More than any working pop star, Lil Nas X understands how music is consumed in the contemporary landscape: in pieces, in memes, in reaction videos, in snippets of audio used to soundtrack get-ready-with-me clips on social media. In intimations and nudges. In discourse that may or may not have much to do with said music at all.
And so for Lil Nas X, a song is a pretense. He is less a rapper or a singer than a meme maker with a seven-figure budget. Music is the fourth or fifth most important part of his presentation, the foundation for missives on X (formerly Twitter), TikToks and Instagram posts that matter as much, and probably more.
Or, as the hook of his new single “J Christ” muses: “Is he ’bout to give ’em something viral?”
That would be the goal, of course, but the best viral content bubbles up unpolished from the ether, slightly awkward and just novel enough to astound. That’s what Lil Nas X made his name with. It is the story of “Old Town Road,” his breakout song, which went from TikTok curiosity to bar mitzvah anthem in just a few months in early 2019.
The vexatious “J Christ” tries to reverse engineer that kind of success. It is planned virality, mood-boarded and line-itemed. First, it is a concept — Lil Nas X is returning — and only then, a visual narrative and a song to animate it. The result is stylish but not artistic, glossy but without shine, hyperstylized but lazy. Being the most clever pop star is much easier than being the most clever online comedian, and his tropes are wearing thin.
In the video, which vividly and sometimes beautifully riffs on cheap shock, he is a Christ-ish figure — another comeback king! — dancing his way through various fields of evil in a lumpy sequel to a beloved original: “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” Lil Nas X’s comically baroque single and video from 2021. In that playful and bizarre clip, he theatrically tussles with the temptations of new fame, culminating in giving a lap dance to Satan. It was refreshing, winking bacchanal — a whole idea.
“J Christ,” to the extent that it functions at all, works in bits. The video is merely a string of micro-shock vignettes, many of them a callback to his greatest hits (of two years ago): the Satan Shoes containing a drop of blood, the stripper pole to hell from the “Montero” video. He remakes the “Jesus crossing up Satan on a basketball court” meme. He ushers a flock of animals to a big boat. (That was Noah, but whatever.) In a promotional clip, he pounds his staff onto the ground and parts a huge body of water. (Moses, but who’s counting.)
The video opens, for unclear reasons, with celebrity impersonators of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Ed Sheeran, Kanye West and more lined up at heaven’s gate. This conceit, too, is recycled — either from the nearest Madame Tussauds, or from West’s 2016 “Famous” video, a far more titillating and genuine transgression.
Each of these micro jokes functions like a jump scare — just unexpected enough to elicit a tiny gasp. But underneath, there’s little scaffolding. They’re punchlines designed to be clipped and denatured of meaning. The lyrics are empty, too — only the grating, nasal, syllable-extending assonance rhyming “vi-i-i-ral”/“hi-i-i-gh” has any stickiness. (It should be said that the video is a small triumph of wardrobe: striped sweat socks under cowboy boots paired with a sheer wrap, a pink cheerleader outfit, a bejeweled headpiece that bisects the face vertically. The haute-camp styling is the most conceptually rigorous thing here.)
Record labels are increasingly in the content business, and by that metric, Lil Nas X is the platonic ideal of a star. Imagine the meetings involving artists who are less comfortable with the camera, less self-aware, less fluent with algorithmic distribution. Imagine musicians who simply wish to play music.
Lil Nas X cannot. “yall mind if i enter my christian era?” he asked on Instagram a few weeks ago, in a caption to a video in which he sang a folk-gospel song more elegant than anything he’s thus far released.
Lil Nas X even weaponized, meekly, the media outlets that would have given him breathless coverage regardless. The @PopCrave X account shared staged red carpet footage of the celebrity doppelgängers from his video shouting his praises as if it were real. Official Spotify accounts posted “LNX is back with more mid-music 🤷♂️” — he’s trolling the critics in advance.
Call it what you want: a statement of fact, a statement of defiance, a statement of indifference. But really it’s just a cheap LOL, and a place for Lil Nas X defenders to aggregate.
But all this attention farming must be tiring. During his last rollout, Lil Nas X spent loads of time on Twitter dunking on adversaries. Now, he’s doing much less of that, while sprinkling in the exasperation of the misunderstood: “since i’m a troll y’all discount my art as just ‘pissing ppl off,’” he wrote before “J Christ” was released.
In a self-filmed four-minute video posted across all his social media on Monday, he paced and spoke seemingly extemporaneously about some of the backlash he’s received for his playful manipulation of religious imagery and themes. The Grammy-winning Christian rapper Lecrae said on X, “if God can transform King Neb, murders, slave masters, sex workers, etc. he can add another Blasphemer to the list.” And the antic Twitch streamer Kai Cenat fumed, “God gonna handle you, bro.”
These are deep-sigh, predictable responses to deep-sigh, predictable jokes. But in his response video, it would seem Lil Nas X is taking critiques like these seriously. At one point, he apologizes for some of his specific bits, even while confessing that he doesn’t fully understand the imagery he was referencing.
That said, the most powerful aspect of the clip is the anticipation that he might break character at any moment. Is this simply part of the bit, a setup for the next meme? Is he going to end up sitting down with Cenat for a debate about God, or do a saint-sinner duet with Lecrae?
As he’s walking, Lil Nas X’s selfie camera returns again and again to a shelf with a pair of goofy yellow boots, a collaboration between Crocs and the unbearable meme brand MSCHF (his partner on last cycle’s Satan Shoes). Even in what’s meant to be his most earnest moment, the jester is just around the corner — it’s almost impossible to convey gravity when your sincerest form of expression is mockery.