If you’ve been on Twitter during the last few weeks, I’m sure you’ve seen the meme videos backed with the new country/rap single “Old Town Road” by up-and-coming musician Lil Nas X. I’ve listened to my fair share of country music and have become a fan of rap since joining a college fraternity of basic bros. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to cover this fascinating song — along with the controversy surrounding it.
Lil Nas X is an Atlanta-based rapper who started uploading music to Soundcloud after gaining a sizeable following on his Nicki Minaj fan account on Twitter called “Nas Minaj.”
Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” released in December 2018 is his first crossover country single — a breakaway from his typical rap releases. The song includes a modern rap beat with a killer hook that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Lil Nas is proof that a SoundCloud rapper from Atlanta can effectively incorporate country into their work. The song became a trendy meme in the last few weeks — a visibility which Lil Nas has embraced.
This is where the story gets interesting. After debuting at No. 19 on the country music charts, Billboard removed “Old Town Road” claiming that it does not embrace “enough elements of today’s country music in its current version.” After some controversy and a new feature by Billy Ray Cyrus, the song was back climbing the charts and is currently at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
Why did it take a feature from Billy Ray Cyrus, a musician whose last hit was “Achy Breaky Heart” back in 1992 to qualify “Old Town Road” as a “true” country song? As a country music aficionado, I hope to answer that.
Let’s unpack why Billboard hesitates to define an Atlanta-based rapper’s music as bonafide country. If you take a look at its current Top 100 Country Charts, you’ll find it filled with all sorts of mid-tempo, drum-machine, and snap/clap style beats. For the past few years, modern country music has been adopting the influences of hip-hop and rap, and I sense a double standard within the music industry that pushes out a song simply for its beat.
If you listen to the lyrics of “Old Town Road” or any country hit from the last few years, you’ll see that Lil Nas’ lyrics are not the issue.
The lines of “Old Town Road” are consistent with contemporary mainstream country lyrics like hits by Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and Zac Brown Band.
“Boys ‘Round Here” by Blake Shelton
Yeah, the boys ’round here / Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks / Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here / Sendin’ up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit / Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
“This is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line
Yeah baby this is how we roll / We rollin’ into town
With nothing else to do we take another lap around / Yeah holla at your boy if you need a ride
If you roll with me, yeah you know we rollin’ high
“Chicken Fried” by Zac Brown Band
You know I like my chicken fried / And cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right / And the radio up
It seems like contemporary country music lyrics have become simple lists of all things “country.” So how is “Old Town Road” any different?
“Old Town Road” – Lil Nas X
I got the horses in the back / Horse tack is attached
Hat is matte black / Got the boots that’s black to match
Ridin’ on a horse, ha / You can whip your Porsche
I been in the valley / You ain’t been up off that porch, now
If it’s not the instrumentation and not the lyrics, why did “Old Town Road” suddenly reemerge on Billboard’s charts? The simple answer: Billy Ray Cyrus. According to Billboard, the Billy Ray version of the song contained enough elements of modern country music in order for it to qualify for the country charts. But what does Billy Ray add that Lil Nas couldn’t provide on his own?
Hat down, cross town, livin’ like a rockstar / Spent a lot of money on my brand new guitar
Baby’s got a habit, diamond rings and Fendi sports bras / Ridin’ down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car
If you listen to Billy Ray’s lyrics, you’ll see that he simply adds another list of country imperatives, which seems to be the trend in contemporary country music. His singing style is noticeably similar to Lil Nas’, and I can’t help but wonder if the remix’s success has something to do with Billy Ray’s whiteness.
Traditional popular country music features white musicians, and the few exceptions, such as Darius Rucker and Charley Pride, seem to embody a certain persona typical of the most popular country singers. Lil Nas, on the other hand, maintains a personal style more similar to traditional rappers.
Overall, the contemporary country music scene has no issues borrowing tropes and musical styles from the rap and hip hop scenes. But as soon as an outsider to the traditional country scene, a nuanced black rapper from Atlanta, tries to get involved, Billy Ray has to be included in order for the music to be considered truly “country.”