As marriages go, it’s been both unlikely and perfect, with the only strange thing being it took so long for two disparate-on-the-surface bedfellows to come together.
And what an insanely powerful union country-rap has proven to be, as evidenced by the fact that, for the last two-and-a-half months of this year, Lil Nas X’s hip-hop–hayseed hybrid “Old Town Road” has set up 10-week camp in the number-one spot on the Billboard Top 100. That former Nashville punch line Billy Ray Cyrus has been along for the ride only sweetens the deal.
You want to see the most awesome thing since Cleavon Little whipped it out on the streets of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles? Cue up the big-budget video for “Old Town Road”, where the 20-year-old rapper born Montero Hill is first seen riding hell-bent for leather in the dusty Old West, pursued by none other than Sherriff Chris Rock. After dodging a load of buckshot fired by a prospector from the California gold rush, Nas ends up plunging down a rabbit hole that leads to a lawn in inner-city America.
Somehow his horse makes the jump too, which transitions to the two lazily making their way up the streets of a ’hood where everyone gawks incredulously. Who needs a barbecue or a low-rider to keep you entertained when you’ve got Nas, with a molasses-slow flow, rapping “My life is a movie/Bull ridin’ and boobies/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty.”
Thanks to the efforts of pioneering crackers like Kid Rock, country-rap has been a not-overly-respected thing for years. In Rock’s case, that lack of credibility isn’t really fair. And before you go arguing that, let’s state right here that “Cowboy” is one of the greatest things ever committed to compact disc, starting with the lyrics “I’m not straight outta Compton, I’m straight out the trailer/Cuss like a sailor, drink like a mick/My only words of wisdom are just suck my dick.”
Country-rap’s big problem before Lil Nas X? That would be that it was almost always white folks, often looking straight-out-of-the-trailer, making the attempt to bridge the two genres.
The marriage made some sort of cartoonish sense when Bubba Sparxxx or Moonshine Bandits were presiding over things. More difficult to imagine was Drake pulling on a pair of assless chaps and a 10-gallon hat, Tyler, the Creator leading the Borax mule team through Death Valley, or Rico Nasty pulling a Colt .45 on Gary Cooper in Hadleyville at high noon.
The genius of Lil Nas X is that he flipped the script, while looking fly as fuck in a black cowboy hat. Right around the time he realized that maybe his early career choices (standup comedian, computer-science geek, cardiovascular surgeon) weren’t going to work out, he figured maybe the rap and country worlds were ready for something a little different. And that something was a song that straddled worlds with more in common than what the rednecks of Tennessee and the city of Compton might have once thought.
As shaped by giants like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, country started out as music for the poor, prospectless, and disenfranchised people of rural America. As invented by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and then reshaped by legends like Public Enemy, N.W.A, and Kendrick Lamar, rap gave an important voice to the poor, often prospectless, and disenfranchised people of urban America.
Anyone who’ll argue that the two don’t go together like Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg has obviously never heard the Gourds giving “Gin and Juice” the gold-star bluegrass treatment. They’ve never imagined how much fun CupcakKe might have in reworking Wheeler Walker Jr.’s “Redneck Shit”, and its lines “Shoved a dildo up my asshole just to see if it could fit/Buy a bunch of nudie magazines—the ones that show the clit.”
And they’ve never heard the Wrangler-loving Lil Nas X’s “Old Country Road”, a song so perfect that it’s gone from an obscurity played over Red Dead Redemption 2 snippets to the jam Halsey busts her best urban-cowgirl moves to on Instagram.
The ultimate appeal of the song? Like the best hip-hop, it somehow seems totally real—something that’s been lacking in country since Hank Williams III has gone dark. And historically lacking in the white-trash country-rap of Colt Ford, Big Smo, Upchurch, and Moonshine Bandits, fans of which are probably every bit as outraged by the idea of Lil Nas X as the citizens of Rock Ridge were by the existence of a black man (our words, not theirs) having the keys to the local jail cells.
Lil Nas X is a case of cultural appropriation going the other way for a change. There’s a new sheriff in town. No matter how opposed to mixed marriages you might be, you’d best get used to it.