A musical trailblazer with a sixth sense of marketing and memes, Lil Nas X helped create the soundtrack of 2021 with the ubiquitous “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and “Industry Baby.” When it comes to courting virality, the internet-savvy hitmaker is peerless — particularly in the visual medium. By gleefully pushing buttons in the name of social change and self-expression, the 22-year-old has almost single-handedly revived the event video. His ability to harness and build on the resulting publicity makes him Variety’s Innovator of the Year.
“Montero” will be forever linked with its groundbreaking visual, which finds Nas sliding into hell on a stripper pole and proceeding to give Satan a lap dance. Setting the stage for the song with an eye-popping, envelope-pushing video was Nas’ intention from the jump. “For me to feel 100% confident in a song, I have to know exactly how I’m going to promote it,” Nas says. “I’m focused on the smallest of things.”
The meticulousness of the script-flipping video, which amassed hundreds of millions of views on You- Tube, galvanized social media and crossed over to mainstream news outlets. Nas was accused of “psychotic wickedness” by religious leaders, became a talking point on Fox News and infuriated Nike with his custom-made “Satan” shoes.
The video sparked the kind of uproar not seen since the 1980s, when Madonna made out with Jesus in “Like a Prayer,” but instead of deflecting or running from the controversy, Nas wholeheartedly embraced it — stoking the flames by starting a #PoleDanceToHell challenge on TikTok (he offered a $10,000 incentive) and steadily unveiling post-drop content including a mock apology video and a series of meme-referencing troll posts.
“Montero” resonated with a demographic hungry for unapologetic queer representation in pop culture. “A lot of people said that it helped them,” Nas says. There were, however, real-life consequences to his fearlessness. “There was literally someone who chased my car a few days after that video came out, yelling, ‘Fuck you!’ or something,” he told Variety in August. “And that’s when I actually started getting security.”
Unnerved but resolute, the Grammy winner artfully teased “Industry Baby,” his chart-topping collaboration with Jack Harlow, by releasing a mock trial skewering the Nike controversy. And while lightning rarely strikes twice, the “Industry Baby” video, directed by Christian Breslauer, made headlines thanks to a choreographed jailhouse shower scene involving a dance troupe of nude men. Social media took the bait, and the buzz was on.
Determined to extend the chatter, Nas got creative. He quickly uploaded an “Uncensored” version, which hilariously starts buffering at the shower scene, and followed it up with “Industry Baby Without Music,” which has garnered 19 million views. When it came time to release his album, the genre-blurring artist conjured his own TV show — complete with a pregnancy subplot.
“I’m always trying to give people a show while also pointing out the flaws within society,” Nas say of his daring visuals. That’s certainly true of his latest single, “That’s What I Want,” which boasts a telenovela-worthy narrative about the hitmaker falling in love with a closeted football player. For the rollout, Nas has upped the ante again by film- ing a fictionalized episode of “The Maury Show” (starring TV host Maury Povich) — the theme is “Leave Your Wife for Me Today … That’s What I Want!” — in which he confronts his married lover.
It’s another example of the promotional savvy that Nas has exhibited ever since he came on the scene with 2019’s “Old Town Road.” “I’m the product of the internet, so now that I’m here, I can use all these tools to my advantage,” he says. “I feel like I’m in control of my career. I’m not bowing down to what someone on my team says. I can’t be successful without being creatively free.”