Why Lil Nas X’s ‘Dead Right Now’ is the song of the year —

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The hater — both the general concept of “hating” and the actual, physical hater — is as essential to the structure and aesthetic of contemporary music as the breakbeat and the trap drum. Their presence and the articulation of their existence create both a baseline tension and an implied social proof. People only hate if you matter enough to be hated.

Beyoncé, of course, reminds them to “bow down” (and Becky with the Good Hair to be on call-waiting). Taylor Swift shakes them off. Kanye West shoehorns group texts sent from them into his verses. After many years and umpteen songs into his career, Drake is still discovering ways to invent new “friends” to, um, unfriend. The most popular artists even have syndicates of stans, obsessed fans whose only waking purpose seems to be to locate and challenge anything existing under the nebulous “hate” umbrella. Biggie Smalls was half right when he said, “You’re nobody till somebody kills you,” ’cause the reality is you’re nobody till somebody wants to.

It’s shortsighted to dismiss each reference to haters as an editorial embellishment. I mean, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls and Big L and Nipsey Hussle and Pop Smoke were actually killed. But mostly they exist the way bulletin board material does for athletes — an exaggeration (or conjuring) of grievance, weaponized to fuel motivation.

Lil Nas X, however, has no need to fabricate editorial urgency. His haters are real. There are people — many, many, many people — who believe he’s an abomination. Who want him ignored. Silenced. Disappeared. Harmed. Violated. Dead. Damned. Like Boosie Badazz, whose yearslong, one-sided feud with him escalated recently after Lil Nas X joked on an Instagram Live that they recorded a song together. Boosie responded with a goulash of anti-gay hysterics and a request that Lil Nas X die by suicide.

I won’t attempt to psychoanalyze Boosie Badazz’s obsession, which, at this point, I believe constitutes sexual harassment. But I will admit to a curiosity about the space queer sex seems to occupy in his mind (and also in DaBaby’s mind and, yes, Dave Chappelle’s mind, too).

It reminds me in a way of the (presumably straight) men I knew when I was (much, much) younger, who went to nightclubs just to fight. All these women around, to look at, talk to, flirt on and dance with, and you’re here just to mean mug other dudes? That behavior seemed counterintuitive, but not if you understood the tenuousness of what they perceived to be masculinity, how vital it was, to them, to protect it, and how proving a physical and sexual dominance over other men was — is — the most efficient assertion of it. Actual hetero sex becomes, well, secondary to showing everyone just how far you are from what you perceive to be “soft.”

The scary part — well, the scariest part of many scary parts — is that Boosie ain’t alone. He’s just the most vocal of Lil Nas X’s haters — a group that even includes other industry peers and Lil Nas X’s own mother. And so when Lil Nas X writes or raps or sings about haters, there’s an immediacy and authenticity to it that surpasses, well, literally everyone else in this industry.

Anyway, Montero is a legitimately good album. Not great, but good. The best artists are living and breathing buffets. A plate of this and a plate of that and a plate of this and a plate of that congealed with their own sensibility are what makes them them. And while listening to Montero, the thought that kept recurring in my head was, “He did his homework.” I hear Kid Cudi and Beyoncé and Chester Bennington and trap and even K-pop in different places here. One of the best compliments you can give an athlete is that they’re a “student of the game.” Lil Nas X is exactly that.

And while “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” was the most controversial, and the chart-topping “Industry Baby” the most popular, the album’s best song — and the best song of 2021 — is “Dead Right Now.” Produced by frequent collaborators Take a Daytrip (along with Jasper Harris and Tom Levesque), it’s a sonic memoir infusing elements of Travis Scott-esque haunted auto-tuned haughtiness with gospel and the sort of skin-loosening vulnerability that makes you redefine what you’ve considered brave. It’s a song, essentially, about haters. Specifically, people who doubted his talent and now wish to capitalize on it. Extra specifically, his own parents.

The second verse addresses his dad’s skepticism of his career and comprises Lil Nas X’s reaction to relatively boilerplate parental advice. We know, after reading The New York Times profile of him, that they are close now. But that journey was rocky, and we’re explicitly reminded of the stakes of that turbulence.

I ain’t never need ’em, huh

I ain’t never need no n—a, uh

I ain’t never need no feature

If I didn’t blow, I woulda died tryna be here

If it didn’t go, suicide, wouldn’t be here

But, after first listening to the song, it’s what happens in the third verse that made me replay it four times in a row just to confirm I’d actually heard what I thought I’d heard. 

When Black men get in the studio to record music about their Black mothers, it is always — always — veneration. Sometimes it’s Tupac finding beauty in his mama’s journey on “Dear Mama” or Ghostface Killah reminding her that “All That I Got Is You.” Or West honoring his mom in the Kanyest manner humanly possible. This unanimous reverence makes sense when considering how many of them were raised almost exclusively by their mothers. But there’s also a less honorable intentionality with the creation of the I love my mama song, as it reflexively counterbalances whatever misogyny is present in the rest of the work. He can’t be that bad if he loves his mama, right?

The aforementioned profile also revealed that his mother has struggled with addiction, and his relationship with her is not well. In “Dead Right Now,” he doesn’t mince words. I cannot recall a time when a Black male artist was as openly critical of and dismissive toward his mother as Lil Nas X is in this verse.

Mama told me she was gon’ stop f—in’ ’round with that n—a (’round with that n—a)

Told me she was clean, but I’m knowin’ that her a– a deceiver

My mama told me that she love me, don’t believe her

When she get drunk, she hit me up, mad with a fever like whoa

You ain’t even all that pretty

You ain’t even all that, n—a

Maybe you believe this airing of dirty family laundry is unbecoming, this exposing of his own mother’s drug-fueled lies seems cruel. But try to imagine how badly this would’ve hurt you if your mom did this to you, and how hurt he must still be to write a song about it, and how brave it is to subvert the long-established expectation of mama veneration for his truth. 

These are real stakes that Lil Nas X grapples with in his music. Real demons. Real identity. Real haters. Real people. Real heat. Real life. Which makes me feel some sympathy for men such as Boosie and DaBaby. ‘Cause they’ll never be the realest alive as long as Lil Nas X is drawing breath.

Pittsburgh writer Damon Young is the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor.



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