Review: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Is Country, But Is It Any Good?
Most people acknowledge that Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" has a contagious hook, but what to do with that contagion is the issue. Is it a country song? Does that matter?
The Atlanta-based rapper spelled out the meaning of his song to Genius, offering a thought-provoking explanation for what shouldn't be dismissed as a two-minute-long novelty or an attack on the genre.
Lil Nas X says taking a horse to the old town road is a metaphor for leaving what's comfortable and familiar (and static) for a perilous path to success. That's a sentiment many who've grown up in rural America can internalize, and his opening lyrics offer satisfying depth. Who among us hasn't felt stuck? Who doesn't recognize the hustle it takes to get unstuck? He gets that across with astonishing brevity.
"Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road / I'm gonna ride 'til I can't no more," he sings.
It's a great start, but "Old Town Road" unravels with subsequent verses. His first paints a fine western picture that's spoiled by a second verse that reveals his inexperience. "Ridin' on a tractor / Lean all in my bladder / Cheated on my baby / You can go and ask her," Lil Nas X sings. It's car wreck of ideas. "Lean" (a.k.a. "purple drank" or "sizzurp," etc ...) is mix of flavors and codeine, an opiate. There's no reason to name his high in this case, something a more seasoned co-writer would have recognized. Emotionally he fuses a buzzy tractor ride with unrepentant infidelity. It's whiplash.
"My life is a movie / Bull ridin' and boobies / Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty," he continues. You read that right ... boobies. Most people miss that because "Wrangler on my booty" is the stunner that ends the phrase. We've done that before — singing about denim on butts is nothing new in country music, although typically it's a man singing about the way it's painted on a thick-hipped woman.
You can find some great country frivolities (Luke Bryan's "Country Girl," Trace Adkins "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk") that lean on a playful, perhaps eye-rolling objectification, and you can find examples that tell an emotional tale of finding success against all odds. That's never the same song, however, and for good reason! When Garth Brooks and Victoria Shaw wrote "The River," it's doubtful either said: "needs more boobies."
A cover of the song by Keith Urban and a remix that features Billy Ray Cyrus improve upon an ambitious concept that, at best, is unfinished. For starters, both are far superior vocalists — something made clear by the Official Lyrics and Meaning video he did with Genius — but it's arrogant to penalize him for that when so many middling country vocalists have flourished over the last two decades, and since hip-hop and spoken-word styles have been normalized. Urban stops before he gets to verse two and Cyrus' remix adds a third verse that embarrasses the second:
"Hat down, cross town, living like a rock star / Spend a lot of money on my brand new guitar / Baby’s got a habit, diamond rings and Fendi sports bras / Riding down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car / Got no stress, I’ve been through all that / I’m like the Marlboro man so I kick on back / Wish I could roll on back to that old town road / I wanna ride until I can’t no more."
The remix is the song we should be talking about. With Cyrus, it becomes something of a countrified Gnarls Barkley song, and that's exciting! The original just doesn't stand up to what modern country songwriters are coming up with daily. This is where John Osborne was right when he lambasted the song talking to Billboard prior to the 2019 ACM Awards. Lil Nas X is no Kris Kristofferson, at least not yet.
Watch Keith Urban Cover "Old Town Road"
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