Don't be fooled by his name; Lil Nas X does things big. His debut album, "Montero," has #1 hits, two billion streams on Spotify, and five Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, "What's the story of 'Montero'?"
"This album came during quarantine," Nas replied. "I was just, like, in this place in life where it was, like, I just had this huge moment."
That moment was thanks to his breakout single, "Old Town Road." It was, you could say, a bonanza – a mega-hit that made him an almost-instant star.
Nas said, "And it was like, 'Okay, what do I do now?' So, I just went for it."
What do you mean? "I mean, I went for it as in, 'Okay, how do I reinvent myself? How do I express myself more than I did last time?'"
So this time, Lil Nas X wrote songs about his real life as a gay man, and called the album by his real first name, Montero, all birthed by a Gen Z master of self-promotion and provocation.
Smith asked, "If you could do this year in a word, what would it be?"
"Transformation," he replied. "I feel like I've bloomed into an entirely new version of myself."
Montero Lamar Hill grew up in the Atlanta area – a class clown and an honor roll student. "I had a very fun childhood," he said. "A lot of sad moments as well."
"What're your parents like?"
"Oh, here we go! My Dad, he's a great guy. He got custody of me around the age of 10. Me and my mom, we were kind of close growing up, until addiction got in the way. Right now, you know, we're on good terms. I try to make sure she's always taken care of.
"Honestly I'll say this: I've never, I guess, like, been super-close with either of my parents. I've always felt, like, I guess, a lone person."
"What do you think that did, not really being close to your parents?" asked Smith.
"I think it was one of those things that can hurt and help you at the same time, because I had to find independence within myself."
As he told the audience at a recent concert, "You know, you're so focused on a goal we're trying to achieve, we forget about the things that make us human, like love. Who wants love?"
Smith asked him, "Did you find comfort in social media?"
"Yes. That was probably one of the first places where I was like, 'Oh my God, this is for me!'"
"What's your relationship with Twitter?"
"It's been, like, my actual home," Nas said. "It's, like, my actual family. I've become closer with people who I met online than people who I've met in real life. I learned the ways of the internet.
I've learned how to go viral, and what to stay out of."
And when to crack a joke, like this tweet:
"Yes, that sounds like me!" he laughed. "I wanna always bring, you know, goofiness and entertainment to anything I do, even if it's a serious topic."
He channeled that goofiness into a song he first posted on social media. Smith asked, "What was your life like as you were coming up with 'Old Town Road'?"
"I had just got kicked out of my sister's house. I was now at my brother's house on my brother's floor."
"And your bank account?"
"I had, like, negative $5.62, if I remember correctly."
That changed almost overnight. "Old Town Road" sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for nearly five months, an all-time record, and became a viral pop culture phenomenon.
Smith asked, "So, at the time that you have the number one song in the country, that's when you decided to come out?"
"That would've been the most authentic time," he said. "It's like, I'm not doing it for attention. I'm already like the number one artist in the world right now."
"Were you at all worried about being your true self?"
"There was definitely some fear there. There's always gonna be fear when you're doing something that's literally life-changing. But you just have to do it, you know?"
Nas is not the first out gay rapper. But he may be the first to celebrate his sexuality so openly.
"I feel like I'm definitely much more 'out there' with it," he said. "It's always been, 'Okay, if you're gay, this needs to be sanitized. Let's not include anything sexual.' It's like, 'Be gay without being gay. We don't wanna know what happens behind closed doors, or we don't want you to express that.'"
"And you're saying?"
"I'm saying that I'm gonna do that if I want to. And I want every other artist to feel the same way."
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Lil Nas X on nudity: "Our bodies are art" (YouTube Video)
He seems to delight in creating controversies: He marketed "Satan Shoes" with a drop of blood in the sole. And in the music video for "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," he rode a stripper pole to Hell, for a lap dance with the devil.
Smith asked, "What are you trying to say?"
"Well, you know the saying, you know, 'Gay people go to Hell,' or anybody in the LGBT community? So it's like, 'Okay, I'm goin' to Hell.' I went to Hell!" he replied. "And now people are like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe he did that!' But wasn't I going there anyway? Why are you upset about that?"
He bends gender with what he wears, favoring the bold ("I love a good skirt, they're really free"), and you better believe he knows how to work a red carpet ("A lot of people are gonna be in their suits and stuff, but me, I'm going to be shining"). It all takes a certain amount of confidence, especially on stage, but sometimes, even Nas has to summon that up.
He told Smith, "I still feel a lot of anxiety before. But once I'm on the stage, I feel very, very confident and into it."
At a concert last month, in Inglewood, Calif., he kept the nerves in check. He knows he has to. "When you think of all the greatest artists of all time, they're all amazing at performing," he said. "And I just want to keep getting better and better at it."
And at only 22, Lil Nas X has got plenty of time to do it – and an open road to do even more.
Smith asked, "So, what is next?"
"I have no idea, but it's going to be incredible," he replied. "I'm excited for new music. I don't know what the heck I'm gonna do yet. But it's gonna be a fun career and a fun life."
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Lil Nas X dresses up (YouTube Video)
You can stream the Lil Nas X album "Montero" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):
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Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Steven Tyler.
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