Here’s how Lil Nas X disrupted the country music machine

With his breakout hit, "Old Town Road," the 19-year old is changing the way we think about the genre.

April 5, 2019

Even at the mainstream level, hip hop has always made regular targets out of both social and sonic barriers, with its latest genre-bend arriving this year in the form of the country-trap hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. The instantly-viral ascendance of the song—and its subsequent removal from Billboard’s Hot Country charts this week—has sparked discussions regarding the borders of genre and who gets to define them, with Lil Nas X even bringing along Billy Ray Cyrus to offer his achy-breaky two cents.

Even for internet standards, this whole deal has gone down pretty quickly, which is why we’ve rounded up the whole saga, from the overnight success of Lil Nas X to his Billy Ray collaboration for your convenience.

Who is Lil Nas X?

The 19-year-old Atlanta rapper initially found internet fame on Twitter through operating a popular Nicki Minaj fan account before being encouraged by his large base of followers to start recording music. In July 2018, he released his debut mixtape, Nasarati, to Soundcloud before dropping “Old Town Road” later that December.

Where did “Old Town Road” even come from?

Much like fellow Atlanta rappers iLOVEFRiDAY and their viral hit “Mia Khalifa”, the ascendance of “Old Town Road” can be credited to its proliferation on Vine-but-with-lip-syncing app TikTok, where the song’s memorable switch-up from trapping to low country drawl inspired the wildly-popular “Yeehaw Challenge” that’s dominated the platform over the early months of 2019:

The Billboard ban

As the track achieved online notoriety, the success of “Old Town Road” spread to the charts as it propelled itself to #15 on the Top 40, #7 on the US R&B/Hip Hop charts, even being the highest current song to debut on the US Country charts at #19 until this week, when the song mysteriously disappeared from those Country charts.

Though Billboard made no formal announcement of the removal “Old Town Road” from their Country chart, in a statement to Rolling Stone, the institution revealed that “upon further review, it was determined that “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

The removal occurred despite Lil Nas X’s listing of the song under the “Country” genre on both Soundcloud and iTunes. Unfortunately, the rapper’s artistic intentions being overruled by Billboard was seen by many as another example of the music industry’s troubled history when it comes to their definitions of genre and how they relate to race—specifically, who it is that gets to make those musical definitions. Thankfully, other rappers have taken note:

The Horses in the Back Strike Back

Not to be deterred by the Billboard blacklisting, Lil Nas X has returned and this time he’s brought friends. Recruiting Mr. Montana himself, Billy Ray Cyrus, for the first official remix of “Old Town Road” may or may not be a conscious effort to pivot the song towards Billboard’s more conservative definition of country, but the unlikely partnership is definitely a meeting of “outlaw” minds we’d love to see more of.

Last night, before the remix dropped, Cyrus took to Instagram to give Lil Nas X a shoutout, encouraging the rapper that “only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!”:

The remix dropped shortly thereafter, and Lil Nas X had some praise of his own for Billy Ray:

Though Billboard has yet to announce whether or not the reworked song will qualify for its Country charts, rollercoaster stories like this are proof that Lil Nas X is doing something right in keeping the radical musical ethos and approach of hip hop alive and well, no matter what genre he borrows from.

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