Welcome to Montero
‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’, a sermon delivered by Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts and Connecticut in July 1741, takes as its text Deuteronomy 32:35, ‘their foot shall slide in due time.’ Edwards warned of the ‘fearful danger’ people were in: ‘There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment,’ he said. ‘When that due time, or appointed time comes, their foot shall slide. Then they shall be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight.’ According to Benjamin Trumbull’s Complete History of Connecticut, Edwards spoke in a calm, level tone, but his words caused ‘a breathing of distress, and weeping’. In the blistering July weather, the congregation would have had no trouble imagining the fire.
Rap is inspired by the lyrical stylings of funk musicians, Afrocentric oral poetry, the hip slang of jazz daddy-os, toasting Jamaican deejays and Black American preachers, but I think Edwards’s way of affecting his audience presaged what Rakim Allah the God MC said about the essential function of the emcee: ‘MC means move the crowd.’ If the events of the last week are to be believed, Lil Nas X is a singer in the hands of an angry God, and certain ultra religious, homophobic segments of the American public, including Edwards’s televangelical heirs. Made famous in 2018 by his smash single ‘Old Town Road’ and its chart-topping remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X is now at the centre of a media firestorm.
On 26 March, he released ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’. The song describes the familiar temptations of sex and drugs, but also a more intimate kind of desire: ‘Cocaine and drinking with your friends/You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend/I’m not fazed, only here to sin/If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can.’ In a spoken preface to the song, he says: ‘In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see. We lock them away, we tell them no, we banish them. But here, we don’t. Welcome to Montero.’ Sonically, the song is a bit of a retread of his 2019 track ‘Rodeo’. In the video for that earlier song, Lil Nas X plays a vampire, wears red contact lenses, and watches as people hold up crucifixes when he walks by. Even before now, as he was riding the high of ‘Old Town Road’, he was casting himself as an outcast, susceptible to fire.
The ‘MONTERO’ video, directed by Tanu Muino and Lil Nas X from a treatment by Lil Nas himself, is a fantasia on the fall of man. Lil Nas X plays all the characters, including Adam in the Garden of Eden, the serpent who tempts him, the heavenly judge and jury who sentence him to hell, and the onlookers who relish his damnation. The video’s aesthetics recall Jacolby Satterwhite’s six-part series Reifying Desire, which stages a computer-generated utopia with Christ-like figures, the gay porn star Antonio Biaggi, the rapper Trina, and 3D imagery inspired by his mother’s drawings and late-night infomercials. ‘MONTERO’ went viral instantly, and sparked discussions about queer desire and expression, homophobia, devil worship, occult iconography and America’s history of Satanic panic. The affable, sharply funny, yet still somewhat neutered figure who performed ‘Old Town Road’ was already an adjustment for Puritan America. The openly gay heretic sliding down a stripper pole’s from heaven to grind on Satan’s lap is too much for them to stand.
To accompany ‘MONTERO’ Lil Nas X announced the release of 666 pairs of limited edition ‘Satan Shoes’, each retailing for $1018. Made in collaboration with a firm in Brooklyn called MSCHF, the trainers are black Nike Air Max 97s modified with red accents, a pentagram shoe tag, ‘one drop of human blood’ in the sole (which, as many people have pointed out on social media, might figuratively belong to the workers in Nike sweatshops; it was apparently provided by six MSCHF employees) and the words ‘Luke 10:18’ on the side (‘And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”’) The shoes sold out in less than a minute. On Monday, Nike sued MSCHF for copyright infringement, and on Thursday was granted a restraining order to halt the fulfilment of orders.
Lil Nas X owed his initial success to his subversive reinvigoration of a popular American stereotype and export, the cowboy. The Old Town Road leads back somewhere, perhaps to a dusty settlement west of the Mississippi River, but more important, back into the past. And it must feel strange for some Americans to see that Lil Nas X has invoked both America’s lie about itself, its halcyon years of God-given westward expansion – just don’t mention slavery or genocide – and the reverberating Puritan belief that all of us are destined for hell and only God’s grace can save us.
A few years ago I went to Akhob, James Turrell’s light installation at the top of a Louis Vuitton store on the Vegas Strip. The shifting coloured light exhibited there, along with Turrell’s Roden Crater installation, inspired Kanye West’s latest album, Jesus Is King, and its travelling roadshow, ‘Sunday Service’. West tried to copyright the phrase ‘Sunday Service’ and reportedly asked collaborators on Jesus Is King to refrain from premarital sex. The album is supposed to occupy a similar space in West’s body of work as Akhob does in the Louis Vuitton store: a transcendent spiritual experience atop a luxury commercial enterprise. West is at his best when he mixes the profane with the profound: the fusion of scatological one-liners, dick jokes and existential inquiries was on magnificent display in ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, from Graduation (2007): ‘If the devil wear Prada, Adam Eve wear nada/I’m in between but way more fresher’; ‘I know that Jesus died for us, but I couldn’t tell you who the side was.’
While Kanye leans into a more fervent religiosity, and loses some of his humour, Lil Nas X has picked up the mantle, and taken religious controversy even further than West did in his three videos for ‘Jesus Walks’. With the Satan Shoes, he has also realised the commercial possibilities of provocation. He began doing a kind of work for free online as a Nicki Minaj stan, and later successfully monetised his labour. His story is rare: most of the creative young Black people who invent dance challenges, slang and TikTok trends are not compensated for it, though the tech companies who host their innovations are.
‘Our kids are being told that this kind of product is not only OK, it’s “exclusive”,’ South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, wrote on Twitter. ‘But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul.’ Hell, however, is not a limited-edition prospect. ‘Their foot shall slide in due time,’ and when it does, it will slide in Lil Nas X’s custom Air Max 97s.
His recent exploits are also reminiscent of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the bluesman with a ragged shout, incredible showmanship and a penchant for outrageous presentation. During performances of ‘I Put a Spell On You’ (1956), he’d dress in a macabre costume that was equal parts ‘Voodoo medicine man’ and fantastical ‘primitive African’ – complete with a bone through his nose and a smoking skull on a stick he named Henry. Hawkins is often described as an early practitioner of ‘shock rock’, a tradition Lil Nas X is now surely a part of. You can’t tell someone their whole life that being gay will cause them to go to hell and not expect them to respond to that messaging, just as you can’t tell Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that Black people are primitive creatures and not expect him to make his entire public persona a joke about those misconceptions.
The subtitle ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a nod both to the fact that Lil Nas X’s given name is Montero, and to Luca Guadagnino’s movie based on André Aciman’s novel. But it’s also a version of the schoolyard rhyme: ‘I’m rubber, and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.’
Lil Nas X and I live in a country where the state’s fear of Black people led Officer Darren Wilson to say that Michael Brown resembled a ‘demon’ before he killed him. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes before his body turned grey. Chauvin’s criminal trial began on Monday. While some Americans are getting riled up about a drop of human blood in a sneaker, Donald Williams II, one of the witnesses to Floyd’s murder, described the technique Chauvin used as a ‘blood choke’, a kind of hold used to restrict blood flow to the brain. ‘What do you believe in, heaven or hell?’ Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan asked in 1994. ‘You don’t believe in heaven ’cause we’re living in hell.’