We love labels.
Labels make things easier to describe and categorize, filed away somewhere in our lives to be called upon with the ease of a name. We hate when people try to label us, tell us we're only one thing, boiling us down to a singular style or subject - but wow do we thirst to do it to nearly everything else.
This demand for labels is loud in music, as everyone is anxious to say a singer or a song is one thing or the other. People have "evolved" from Country to Pop, or made the change from Hip Hop to R&B, but rarely do you get to be more than one thing at a time. We lead with the dominate gene of art, and sometimes these genre tribes we have formed will get angry when an artist dares to leave a label we've assigned to them to explore something new.
The latest victim of labeling is Lil Nas X. The artist struck viral gold with "Old Town Road", a song filled with boots and horses, flexing a southern drawl over a trap beat built on a sample from a 10-year-old Nine Inch Nails song. It all plays like label Mad Libs, and now controversy has cropped up over just what to label it at all.
"Old Town Road" originally appeared on the Billboard Country chart, but this week it has been removed for not exhibiting enough elements to be included. It has sparked a debate for the already rising song, giving it new life and leading to a conversation about what the elements of these labels even are.
While the volume is high on talk of what to call "Old Town Road", the point might have been missed. Regardless of labels, Lil Nas X has made a connection, integrating elements from all across music. Long before it had a label, "Old Town Road" found an audience and a young artist started blazing his own trail. The more important question could simply be, who is Lil Nas X?
Montero Lamar Hill is an Atlanta native who dropped out of college in 2018 to pursue music full-time. He's been releasing songs on SoundCloud for the past 10 months, but it wasn't until "Old Town Road" took off on the social video app TikTok that he really gained momentum. The song launched a bidding war for the up-and-coming artist, with him eventually landing on Columbia Records earlier this month. In the past few weeks he has found fans on social media including Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line and Justin Bieber.
Lil Nas X's other work is more inline with definitive Hip Hop, showing off a dynamic flow with a talent for melodic hooks. "Old Town Road" is the outlier, but it doesn't make it individually one thing or the other. The song is so interesting because it is so many things, collecting labels along the way. With his new found fame, the next release from Lil Nas X could ride the vibe of classic Country music or it could be another Hip Hop banger. That should be a credit to an artist's ability, not their downfall.