By Michael Arceneaux
On Tuesday, Lil Nas X scored his first No. 1 on a Billboard chart with his breakout hit “Old Town Road.” The track, which gained traction thanks to a viral TikTok challenge, sits atop the On-Demand Streaming Songs tally dated April 6. Moreover, the song has since risen into the top 10 of the Streaming Songs chart with 29.1 million total streams and reached a new peak on the Billboard Hot 100, now officially a top-20 smash for the Atlanta native. "Old Town Road" even received a co-sign by Billy Ray Cyrus, and the country music veteran has contributed to the single’s first remix, out now.
However, Billy Ray aside, Lil Nas X’s more recent successes don’t negate what many rightly feel is unfair treatment of his single. Indeed, only a week ago did X make headlines after Billboard announced the removal of “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart — reportedly telling Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records, that it was a mistake to include him. Insert your booes, hisses, and stomps in your cowboy boots here.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Billboard explained that “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
Billboard sent a subsequent statement professing that the decision had nothing to do with race. It was a point Danny Kang, who co-manages country artist Mason Ramsey, reiterated to the publication: “That’s a hip-hop song,” he told them, before going on to argue that X’s decision to list “Old Town Road” as a country record was more so a strategy to gain traction rather than genuine genre descriptor.
In an interview with Billboard, YoungKio, who produced “Old Town Road,” categorized the song as “country-trap.” He conceded that the production “is not a country beat,” but explained how Lil Nas X “turned it into a country-type song with what he did with the lyrics, his vocals.” Some might play purist with those comments — suggesting they indicate that a country-type song is not the same as the “real thing” — but it would be inconsistent with the chart’s history.
As Okayplayer’s Dashan Smith points out, this is the same chart that, in 2001, boasted a No. 1 chart debut for Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me,” and in doing so, became the first country-rap song to top the Hot Country Songs chart. At the time, Keith defiantly refused to allow anyone to brand it a rap track, quipping, “There ain’t nobody doing rap who would call it a rap.”
Now some nearly 20 years later, country songs with hip-hop influences and vice versa have become far more commonplace.
Jason Aldean and Ludacris worked together on the country rap single “Dirt Road Anthem,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Florida Georgia Line collaborated with Nelly for a remix of their single “Cruise.” The collaboration, released in 2013 — a year after its original release — helped bolster the songs sales and introduce Florida Georgia Line to the pop and adult crossover audiences. Many of us try to forget about “Accidental Racist” out of respect for a hip-hop pioneer, but Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made that song and it made it to No. 23 on Hot Country Songs chart.
There have been many hip-hop artists who have offered their own country-inspired tracks — including Young Thug (“Family Don’t Matter”), Nappy Roots (“Po Folks” featuring Anthony Hamilton), and Master P (“Ooohhhwee”). There have also been artists who bridge country and rap like Cowboy Troy, who enjoyed country chart success with "I Play Chicken with the Train.” And Black country artists such as Kane Brown and Darius Rucker have recently topped the country charts — with Brown’s Experiment also reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2018.
The problem, however, is ultimately with country music’s inconsistencies. Why can Sam Hunt chart with “Body Like A Back Road” — with its nods to DJ Mustard’s production — and get to sit atop the country charts without pushback? Why is it that country artists like Toby Keith and many others can use hip-hop artists and culture to boost their commercial ambitions but it becomes trickier for Black artists who create their own country-rap concoctions? And why does it seem like white rappers — Bubba Sparxxx, Colt Ford, and Redneck Souljers — have an easier time climbing Billboard’s country charts than their Black counterparts?
Multiple genres have eluded definition as the sounds have blurred over time, but even Black acts who makes country music that constitutes as “traditional” still seem to face problems.
To wit, in 2016, Beyoncé reportedly tried to submit the Lemonade track “Daddy Lessons” to the Grammy committee that oversees the awards given to country songs, only to be refused — despite the song’s immediately obvious country flavor. It apparently met the standards of the Country Music Association Awards, though, where Beyoncé performed the track with the Dixie Chicks.
As a fellow native Texan, I’ve long known of Black folks’ affinity for country music. After all, country music owes much to Black artists like DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, Ray Charles, and others.
As Pamela Foster, author of the book My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage, once told the Chicago Tribune: "In the antebellum South, banjos, fiddles and harmonicas were the dominant instruments played in Black culture. Unfortunately, history has distorted these facts to make people believe jazz, blues, and spirituals were the staples of Black culture at that time when, in fact, it was country.”
But our contributions were not respected then or now.
Last year, Brown, in a since-deleted tweet, called out the racism of his colleagues (which he also has been known to do in his music and performances), writing, “Some people in Nashville who have pub[lishing] deals won’t write with me because I’m black.”
Knowing that’s the case for a top-selling artist like Brown, I have a hard time believing Lil Nas X would have it any easier if he offered a more “traditional” song. Genre borders are troubling in of themselves, but what is most grating is the difficult reality Black artists continue to face in genres that are predominately white — even if these art forms are historically rooted in Black culture.
While I am glad Billboard’s unfortunate decision has not stifled the rise of Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road,” it remains depressing that far too many only look at Black artists through such a rigid lens.