A year ago, no one even knew who Lil Nas X was.
It seems hard to believe, given how omnipresent his genre-defying, chart-topping hit “Old Town Road” has been for the last few months, but it’s true. if you’d said the name out loud last summer, the people around you might’ve looked at you funny and assumed you’d mistakenly combined the names of a few other rappers. But that was then and this is now.
And now, Lil Nas X holds a place in the history books.
The 20-year-old rapper/singer, born Montero Lamar Hill, has successfully maintained his perch atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 18 impressive weeks—the most in the chart’s 60+ year history—with the track officially pulling out of its three-way tie with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men‘s 1995 hit “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber‘s 2017 smash “Despacito” last week.
Since its debut in the charts, “Old Town Road” has been a lightning rod for controversy, leaving traditionalists stumped over how to classify the track—Is it country? Rap? Trap? Does it even matter?—and what to think about its quality. But the fact that it’s even charted at all, let alone come to rule the roost, is more unlikely than you might think.
He only started making music last May, driven to it, as he told the magazine, “out of boredom.”
“When I first started to do music, I was kind of doing what I thought people would want me to do,” he said, but when he came across a a beat on the site BeatStars, which allows aspiring artists to either purchase or lease instrumental tracks, entitled “Future type beat,” he found what would ultimately allow him to do “what I wanted to do.”
“I knew the way I was going to have to push the song to get it to hit more people’s ears,” he told the magazine. “I run a meme type of account on Twitter; I know what my audience is looking for. So I put some potentially funny lines in there.”
While the song was blowing up on TikTok, Hill also made it available on more conventional avenues, like SoundCloud, iTunes, and Spotify. “I labeled it ‘country’ on each platform,” he told Rolling Stone. “Country trap doesn’t even exist when you’re picking out the genres to upload, and I feel like it leans more towards country than trap.”
In a statement released to Rolling Stone, Billboard said 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.”
Despite the publication’s insistence that the decision had nothing to do with race, there were several people who found a black man being told his song doesn’t qualify for a genre that tends to skew predominantly white troubling at best. The hip-hop community, in particular, leaped to his defense. “I wasn’t expecting so much support because I just thought it would be one of those things that nobody really would care about,” he told Rolling Stone about the reaction. “It’s a purist type of situation, where people have been seeing things one way and that is the way they would like to keep it.”
While he hit No. 1 all on his own, he’d already enlisted some help to make the song even bigger, teaming up with Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix that was released on April 5. A day before the remix’s surprise drop, Cyrus sang Hill’s praises on Instagram, writing “Been watching everything going on with OTR. When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me ‘Take this as a compliment’ means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!”
The week their remix dropped, the song set an all-time streaming record with 143 million U.S. streams, which was nearly 30 million more than Drakes “In My Feelings,” which previously held that distinction. Since then, the song has racked up eight of the top 10 all-time streaming weeks, including each of the top three, and has never dipped below 70.5 million streams in a week.
In late June, Hill’s story became even more noteworthy thanks to his admission that he is gay. On the last day of Pride Month, he tweeted, “some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y’all to listen closely to c7osure,” a song on his debut EP 7. A day later, he tweeted again, pointing out a rainbow-colored building on 7’s cover while writing, “deadass thought i made it obvious.”