‘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.

Miley Cyrus finds home in herself with ‘Plastic Hearts’

Plastic Hearts, RCA Records

Foam fingers, bleached hair, cowboy boots, and psychedelics. Transcendent Disney star Miley Cyrus has become perhaps the most commercially experimental millennial artist to graduate from the Disney Channel.

Since her days on Hannah Montana, Cyrus has had a good girl gone bad moment in her third album Can’t Be Tamed, taken it one step further in the instantly viral and often superb Bangerz, and stripped herself back down in an effort to mature with the misdirected Younger Now. The streamline throughout her discography up to this point is its innate consideration of reputation and public perception.

In reaction to her Disney days, Cyrus contradicted her image by releasing Can’t Be Tamed and Bangerz. In contrast, Younger Now revealed a Miley Cyrus once again pivoting away from what the public expected. The back-to-roots project was stripped bare, unfortunately erasing much of the singer’s edge in the process.

With her seventh studio album, Plastic Hearts, the developing singer/songwriter finally lets go of that image in what will likely come to be known as the quintessential Miley Cyrus album; it’s an equation of her inspirations, her past sounds, and her growing control over her sonic style. It has pop, it has rock, it has alt. It’s a dazzling, often restrained showcase of an artist who continues to evolve, ripping apart the plastic to reveal a more authentic version of herself.

The album opens with the scathing “WTF Do I Know,” decidedly leaving off a question mark in the title. More of a statement than a longing for answers, the track immediately sets the tone. Cyrus has evolved on the introduction. She’s shed the scars of her relationships, turning her attention inward to her own growth. This unapologetic attitude is undeniably empowered and Cyrus has never sounded more confident. The sonic references to “Start All Over” from her Hannah Montana days is just an added treat to this kiss off.

The album quickly sinks deeper into a more thoughtful string of songs in “Plastic Hearts” and “Angels Like You.” There’s a level of self-reflexive apathy present on the former that aptly fits the overall album theme. Featuring a Rolling Stones inspired sound bed, “Plastic Hearts” is a groovy tune that encapsulates the album. It isn’t overly adventurous or all that exciting, but it gets the artist’s message across.

Similar is “Angels Like You,” the first moment of empathy from Cyrus on the record. She reflects on a previous relationship here, offering her kind words and understanding to her past love. The self-assuredness on this track is an astonishing showcase of the singer’s growth. She knows herself, and knows the relationship is doomed. Her lover is too kindhearted to survive a relationship with the firey Miley.

Similar is the penultimate track on the album, “Never Be Me.”

Cyrus provides listeners with context into her state of mind throughout the chorus. She expresses her lack of fidelity, stability, and desire to manage someone else’s baggage. Its one of the highlights of the album, beautifully presenting an artist growing into herself and her prime. From a technical standpoint, Cyrus’ vocals have never sounded more emotive or poignant.

While Plastic Hearts loaded with surprisingly softer ballads, that isn’t to say the album has some head thrashing bangers. The first of which is the undeniable Dua Lipa collaboration, “Prisoner.” Both singers lend a level of grit to the anthem, running from a doomed love throughout the song. This momentum continues on one of the most fun tracks on the album, “Gimme What I Want.” With a murky electric guitar riff and a frivolous Cyrus looking for instant gratification, it’s awesome.

Cyrus also finds new ways of expressing herself on the record through duets with her inspirations in Billy Idol and Joan Jett. On “Night Crawling” with Idol, she adopts his signature sound with an 80s-rock single. It’s “Blinding Lights” meets Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the blending of new and old that has dominated pop this year, the sound also laying the foundation of lead single “Midnight Sky.”

Underneath the spectrum of rock that dominates the sound of Plastic Hearts are more vulnerable showcases of the singer’s evolution. On “Hate Me,” Cyrus finds a stylish way to contemplate her own death in the context of her past loves and friendships. Like “Plastic Hearts,” it isn’t all that interesting or boundary pushing, but the lyrics on top of the standard backing is enough to compel listeners.

Improving upon “Hate Me” is the Mark Ronson assisted standout “High.” A rare perspective from Cyrus on this album, it showcases her longing for a past relationship. Its the matured successor to Bangerz opener “Adore You.” For the first time in her career, the singer successfully blends her sonic inspirations with the track. Country twang blend with traditional rock sensibilities to curate a perfect atmosphere for the song’s content.

Plastic Hearts plays it safe more often than it should, but in reflecting on the artist’s recent work, this is only the beginning. It’s a career rebirth that will hopefully unlock the doors for more country rock leaning sensibilities.

Closing the album with “Golden G String,” the pop rock chameleon leaves listeners with a concise summary of her current mentality. Combing through the memories of her past and her mistakes, Cyrus finds closure in self-awareness.

“I was tryin’ to own my power. Still I’m tryin’ to work it out,” she coos. With Plastic Hearts, she finally does.