On July 1, last year, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” broke one of the most impressive records in music history. Lil Nas X’s single became the longest tenured hip hop track on the Billboard Hot 100 at number one for thirteen weeks. The previous record holders were Eminem’s 8 Mile track, “Lose Yourself”, “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas, and “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth off the Fast and Furious franchise. The three previous record holders had maintained the top spot for twelve weeks in a row.
“Old Town Road” was originally released in December 2018 by previously unknown rapper Lil Nas X. After about four months, the song entered the Billboard Hot 100. The song climbed all the way to the 19th spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart before it caused a significant and vocal uproar. Country music fans found the song distasteful and mocking of country music and its accompanying culture. Many outright hated the song, claiming that it manipulated the system and mutilated the genre. The magazine responded to the uproar by disqualifying the song from the chart on grounds that it did not fit the genre, sparking a debate on what constitutes country music. The controversy contributed to further notoriety.
Many had previously remarked that country lyrics fit right into hip hop songs; the two seemingly opposite genres are much closer than originally thought. The production value appeals to their respective audiences. The fusion of the two dynamics seemed to break people’s brains. Because of the comical effect of the fusion, the song shot up in popularity by way of social media app and Vine descendant TikTok.
After gaining popularity from the controversy, the single was re-released by Columbia Records in March 2019. Lil Nas X recorded a remix with country singer and television dad (Hannah Montanah) Billy Ray Cyrus. The remix was released on April 5, 2019 to significant hype. The original version of the song and the remix featuring Cyrus would climb and remain at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a the all time record of nineteen consecutive weeks. It is the most successful single of all time.
The song created a strange subgenre that spawned many names. The genre is perhaps most commonly referred to simply as ,”country rap”. The song was created by Dutch record producer YoungKio. He produced the underlying track which features a loop of a banjo recording. The sample comes from “34 Ghosts IV” a song by Trent Reznor’s industrial rock group, the Nine Inch Nails. The song then incorporates heavy trap elements like heavy subs, booming bass, and drum kicks as well as high hats. Lil Nas X famously bought the rights to the instrumental for a whopping 30 dollars. Lil Nas X then recorded “Old Town Road” in the short span of a single day. Little did he know that he had made the most successful single of all time.
The song achieved some of the most impressive commercial marks in music history. “Old Town Road” reached diamond status in October 2019. It is the fastest song to be awarded diamond status which is achieved when ten million total units are moved. The accolades did not stop there. The “Old Town Road Remix” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus was nominated for Record of the Year at the 62nd Grammys. The two won for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Music Video, stamping Lil Nas X’s career as one of the most improbable and ascendant ever.
The song has been remixed by many artists including Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, a boy who achieved viral fame for yodeling in a local hardware store. Improbable as those two are, they are not the most surprising. One Mariah Carey created a remix of her own. Even Korean pop juggernauts BTS produced their own remix. Lil Nas X rode his horse down the old town road as many times as he viably could.
Old Town Road is perhaps most interesting because of its genre bending. It has been called country rap, country rock Southern hip hop, country trap, and even pop. The song arose out of a wave of memes commonly referred to as the “Yeehaw Agenda”. This term refers to an online movement meant to appropriate cowboy culture and country fashion. Lil Nas X promoted “Old Town Road” by posting footage of the video game, Red Dead Redemption 2, a Western set game about a gunslinger. The videos were swallowed by Youtube’s algorithm and it attracted a wide ranging audience. This trend was then spread onto Tik Tok by users who deal heavily in satirical content.
The comedic application of country music to a hip hop produced song made the defenders and gatekeepers of country music skeptical and outright hostile. Some in the industry suggested that Lil Nas X created the genre bending song with the intent of manipulating charts as it would be easier to climb to the top of country music than it would be to climb hip hop charts.
The hint of insincerity is what those take issue with. While many would say that Lil Nas X made the songs to mock country music, this seems inconsistent with Lil Nas X’s attitude. Lil Nas X is a 21 year old man from Lithia Springs, Georgia. He grew up in a small city outside of Atlanta. Having grown up in the south, he was influenced and exposed to country music for much of his life. Lil Nas X is also the first and only openly LGBTQ artist to win a Country Music Association award. He is a trailblazer in more ways than just genre. Lil Nas X has never vocalized any ill will towards the country music community and instead has continued to don cowboy attire in all of his public appearances. It seems what many interpreted as mockery may actually be a form of earnest flattery.
Written by Christian Girgis, a contributor to RapTV