Illustration by Matt Chessco

    From Satan-themed sneakers featuring a drop of human blood and a Wrangler jeans line to taking on country music and its race problem, Lil Nas X has proved to be a master of social media and pop culture for several of his 22 years. Born on the outskirts of Atlanta as Montero Lamar Hill, Lil Nas X began cultivating an online persona across various social platforms, most notably Twitter, as a teen, characterized by the incisive, cultural memes he created. A gifted vocalist from childhood, he dropped out of the University of West Georgia after his freshman year in order to pursue a music career, hoping to capitalize on his already devoted Twitter following. But it wasn’t until he blended rap and country music with his Internet savvy that he truly experienced a breakout. He released his first single, “Old Town Road,” in December 2018, making an estimated 100 memes to promote it; the song later went viral on TikTok in early 2019, propelled largely by the #Yeehaw Challenge it prompted.

    Billboard removed the track from its Hot Country 100 chart shortly thereafter in March 2019, claiming it “[did] not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” This spurred much controversy within the country music community, with prominent music critics calling the decision racist. But Lil Nas X harnessed the moment to address racism and heteronormative interpretations of masculinity within the genre, and the song became a history-making debut: Not only did the track spend 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (the longest tenure since the chart’s inception), the singer came out at the same time—the first-ever artist to do so while his or her song was in the No. 1 slot. His highly anticipated debut album, Montero, was released on Sept. 17, 2021, to universal acclaim. Widely regarded as a queer Black icon in both music and fashion alike, Lil Nas X shows no signs of stopping his meteoric rise to becoming one of the most influential artists of our time.