Lil Nas X recently made an astute observation on Twitter: “It’s crazy how any baby born after march has not lived in a world where old town road wasn’t number 1 .”
It’d be hard for anyone to imagine life without the 20-year-old Georgia rapper’s smash debut single. “Old Town Road” has now notched a record-breaking 17th week atop the Hot 100, one-upping the previous record of 16 weeks (shared by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” featuring Justin Bieber).
Along the way, Lil Nas X has drafted Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug, BTS, Mason Ramsey and Diplo for various remixes, and released a star-studded five-minute music video “movie” for the track — bringing his growing Twitter fanbase (2.5 million followers as of publication) along for the ride with a steady stream of memes and funny musings about his unorthodox rise.
He’s played everything brilliantly so far. But where does he go from here?
If it were up to Peter Rosenberg, it’s time to “move on” from “Old Town Road.” “I don’t see how much more life one could get out of it,” says the outspoken Hot 97 host, who declared the song to be “dead” in May — and has since admitted his error.
Plus, he thinks Lil Nas X’s debut EP 7, rushed out from Columbia Records in June, has solid follow-ups in Cardi B team-up “Rodeo” and “Panini,” for which Lil Nas has been teasing a new music video. “As silly as the record is, ‘Panini’ sounds natural to who he is and to his fanbase,” Rosenberg says of the song, in which the rapper muses on the effects of sudden stardom while referencing kids’ show Chowder.
He adds that hip-hop acts with a major pop hit are often more susceptible to the “one-hit-wonder” label, even if they have successful careers within the rap world.
“It’s an easy trap to fall into,” he says, “Even though [‘Old Town Road’] is a catchy, fun record, it is also a caricature. If he hopes to get taken seriously as an artist beyond that, you have to move on to the next thing.”
Even so, Joseph Cabey, manager to Taylor Bennett and founder of creative services firm Just Chicago Group, doesn’t think Lil Nas should quit on promoting “Old Town Road” just yet. After all, despite already having achieved one of the highest chart accolades possible, the track is only about four months old. “It still has a lot of life in it,” Cabey says.
He even thinks Lil Nas X could squeeze out a few more remixes. (Lil Nas appears to think so, too.)
“A lot of young artists don’t understand that they have to push a record,” Cabey adds, rather than simply dropping single after single. “Cardi B did [that] really well with ‘Bodak Yellow,’ a record she’d been pushing for a long time.”
Genius head of artist relations and veteran hip-hop journalist Rob Markman feels similarly, estimating that “Old Town Road” could log at least another three weeks of Hot 100 dominance. “I just don't see what else is coming up to challenge him,” he says, noting that the song has already fended off releases from Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and the duo of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.
But the remix strategy could put Lil Nas X in an awkward position, warns Michelle McDevitt, president and co-founder of rap publicity firm Audible Treats, as he’ll inevitably have to turn down some offers — and risk being “blacklisted” for features down the line. “He must be getting hit up from so many people like, ‘I wanna be on the remix,’” she says. “If he says, ‘nah,’ they might be salty.”
Markman says that with future releases, Lil Nas X should focus on the fans who were on his side from the start — and even before “Old Town Road,” when he was uploading braggadocious rap songs to SoundCloud after dropping out of college, making memes to build his Twitter follower count in his spare time. “There's a big number of fans who knew him from his previous [music]. For them, this win feels like their win,” he says. “I would focus on that core audience first, the people who are really here for Lil Nas X.”
In the meantime, McDevitt thinks Lil Nas could benefit from staying out of the public eye as he preps his new music. While he’s on the DL, she suggests he invite a few “high-level publications” to witness his studio sessions under embargo, so that he has press ammunition in hand once he’s ready to release new music.
“You want to build anticipation for the next thing,” says McDevitt, who has worked with T-Pain and T.I. “People will notice, like, ‘I wonder if he’s gearing up for something big.’” She adds that he should continue to link with companies that fit his brand, like his recent partnership with Wrangler, which “Old Town Road” cheekily name-checks (“Wrangler on my booty…”).
A number of industry experts agree on one thing: Lil Nas X has potential as a live performer, especially given the dedicated following he’s already built as an Internet personality. “I’ve seen him in videos on the internet before the record [blew up],” says Cabey. “Through working on performance, he’ll start learning how to move demographics or age groups he may not be touching already.”
But he’ll have to put in some work. “The first few performances, the novelty of seeing him with Billy Ray Cyrus — it’s almost as if he didn’t have to do anything but show up and let the song play,” Rosenberg says. “As time goes on, he’ll be expected to do more.”
Whatever Lil Nas X decides to do next, McDevitt would urge him to put his mental health first. She’s seen many young clients become troubled by the growing pains of sudden fame, like suddenly hearing from estranged family members and getting used to having a bodyguard.
“Artists these days don't get a lot of experience learning the ups and downs of the industry before they're thrust into the spotlight, and expected to make decisions like somebody who's been in the game for a long time,” she explains. “I would want to make sure that he's surrounded by a team that can nurture him emotionally.”
now we focus on panini pic.twitter.com/JSBAmUUcla
— nope (@LilNasX) July 29, 2019
Cabey would agree, but thinks the way Lil Nas X has responded to the sudden fame thus far is a sign that he’ll only come out of this four-month rollercoaster stronger. Throughout the “Old Town Road” madness, the rapper has stayed true to his same bubbly, down-to-earth personality in public appearances and online, and listeners seem to be connecting with that authenticity.
“Other artists get stuck; they get shy; they don’t know what to do,” Cabey says of sudden fame. “Lil Nas X is having a blast.”