The whole world is talking about Lil Nas X.
Well, maybe not the entire planet; after all, we're still in a global pandemic, the murderer of George Floyd is currently on trial; mass shootings are back in the news following tragedies in Atlanta and Colorado; and the state of Georgia has just rolled voting rights back to almost Jim Crow-levels of legislated suppression.
But yeah, lots of people are talking about this Lil Nas X thing.
If you've somehow missed it, "this Lil Nas X thing" is the latest video and marketing campaign from "Old Town Road" rapper Lil Nas X. The video for his latest single "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" features classical imagery that references the fall of Satan, most notoriusly, the vid ends with Lil Nas grinding on the devil before taking the Dark Prince's horns as his own. In conjunction with the video, a collaboration was announced between the artist and MSCHF Product: limited edition Nike "Satan Shoes."
Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem blasted the rapper and the shoes via Twitter. “Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it's ‘exclusive.’ But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul.”
The backlash against Lil Nas X has been raging on social media and across talking head platforms online and otherwise. While defending Lil Nas X's artistic approach, fellow rapper Joyner Lucas criticized the spectacle.
“I think the biggest problem for me is the fact he doesn't understand ‘Old Town Road’ is every kid's anthem,” Lucas tweeted. “Children love him for that record. They tuned in and subscribed to his channels. So, with no disclaimer, he just dropped some left-field ish & all our kids seen it. Smh.”
Obviously, popular music has always known that the easiest way to piss off the status quo is dabbling in a lil touch o' satanism. The blues was branded "the devil's music" and lore stated that to truly become great on the guitar, a bluesman had to go down to the crossroads and sell his soul to the devil himself. Classic rock bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin traded on rumors of devil worship; and 80s heavy metal bands such as Slayer and Iron Maiden openly flaunted a fixation with satanic imagery.
And in the case of Hip-Hop history, artists dancing with the devil isn't all that new, folks.
Horrorcore artists like the early Geto Boys and Gravediggaz delivered macabre, twisted songs that referenced everything from rape, necrophilia to the occult. In 1994, horrorcore act the Flatlinerz debuted with their first and only album, U.S.A. (Under Satan's Authority). The group, which was co-founded by Jamel "Redrum" Simmons (Russell Simmons nephew), never dropped a follow-up, but were also significant in the emergence of horrorcore in the mid-1990s. But rappers referencing the devil didn't begin and in with Hip-Hop's most delightfully demonic subgenre.
A Harlem legend and one of the most mythologized lyricists in Hip-Hop lore, Columbia Records signee Big L found himself banned from radio over his track "Devil's Son." On the song L raps:
“On my skull the 666, no tricks
When I catch fits, my mom picks up the crucifix
And I kill chumps for the cheapest price
I’m rollin’ with Satan, not Jesus Christ..."
L had been a prize signee for Columbia, along with Queens upstart Nas, in 1993. "Devil's Son" was Big L's first single release, but radio wouldn't play it because of the lyrics. It set the stage for Big L's brief and tumultuous tenure with Columbia, who barely promoted his debut album and released him from his contract soon thereafter.
Down in Memphis, Three Six Mafia was making a name for themselves with an underground release called Mystic Stylez. The album's dark, murky production served as an appropriate backdrop for lyrics that referenced murder, psychosis and, you guessed it, Satan.
"They only saw da mask of Jason that I had on my face
The scandalous bitch is so-so slick that why I got away safe
I blaze da blunt up in da air just to relax and get high
Da moon is full and all I see is 6-6-6 in da sky
The Three 6 Mafia
Tha devils daughter bitch is so wild..."
- "Mystic Stylez," Gangsta Boo (Three Six Mafia)
Three Six Mafia reveled in references to darkness and the occult, they gave many of their early albums apocalyptic titles and with a label called "Hypnotized Minds" it was obvious they weren't shying away from any diabolical implications. The devilish lyrics seemed more for shock value than anything else, even as the group became major mainstream stars in the 2000s.
"No, it’s the same old stuff. Same old stuff. It’s entertainment," co-founder Juicy J told the Chicago Maroon in 2008. "You know, people want to be entertained. I’m not gonna hold back words. I don’t feel I have to hold anything back, you know—it’s entertainment and you will be entertained."
But when DMX dropped like a bomb on the rap game in the late 1990s, he brought with him a conflicted persona that embodied the struggle between the darkness and the light. Known for including heartfelt conversations with God on his albums and falling to his knees in prayer onstage, X wore his spirituality on his sleeve; but it wasn't limited to salvation.
With songs like "The Omen" and "Damien" (which featured a guest appearance from Marilyn Manson), DMX explored the darkness within his own psyche, often personified as demonic personas urging him to do wrong.
DMX's music was heavily informed by his personal battles, and those battles made headlines for years. X's art and his life were defined by the conflict within him, and his impassioned songs displayed his pathos; forever wrestling with the spirit.
"Whenever I went through something, it brought me way more closer to God," DMX freestyled in 2018. "And I stated it in a song, so now I'm closer to God. But being closer is hard. The attacks get stronger, become much harder to fight, and they last longer! That's what it's always been ... but with the right perspective it can be something to gain."
With the advent of social media and YouTube, the scrutiny on artists became more obsessive; as conspiracy theories were proliferated across platforms. In the late 00s, fans spent countless hours on YouTube, picking apart music videos by superstars like Kanye West and Rihanna, looking for satanic imagery and clues that these artists were card-carrying members of the illuminati, a clandestine organization bent on world domination and destruction.
Songs by Jay-Z were said to be rife with satanic messages; tracks from the uber-popular "Empire State Of Mind" (with it's misinterpreted "...Jesus can't save you, life starts when church ends" line) to the somewhat more predictably controversial "Lucifer."
In 2014, a book by author Gary Margrove was published with lurid accusations that decried stars who allegedly belonged to a Satan-worshipping cult. This kind of hysteria has always had a home. But the rumors weren't limited to chart-topping superstars. Tech N9ne has become one of the most respected artists in indie rap, having a built a large following with little to no mainstream support. The Kansas City legend was branded a devil-worshipper early in his career, because of his imagery.
"People looked at my face paint, my crazy lyrics, my wild red hair and how loyal and intense my fanbase the Technitions were," N9ne told The Boombox in 2011. "They were talking about me being a cult leader. Can you imagine being in a place early on where outside of Strangeland everybody calls you a devil worshiper or a cult leader and your own people -- black people -- are not even coming to your shows?"
In 2018, N9ne questioned why Hip-Hop fans (and, per his estimation, the Black community) seemed to have no problem with Lil Uzi Vert's name and imagery, when he felt the culture had shunned him in the early 2000s due to rumors he was a satanist.
Posting on Instagram, Tech asked, “How is he not shunned by the black folks that turned their back on me in 2001 due to my imagery being satanic in their eyes? Not that I want this young brotha to be shunned, i just wanna understand how folks can look at my painted face and say devil and satan but not look at his painted face (L9L) with an UPSIDE DOWN CROSS and NOT say devil and satan?”
“Help me out y’all! I ask with love in my heart and NEVER hate!”
"Who the hell is Satan? And why I gotta be him? I ain't worshiped Nathan, so why you gotta see him? When you look at me, is it the imagery? It's gotta be god-l-y, evil's not my energy..."
- "Devil Boy," Tech N9ne
Lil Uzi Vert's upside-down cross and name (supposedly evoking "Lucifer" sounded out slowly), made him a fixture on conspiracy videos and Satanic "Truther" online theories. He was the latest in a long line, and Lil Nas X has now become the latest Hip-Hop artist to dance with the devil.
Of course, all of this depends on how religious or easily offended you are. The critics of "Montero" fall across the spectrum; some are religiously taken aback, some are letting their homophobia do the thinking for them, some are just confused at such a provocative project from the "Old Town Road" guy. For Lil Nas X's part, he's explained exactly why he chose such inflammatory imagery.
“I grew up in a pretty religious kind of home—and for me, it was fear-based very much,” he told TIME. “Even as a little child, I was really scared of every single mistake I may or may not have made. I want kids growing up feeling these feelings, knowing they’re a part of the LGBTQ community, to feel like they’re O.K. and they don’t have to hate themselves.”