2021 has been the year where Lil Nas X cements his place as a new kind of pop star. With his single "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)," he has shown everyone he's no one-hit-wonder. It also showed people that a gay man can not only be out, but overtly sexual while dominating the charts. He delivered provocative performances on Saturday Night Live and the BET Awards. The latter ended with him kissing his backup dancer.
During this time, Nas courted controversy. This mainly came from religious homophobes who were against Nas' free expression of his sexuality. People even tried dragging out the tired "think of the children" argument. Through it all, Nas doubled down and just kept getting gayer. He showed that he has a sense of humor not only about himself, but about the scandal that arises with each video and live performance.
With his new video for "INDUSTRY BABY" featuring Jack Harlow, Nas once again proves that he can use controversy to his benefit. The prelude, which went live on YouTube prior to the video's premiere, displayed a parody of a court case with Nike. When the video for "MONTERO" premiered, Nas announced a collaboration with MSCHF on a limited pair of sneakers using the Nike logo. This was similar to the company's "Jesus Shoes," which also used the Nike logo.
Nas called his sneakers "Satan Shoes" and each pair was said to contain a drop of human blood. Nike responded to the backlash by filing a lawsuit and demanding the shoes be recalled. This was likely due to pressure from conservative groups calling for a boycott of Nike. It seemed to have less to do with using the Nike logo, as no legal action was taken with the "Jesus Shoes." The entire controversy was rooted in homophobia, so it made perfect sense for Nas to reference it in his video.
Like with his previous scandal, Nas used this moment to his advantage. Prior to the release of the prelude, the artist made social media posts leading some to believe he was going to court over the shoes. Some were saying he may even go to jail. In the end, however, this was all a joke. Nas was merely trolling his audience in order to promote his new single and video. While some might see this as dishonest and misleading, I have no problem with it. I see it as smart and entertaining.
An artist hasn't been this smart about using controversy for profit since Madonna. The entire "Satan Shoes" dispute with Nike was perfectly timed for the release of the "MONTERO" video, where he gives the Devil a lap dance. This reminded a lot of people of Madonna's deal with Pepsi happening at the same time she made the "Like a Prayer" video, where she kissed a Black saint and danced in front of burning crosses.
In the prelude, Nas displayed a brilliant sense of humor about the situation by playing all the characters. He played his lawyer, Nike's layer, a juror, and even the judge. The actual video takes place after the judge sentences him to five years in the fictitious Montero State Prison. In the video, Nas and Jack Harlow successfully scheme to break out of prison along with the rest of the prisoners. At one point, we see Nas dance naked in a shower with other gay prisoners, with blurring added of course.
There's even a cameo from Colton Haynes, who plays a security guard getting off on the "MONTERO" video. This scene was extra clever, because it portrayed the hypocrisy of homophobes. There's a theory that those who are in the closet are often the loudest voices against homosexuality. After all, if gay people don't affect your life, why are you so fixated on them?
The video was used as a fundraiser for The Bail Project, a non-profit which raises bail money for people who are incarcerated. This is an issue which disproportionately affects the Black community. The idea of being wrongfully imprisoned is a theme that the "INDUSTRY BABY" video is based on. All of the prisoners (except Jack Harlow) appear to be in jail for the same crime, being gay.
In the video, the jail is used as a metaphor. The jail basically represents the homophobia gay people, especially gay Black men, have to deal with. This homophobia came to light during the controversy from the "MONTERO" video. Some within the Black community were saying that Nas was an "industry plant" sent to emasculate Black men. These loony conspiracy theories sparked dialogue on issues relating to toxic masculinity and Black men within the Black community.
Based on the reaction to his videos, it's clear that homophobic straight people aren't the only ones coming for Lil Nas X. Lots of gay men with internalized homophobia are coming for him too. One of the most common things said by this group is, "Why does he have to be so over the top? He doesn't represent me!" Well, you guys got to see a family-friendly gay couple living in suburbia with a kid on "Modern Family" for ten years. Now it's time for the other gays to have their turn!
Despite what they might say, this isn't as simple as not enjoying a particular artists' work. Gay men who attack other gay men for being stereotypical or "too sexual" are harming the community. They often gaslight their targets, by suggesting the opposite is taking place. However, not offending homophobic people in order to make progress only goes so far. The homophobic ideals are still being catered to, and therefore, still undefeated. The people who need to change are the homophobes, not Lil Nas X.
There is also a serious double standard when it comes to male rappers and female artists vs. Lil Nas X. Male rappers can have a bunch of semi-naked women dancing and twerking behind them without a flinch from the viewer. Female artists can wear next to nothing and have shirtless male dancers behind them. Nobody cares about that anymore, either. It's turned into a formula that pop stars follow. But Lil Nas X dancing naked in a prison shower with other nude men causes YouTube reactors to get so shocked that they have to pause the video.
Those reactors didn't get so shocked when Jack Harlow had a female prison guard show her ass during his verse. It's unclear why Jack Harlow was in prison, as he seems to be the only straight guy in there. At first, some thought Harlow's scene was proof of his need to reassure others he was straight, despite being on the track. But Harlow was quick to respond, explaining that Nas wrote the treatment and he would've done the shower scene if asked. I'm not sure if he has the moves for it, but I guess now we'll never know.
Harlow's appearance was also criticized by some in the LGBTQ community for ruining the "gay vibe" of the song and video. They say Harlow's scene with a woman and obviously heterosexual verse shouldn't have been included. I disagree. I think it was a great way to show other straight male rappers that collaborating with a gay artist doesn't take away your masculinity or swagger. Besides, this was a video where a gay man and straight man work together without judging one another, while allowing each other to be their full selves. That's not something anyone should have a problem with.
Many people compliment Nas' ability to use controversy to market himself. While some might genuinely mean it in a complimentary way, it almost implies that scandal is all he has going for him. I think in order to have a hit as big as "MONTERO," it must be about the music. A song can't be on the charts that long and do that well on Spotify if it's just about the controversy. That will last a full week if you're lucky, but people move on pretty quickly. Like it or not, people are enjoying the music and the same can be said about this song too.
"INDUSTRY BABY" was produced by Take a Daytrip and Kanye West. Many people are praising the song's horn section and the catchy hook in the chorus. It has the same infectious quality that "MONTERO" had. Hopefully this single is as big of a hit, if not bigger. It definitely deserves the success. And so does Lil Nas X. He's a talented writer and artist who is breaking barriers. He's giving other gay Black men someone to identify with. He's increasing representation in mainstream popular music and calling out double standards.
There's a lot of homophobia within hip hop. Homophobia has been prevalent in hip hop for a very long time. Some might be under the impression things are changing, but I'm not convinced things have improved that much. It just looks like people are quieter about their bigotry, rather than coming out in the open about it. We do live in a time where such attitudes can result in serious backlash. However, the truth always has a way of showing itself. DaBaby's recent comments about gay men and HIV prove the ignorance is still alive and well. Perhaps Lil Nas X can be a figure to help change that.
He might even cause positive change to occur within the gay community as well. There's a lot of racism within the gay male community and a real lack of diversity. There's also the internalized homophobia which comes out anytime a gay person refuses to play by the rules. If he continues down this path, he might have a career whose legacy is about more than music. He could go down in history for paving the way for other openly gay artists to follow.
That would be nice to see. It's about damn time.