‘Montero’ builds his seat at the table

MONTERO, Columbia

The table has just opened an extra seat and its covered in glitter.

From memes on Twitter to the biggest smash hit record ever recorded in Billboard’s charting history, Lil Nas X’s claims to fame have had one thing in common: they’re wholly unique.

Proudly queer, Lil Nas X has shattered a city full of glass ceilings. Beginning with “Old Town Road”, the singer, born Montero Hill, broke barriers by coming out while he still had a charting Hot 100 #1 Single. More, the single showed no signs of flopping or fallout from the news. In fact, the track continued to reign and become the longest No.1 of all time.

Now, years later, the singer births himself again. He began his “comeback” by hyping himself up with an aptly titled holiday single. After lukewarm success, X returned with his debut album’s lead single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”. The song, and its video, sparked the controversy pop hopefuls could only hope for. It ruffled feathers, made national news on both ends of the growingly divisive landscape, and even sparked faux and very real lawsuits.

In an industry so chameleonic that its nearly impossible to obtain success in a traditional way, Lil Nas X utilizes his marketing and Internet culture sensibilities to the greatest of heights.

The best part of his debut album Montero, on top of the fact that it pisses off so many regressive people across the world, is that the album is actually good.

It delves deeper into the life of Montero Hill. It fluctuates quite seamlessly through feelings of gratitude, strength and conviction to intense sadness, vulnerability and loneliness. It interweaves stories of love longing (“That’s What I Want,” “Lost in the Citadel”), celebrates one’s riches and successes in spite of adversaries (“Industry Baby,” “Dolla Sign Slime”), and enriches a character through important backstory (“Dead Right Now,” “Sun Goes Down”).

The album’s narrative perfectly encapsulates the delicate approach Hill himself took to introducing himself to the world. On opener “Call Me By Your Name,” he asserts his ability to make an undeniable ear worm, a hit so annoyingly invasive it lingers with the listener until they’re left with no choice but hit replay time and time again.

This boastful nature gradually unravels as the album’s tracklist continues. On “Dead Right Now” Nas X continues the sound of the opener, gradually delving deeper into his past. The song is both a righteous knife twist to his years of detractors and a deeper glimpse into his upbringing in an oppressive world, not just at the hands of his sexuality but in the context of a broken family.

As the album continues, it shows more of its layers. On “Lost in the Citadel,” Nas X reflects on a lost love and the lesson learned from its failure. On “Void” and “Sun Goes Down” he sits with his trauma and explores how it informs his current persona. On closer “Am I Dreaming,” he nods to his fans and yearns for validation. “Never forget me and everything I’ve done,” he pleads.

The closer mimics a lot of albums to come in the Gen Z pop landscape, capitalizing on a slow burning swim deeper into the oceans in which these artist’s live. Like Billie Eilish’s debut, the album goes deeper and deeper and ultimately reveals to the listener as much as they’ll continue to venture, closing on a deeply pensive and not so hopeful note.

Perhaps a nod to this new generation’s seemingly nonexistent attention span or perhaps an effort to bury personal toil within a chunk of pop bangers, its a new form of the pop album that continues to work on Montero.

Is Lil Nas X’s debut absolutely spectacular? Of course not. But in the record’s ability to largely mimic some of the best pop albums of the last few years and solely exist makes it a groundbreaking project. It will continue to assert queer people, those lucky enough to experience it as teens and those who still yearn for that adolescent, angsty validation, for years to come.

‘Positions’ doesn’t quite switch up enough

Positions, Republic

No one pumps out consistently strong new music as frequently as pop sensation Ariana Grande. In the past two years, the singer released a whopping six singles and two albums, both debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200 with Top 10 Hot 100 debuts for each track. Even for a pop star of her echelon, this feat is extremely impressive.

What’s more, Grande accomplished these rare milestones in the midst of some of the most painful, public tragedy imaginable. A tumultuous, grief stricken break-up went from tabloids to the studio, and thank u, next was born.

To that fans and music lovers alike said thank you, but what’s next?

Positions, the singer’s sixth studio album, attempts to answer that question. Helmed by her newest relationship, the album largely draws from the sound Grande mastered with thank u, next. Where the former had a jaded, morbid attitude, Positions reveals a more aloof, cautiously optimistic Grande. She’s more mature, more calm, and more self-aware when it comes to her approach to love.

Conceptually, Positions is one of the singer’s more interesting works. It amply tackles its titular theme in compellingly abstract ways. She looks at love and her life through the lens of various vantage points, interestingly relating her experiences and woes with her increasingly mass audience.

She stews in self-doubt and uncertainty on “off the table (feat. The Weeknd)” and “motive (feat. Doja Cat),” reflects on her life, past and present, with confidence on “just like magic” and opener “shut up,” and imagines herself in her partner’s shoes on closer “pov.”

Regardless of perspective, gone are bonafide hits like “7 rings” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” and replacing them are softer, more laid back Kehlani influenced novellas.

One of the most prominent examples of this deeper R&B tinged aesthetic is brought forth in the long teased cut “nasty.” With a lethargic trap drum, ambient atmosphere and relaxed vocal performance from Grande, the single shows the singer in deeper, more sexual territory. Drawing influence from early 2000s R&B and current artists like SZA, this continues on the effortlessly sultry “west side.”

Grande even dips her toes into disco on “love language.” One of the more experimental tracks on the record, it’s the perfect kind of disco for the bedroom. Grande has never sounded cooler or confident, especially on the commanding outro.

The former tracks considered, each song on Positions has a flighty sense of weightlessness. Credited to the joy Grande’s found in her newest love perhaps, this aspect is as much a strength as it is a fault. Upon the first few listens, listeners will fail to latch on to a song or songs that bolster the album. The 14 track record is decidedly slight at 42 minutes.

This dearth of longer or more fully produced tracks may leave many listeners wanting more to the point of dissatisfaction. Positions often plays like the thank u, next b-sides. There are many songs strong enough to warrant a spot on a studio album, namely standouts “just like magic” and “obvious.”

Others like “my hair,” however, lack the conviction and individuality that made thank u, next such a smash. Whether Positions was meant to make waves and redefine Grande or not, fans will find gems on the tracklist to carry them through the indefinite remainder of quarantine.

Grande likely would have benefited from a longer wait before releasing a thank u, next follow-up. With Positions, though, she evidently does as she pleases. At the end of the day, 7 years into her career, she gets everything she wants ‘cus she attracts it.