Monday, June 24, 2019

album review: '7' by lil nas x

I bet there's some of you who thought this would never be released - and I include Lil Nas X in that group.

See, quite a few things have changed and evolved since I appeared on Dead End Hip Hop a few months back to try and clear up a few things about 'Old Town Road', the country trap song that has ruled the Hot 100 for months, where I described the Billboard controversy as less of a discussion of race in country and more one of industry machinations. And turns out for the most part I was right, as when the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus was released, Nashville was able to get its paycheque and let the song lodge itself comfortably on top. And then things started happening that kept proving what I said right - Lil Nas X conveniently leaks that he was an industry plant signed to Columbia, which you might think was a troll, but a.) he would have no reason to say that and it kind of undercuts his entire narrative by doing so; b.) how else did he get that Nine Inch Nails sample cleared on 'Old Town Road', c.) how the hell did the song wind up on so many prominent playlists for streaming and d.) how else did he get that big budget music video otherwise? Most meme songs don't get that widespread in the mainstream without someone pushing levers, the controversy between Nashville labels and mainstream labels was a convenient bit of backdrop and infighting to juice publicity with Billboard hapless in the middle, and it looked like Lil Nas X was content to ride his one hit for as long as he could.

But the ugly truth is that if you're an industry plant, even if your song has been on top for week after week, the label's going to expect something to keep the cash flow going, hence this quickly announced and released EP. All indications was that it wasn't going to be that good - very few folks could make the lightning of a cut like 'Old Town Road' strike twice, but at least it'd be short, right?

So here's the thing: listening to 7, I truly started questioning whether Lil Nas X was actually an industry plant after all, because normally the underlying upside to that assertion is that there's a baseline of competence and polish. And I guess you could make that assertion with this project, it's not nearly as terrible as a few folks have made it out to be - mostly driven out of disappointment that the magic of 'Old Town Road' didn't hit again - but what it absolutely does reflect is a lack of ideas. And if you've listened to the EP and are thinking, 'Wait a second, it's all over the place, how does that not reflect originality', it's more coming from if you know your music history, you will have heard this sound before - and if you're not remotely impressed by it, it's easy to understand why.

In fact, let's keep this short and skip to the point: suffocating in autotune in a futile attempt to produce a melodic hook, Lil Nas X sounds like a Travis Scott wannabe on a bunch of bargain-barrel rap rock tracks with zero instrumental texture, to the point where it shouldn't even be surprising that Travis Barker assisted on production on 'F9mily (You & Me)'. Now if you're coming from 'Old Town Road' that's probably a surprising pivot, but it shouldn't be - if Astroworld sold us anything, it was that there was always a little more twang in Travis Scott's sound than he got credit, and Lil Nas X trying to find the cross-pollination between the two sides isn't a bad idea; it almost makes a certain amount of sense. But we're also not talking about a project with the scope and creativity of Astroworld, and it becomes rapidly apparent that Lil Nas X would rather shitpost his way through low-effort songs than really give a damn about what he's making - which would be a shocking creative pivot until you remember that Travis Scott is often the least interesting part of his own music and from Lil Nas X's point of view, probably the easiest to imitate with the least effort. What threw me off initially was the embrace of all the rap rock tones that have the programmed gutlessness of someone cribbing from alternative rock sounds from the late 90s with none of their firepower, but for someone who built his virality off of cross-genre pollination, it also makes sense in the crudest way possible; after all, it worked for country for as stodgy as it is, why wouldn't it work for rock or alternative radio?

Well, I think it deserves to be mentioned that 'Old Town Road' - which for the record actually shows up twice on this EP, opening with the remix and closing with the inferior original - was only really treated as more than a meme or joke song with the remix. Billy Ray Cyrus' luxury rap flexing and Marlboro Man references served as the mirror to Lil Nas X's country references - that's the reason why the remix of 'Old Town Road' is actually good! But going beyond that one moment... look, Lil Nas X doesn't have much of anything. He actively loses personality by mimicking Travis Scott, and even on songs where he might have a catchy elements or idea, it rarely comes from an original place. Take the second track, 'Panini' - not only is it borrowing its titular character from the cartoon Chowder, but that sung-melody is an interpolation of Nirvana's In Bloom! Or take 'Rodeo', which in sampling 'Pump It' by the Black Eyed Peas seems like an attempt to recreate 'Mo Bamba' but with the most perfunctory eight bar Cardi B verse I've heard in a long time - the song seems like it's trying to be about the give and take of relationships, and I guess some of the Spanish guitar samples opposite the distant whistles might get the tension, but it's a weird vibe that barely works! Beyond that, it's not like the writing of 'F9mily (You & Me)' coherently matches the curdled tension of the rap rock style, and then you have 'Kick It' which I'll admit at least tries to be interesting with its distant squonks and bombastic strings, but how does it fit a song where he sullenly offers someone weed and then when that person doesn't he gets snippy? And there's a similar lightly toxic vibe to 'Bring U Down' - I thought the hook had promise, but then you realize the entire song is all about ratting out someone's secrets and then pairs it with a shrieking guitar solo that ends with a really ugly high-pitched outro! And then there's 'C7osure', which has this scratchy, surprisingly fast-paced beat playing off a lot of weak autotuned crooning about how he wants and needs closure, but he's still referencing her on the hook, only bringing up more on the post-chorus which makes me question at what stage of the relationship he's even in!

Really, the problems with this EP are a broad lack of originality in the sounds and tonal incoherence - in other words, exactly what I'd expect from someone where it might not matter whether you can believe he's an industry plant, he had one golden idea and little else! Beyond that, the other ideas we get are clearly undercooked but with the label desperate to sustain his relevance, they threw name producers and Cardi B at him to make something with traction! But at the same time, I don't really think this is outright bad - derivative and incoherent, sure, but there are the seeds of ideas and hooks here that a little development could have made into good songs - honestly, they're like most memes: built off of old ideas and too disposable to be worth caring about. As such... yeah, very light 5/10, keep the remix of 'Old Town Road' and let Lil Nas X ride off into the sunset with his brief moment of success - let him go to live and troll another day.

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