“Montero”: The anticipated debut from one of Gen-Z’s biggest stars

The Gillnetter’s Ben Carpenter reviews the latest from Lil Nas X


Just over two and a half years ago, a little-known rapper named Montero Hill dethroned Ariana Grande on the Billboard Hot 100. The song he did it with? A one minute, 43-second country-rap ditty called “Old Town Road.” 18 weeks of ubiquity later, it broke the record for the most weeks spent at number one in the United States and launched Hill, commonly known as Lil Nas X, to A-list status.

Lil Nas X was initially written off as a one-hit wonder. His eponymous debut album, “Montero”, proves he is anything but. After months of over-the-top marketing “Montero” dropped to huge success: 14 of the album’s 16 tracks landed in Spotify’s top 30 streamed songs the day of its release.

In an era where pop and hip-hop regularly compete atop the charts, “Montero” attempts to capture the best of both worlds. And production-wise, “Montero” nails both. The chorus of “That’s What I Want,” the album’s most overt pop song, is crazy catchy. Its synths rise as Nas belts about yearning for love, and a repeated four-note keyboard line perfectly ties Nas’ voice with the background guitars. On the flip side, “Dead Right Now” starts out with Nas spitting bars over a brass-choir foundation, introducing a trap beat as the song goes on. It’s a combination that sounds fresh compared to the cookie-cutter drum-bass beats that populate a lot of today’s rap.

Thematically, “Montero” reconciles several topics. Nas’ rise to fame is a recurring theme, often coupled with his desire to not be lonely. “Montero”’s lyrics get progressively darker as the tracklist progresses. Nas is honest in a way few mainstream rappers are: “Every win gives you more room to lose/It’s too many ups and downs on this ride” he reflects on “Void.” “Tales of Dominica” is one of the album’s most strikingly raw songs. “Oh, sometimes you’re angry, sometimes you’re hurting, sometimes you’re all alone,” he sings, in what’s almost a cry of desperation. He doesn’t elaborate, and he doesn’t need to: anyone who relates to these lines already knows exactly what he means.

But sometimes he just wants to celebrate how far he’s come. Like virtually every other current hip-hop artist, he loves to brag about his fame and money. On the Megan Thee Stallion-assisted “Dolla Sign Slime,” he “walk in the bank and say ‘****, let’s clear it out’” before calling himself a “dolla sign slime” repeatedly. It’s equal parts braggadocious and nonsensical—exactly Nas’ brand. “Industry Baby,” featuring Jack Harlow, is even more triumphant: the blaring trumpets that begin the track almost remind you of a coronation. “I told you long ago, on the road, I got what they waiting for,” Nas announces, referencing his breakout hit.

Where “Montero” falters is with Nas’ technical skills. For a pop-rap album, Nas’ voice isn’t particularly good at either of those styles. While his rapping can be very charismatic, his flow is awkward a lot of the time, as if he’s fighting with the instrumentation. Even worse, his inflection is often bland, almost like you gave a song’s lyrics to an AI and asked it to rap them. The verses of “Lost in the Citadel” are the worst offenders here. Nas keeps calling a potential partner an angel, but does so with a level of conviction that even Drake surpasses (read: very low). In the poppier sections of “Montero”, Nas mostly stays within the same few notes and layered vocals, which makes the album get stale much faster. Nas’ high notes in the chorus of “Life After Salem” are painfully strained, and the lower notes that begin the track aim to be rich but end up rigid. It’s a bit of an overstatement to say that Nas is carried by the production, but at the end of the day, that’s probably what you’re going to come away remembering.

Overall “Montero” is what I and many others expected: a pretty clear view into who Lil Nas X wants to be as an artist. While it doesn’t all quite fit together, “Montero” features a ton of inventive instrumentation and emotional songwriting. And it’s important to remember that he’s still a relative newcomer to the industry, however much you might see him on TikTok or Twitter. He’s only 22, and he has plenty of time to focus his sound and put out the amazing work he’s obviously capable of.