The rise to stratospheric heights of Lil Nas X's “Old Town Road” — 12 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and counting — was aided along the way by a pair of critical boosts. There was TikTok star NiceMichael, who stomped out a dorky two-step to the song in February and made it a sensation on the app, and then there was Billboard, who removed the song from its country charts and inadvertently sparked its ascent to #1. But “Old Town Road” first sprouted from a single germ: a viral tweet posted by Lil Nas X himself the day before the song hit SoundCloud.
The tweet features a video of a Trump voter in cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat enthusiastically gyrating and popping his body at the center of a rodeo to the booming trap drums and rustic, unhurried guitar of “Old Town Road” which Nas X has dubbed over. “Country music is evolving,” he writes in the caption. Only a Gen-Z M.D. (meme doctor), a distinction Nas X earned during his days running a Nicki Minaj stan Twitter account, could have conceived and engineered such a savvy post that mimics the song’s pitch-perfect blend of bravado and silliness. His fluency in internet-speak, this intuitive grasp of virality, is the crucial trait that not only catapulted him to online curiosity but has since allowed him to squeeze every ounce of success out of “Old Country Road” and solidify his status as bona fide pop phenomenon.
Nas X is only 20, but he has already proven ten times over that he can navigate the spotlight with dexterity and charm. His major label debut EP 7 serves as an important litmus test for determining the direction he wants to go in as an artist, his strengths and limitations, and whether “Old Town Road” will ultimately be a springboard to lasting success or sent to the great graveyard graveyard of viral hip hop artists, where Desiigner, OG Maco, Tekashi, Bobby Shmurda, and Silento currently rest. 7 has followed in the legacy of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo as a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”; in April, after his first ever studio session with Take a Daytrip, he used a picture of Carl from the show Jimmy Neutron to inaugurate a Twitter thread of every snippet that would wind up on 7. Fans pretty much knew what the EP was going to sound like weeks before it came out.
Still, it is jarring and disappointing to hear 7 in its final form. Nas X’s earnest reflections on how sudden fame sours relationships fail to capture the ingenuity, quirky personality, and pure catchiness of “Old Town Road.” In an interview with Teen Vogue, he explained that “Carry On,” an ode to his late grandmother from his debut mixtape NASARATI, inspired him to pursue a more serious direction on 7. That impulse feels misguided. NASARATI may have been humorless and trap-forward, but it was full of whimsy, with cartoon-referencing music videos and artwork and song titles like “Donald Trump” and “Thanos.” Even the “Carry On” video is just him dancing in a graveyard.
Though Lil Nas X fails to transpose the charming eccentricity of “Old Town Road” to the remainder of 7, he uses its Nine Inch Nails sample as a base from which to expand his palette of rock music. “Panini” accidentally interpolates Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” “F9MILY” (produced by Blink-182’s Travis Barker) features off-brand Strokes guitar and is destined to wind up in a Red Lobster “Lobsterfest” commercial, and “Bring U Down” (produced by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder) casts Nas X as an unironic butt rock revivalist. The worst of the bunch, “C7osure,” is childish synth pop-rock that sounds like a throwaway from Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams sessions. When Nas X isn’t singing in his affected Southern twang, his voice is about as flavorful as mayonnaise and prone to crumbling at any given moment.
7 isn’t a case of throwing songs at the wall and hoping one sticks as a hit. The only song on that EP that feels like Nas X is fishing for a top 10 single is “Rodeo,” which triangulates the yeehaw agenda of “Old Town Road,” the pure turn up factor of “Mo Bamba," and a guest verse from Cardi B. The single with more legs is “Panini,” (named for the half rabbit-half cat from the Cartoon Network show Chowder) which frames one of Nas X’s more refined melodies in Take a Daytrip’s stripped-down, hard-edged blend of rock and R&B. The beat slows to half-time on the chorus, making way for a breathtakingly massive hook. It’s the kind of song that has the potential to help anchor Nas’ performances for years to come and pave the way for life after “Old Town Road.”
One thing that made “Old Town Road” so appealing is that Lil Nas X seemed like just another dude on the internet. It was hard to determine where the meme began and the song ended. That appeal of Nas X as a regular Joe endures in the Makonnen-esque amateurism that defines 7. The EP feels like the conclusion of what will wind up as the most electrifying chapter of his career. It comes with a sense of closure, of raw potential that can longer be realized in the same way ever again. Nas X can’t block Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Drake from the No. 1 spot forever. 7 marks the beginning of his fall back to earth.