat gives the song a moody, serious feel that complements the lyrics (okay, maybe just part of the lyrics, but we’ll get to that). Instead, my main problem is what was done with the instruments:
- The banjo and beat don’t do anything interesting, and feel like they were just slapped together without any thought of how they might mesh. It’s about as bland a mix as you’ll hear today.
- There’s also a distinct lack of tempo, which drains much of the energy from the beat and makes the whole song feel lifeless and boring.
In other words, there was some definite potential here, but it’s never turned into production.
The impressive thing I can say about Lil Nas X is how he can make himself sound like two completely different people on the choruses and verses (I was absolutely convinced there were two singers on this track, and spent way too long trying to identify the non-existent second one). Of the two, I think he sounds best on the chorus, as his tone is better and his flow is a bit smoother. The rap verses sound a bit too choppy, and it’s harder to discern what his real message is, as his exaggerated delivery makes the lines feel slightly satirical. (The writing gets some blame here as well, but don’t worry, that’s coming.) While it’s tough to judge Lil Nas X’s charisma, he at least succeeds at (mostly) keeping the song feeling sad instead of sleazy. Sure, his life appears to be full of sex and excitement, but he comes across as more morose than satisfied, giving the listener the feeling that the narrator’s life isn’t as fun and fulfilling as you might think. Just like with the production, I feel like there’s talent and potential here, it’s just not put to great use on this track.
Lyrically, this song is caught somewhere between a luxury rap and yet another “I’m so country!” declaration. If we set aside the fact that at less than two minutes long we’ve barely got half a song here, my biggest issue here is that the narrator can’t seem to figure out exactly what he wants to say. One moment he’s flaunting his outfit and lifestyle (“My life is a movie/Bullridin’ and boobies/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty”), the next moment he’s calling out the listener for their lack of street cred (“I been in the valley/You ain’t been up off the porch”), and the next moment he’s wishes he could leave this whole schtick behind (“I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road/I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more”). The constant tone shifts leave the listener completely baffled: Should I be sympathizing with this person? Should I be jealous of them? Mad at them? Sorry for them?) On top of this, the brags about Gucci hats and other items feel so outlandish that you start to wonder if the song is supposed to be a parody of the frequent “countryness” declarations that the genre is drowning in right now. This lack of consistency wreaks havoc with Lil Nas X and the producer: They attempt to make the tone feel more consistent, but writing is king in the rap game, and they’re stuck trying to fit together pieces from several different puzzles. The track is just not as cohesive as it needs to be, and leaves the audience feeling indifferent about the whole thing.
I wouldn’t call “Old Town Road” the affront to everything country music stands for that some critics are making it out to be, but I would definitely call it a waste of the listener’s time. There are a few things to like here, but the bland, lethargic production, scattershot writing, and apathetic performance from Lil Nas X make this a song I’m not terribly interested in hearing again. I’m not ready to shut the door on country-rap collaborations completely, but the result needs to be better than this. (Then again, as bad as Jake Owen has been lately, working with Lil Nas X can only improve Owen’s game…)
Rating: 4/10. Pass.