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Why Lil Nas X is putting the Old Town Road Billboard controversy behind him

"I didn't want it to get to that point where it was more popular because of controversy than the song itself," the 20-year-old rapper said in his first Canadian interview.

Old Town Road just beat a 1-week U.S. streaming record previously held by Drake's In My Feelings 

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X team up for the Old Town Road remix, a 'country trap' song that was initially removed from the country charts. (Lil Nas X/Twitter)

When Atlanta musician Lil Nas X released his song Old Town Road, he knew he had a hit on his hands.

But what he didn't know was that it was going to become the centre of a debate around race, genre and what is — and isn't — a country song.

"I didn't want it to get to that point where it was more popular because of controversy than the song itself," the 20-year-old rapper said in his first Canadian interview.

Old Town Road blended elements of both rap and country music to make what Lil Nas X calls country trap, although "it wasn't intentional at first, it just started off like a loner cowboy kind of story," he said. The song first went viral on social media, largely on the TikTok app, then made history by simultaneously charting on the pop, rap and country charts on Billboard. Then it was controversially removed from the country charts for not being country enough.

Currently, it sits atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and it just beat a one-week U.S. streaming record previously held by Drake's In My Feelings

"My initial thought was just like, I'm still on Billboard, you know, I can't complain," he said. "But then, as I went on to listen to more songs that were already on the chart, already including trap elements, it was like, why is this allowed, but my song's not?"

Many critics suggested that the decision was racially motivated, but Billboard contends it had nothing to do with the fact that it came from a black artist rooted in hip-hop, and more to do with the actual elements of the song. While the explanation bothered Lil Nas X, he chose not to pursue it, letting the decision stand.

I saw it as, if you fight back, maybe they're going to try to blackball me in some kind of way, so it was just like, whatever happens happens.- Lil Nas X

"Honestly, I saw it as, if you fight back, maybe they're going to try to blackball me in some kind of way," he said. "So it was just like, whatever happens happens."

What happened after that was Old Town Road went from 83 to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart, making it the fastest rising song for a debut artist since former One Direction singer Zayn released Pillowtalk in 2016.

Then came Billy Ray Cyrus, who joined Lil Nas X in studio to contribute a verse to the official remix, helping propel the already hit song to another level. Both versions of Old Town Road combined for 143 million streams in the U.S. alone, breaking the record previously set by Drake's In My Feelings, which had 116 million streams on the week of July 28, 2018.

"Two days after releasing the song, I was like, everybody retweet this and help me get Billy Ray Cyrus on it, because I wanted him on the song already," said Lil Nas X of getting Cyrus involved. "Then the Billboard situation came along and, you know, this just gave all the more reason for it to happen."

Cyrus, who hadn't had a major hit song since 1992's Achy Breaky Heart, delivered a praiseworthy performance on the remix, but also offered the young artist encouraging words.

"He gave me a lot of advice, but you know, the most inspirational thing was him comparing me to Johnny Cash, and just saying that I'm going to be seen all over the universe," Lil Nas X said. "Just like real uplifting genuine talk, so, great guy for real though."

Other country artists, like Kane Brown, Meghan Linsey and Florida-Georgia Line's Brian Kelly, also showed him support, and Keith Urban recently performed an Old Town Road cover.

 

Lil Nas X says he didn't listen to a lot of country growing up, and isn't directly inspired by it, but as a product of Georgia, where "everything is mixed with everything," he was regularly exposed to it.

"I had heard a few country songs," he says, referring to some of the "bigger" ones like Dolly Parton's Jolene, as well as songs from Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood. "But I respected country so I definitely thought I could do something but mix it with what I do the most, which is hip-hop."

He says he dropped out of college last May to pursue music full time, releasing several songs online but struggling to make ends meet.

"Right before the song came out, I was at my brother's house, after leaving my sister's house, just, you know, staying up all night trying to push songs on the internet," he says. "Just back-to-back headaches, sleeping on the floor. It wasn't good, you know? But I'm in a better place now."

Much better, in fact. Right now, he's holding onto the wild ride that Old Town Road has been, and plans to release an official music video and begin working on his debut album, which he says could be a mix of everything from rap to country to alternative rock.

"None of the songs are going to remotely sound the same," he says, "so the album is automatically not even hip-hop anymore. I'm never making songs with the intention of keeping it in whatever genre box, you know."

As for the controversy around Old Town Road, Lil Nas X has put it behind him and plans to saddle up for the long road ahead.

"I don't really care at this point, because the song has its own life at this point," he says. "So whether it's on whatever chart, I mean, it's number one right now so, oh well."

About the Author

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Producer, CBC q

Jesse Kinos-Goodin is a Toronto-based journalist and digital producer for q. He can be found on Twitter @JesseKG or email jesse.kinos-goodin@cbc.ca

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