Why Lil Nas X Breaking Billboard Records Is Such a Big Deal

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 FonsiDaddy 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.

Prior to unleashing his behemoth track on the world, Hill was just a kid trying to go viral in an increasingly digital world. “I was doing Facebook comedy videos, then I moved over to Instagram, and then I hopped on Twitter,” he told Rolling Stone in April. “That is where I really was a master. That was the first place where I could go viral.”

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.”

So, without ever meeting Young Kio, the teen in the Netherlands who created the instrumental, in part, after coming across the Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghost IV” in YouTube’s recommended section and pulling the track’s banjo loop from it, Hill paid him a whopping $30 for the beat and got to work on a track. Initially written from “a place of sorrow”—”My parents were disappointed in me for leaving school to do music, so it was like a loner cowboy [song],” he told RS—the song’s narrative became more triumphant. More importantly, it became something that was almost expressly crafted to go viral.

“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.”

He self-released the track on December 3, 2018, promoting it as a meme before it went viral on the app TikTok, of all places. If you’re unfamiliar, the app, which is used by millions of kids, allows users to make short clips set to music. The song caught on with users, sparking a #YeeHawChallenge and turning it into a sensation. “I was pretty familiar with TikTok: I always thought its videos would be ironically hilarious,” Hill told TIME in March. “When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me. A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger.”

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.”

By the time the track broke onto the Billboard Hot 100 in early March, debuting at No. 83, that “country” label would be called into question and generate a bit of controversy. After landing a spot on both Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, something that caused Hill to start “running around the house in circles,” the song was quietly removed from the Country chart, with the publication informing the label he’d just signed with, Columbia Records, that its inclusion was a mistake.

In a statement released to Rolling StoneBillboard 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.”

Regardless of the controversy—or maybe because of it—the song quickly zoomed up the charts, reaching the peak on April 8 only six weeks after it made its debut. (The song it unseated? Ariana Grande‘s “7 Rings.”) In the process, Hill became the first artist unaccompanied by another act to take top the Hot 100 on their first try since Cardi B and her smash debut “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, while also giving Columbia Records their first Hot 100 No. 1 since 2016, and their first from a debuting artist since 2015. He turned 20 a day later on what surely was an unforgettable birthday.

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.

Since helping Cyrus land his career’s first No. 1, Hill has released three more remixes, including the latest “Seoul Town Road” with RM from the behemoth K-pop boy band BTS. And if we’re lucky, his recent Twitter engagement with Dolly Parton just might lead to another.

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.”

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