Far from an isolated incident, Lil Nas X's exclusion from the Billboard Country Charts is endemic of a wider problem facing today's hip-hop stars.
In typically millennial fashion, the latest teenager to strongarm his way onto the pop charts didn’t do so via a stream of acclaimed mixtapes, label backing or PR-mandated co-signs. With no payola, soundscan or shadowy backroom deals needed, Lil Nas X harnessed the power of TikTok in order to bypass the predesignated route to notoriety with “Old Town Road.” Innocuous as their ‘Cowboy Meme’ videos may have seemed, the social media-ensnared teens acted with an efficiency that the street teams of an era bygone could’ve only aspired to. As its popularity grew, commercial radio stations flouted the rule book to rip the YouTube audio and broadcast it to the masses while the track made a beeline for the summit of the country charts. Or, at least, that was the case until intervention from its governing bodies.
In an attempt to douse the controversy before it could begin, Billboard’s decision to remove “Old Town Road” was seemingly based on upholding tradition:
“Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts,” Billboard said in a statement. “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.”
If accepted at face value, this statement would already unravel under scrutiny due to the existence of Country Chart hits from Florida Georgia Line including "How We Roll" and their Babe Rexha collab "Meant To Be," that’s spent 70 weeks on the chart. Complete with trap 808’s and autotuned vocals, it is no less indebted to the realm of hip-hop than “Old Town Road” is to country. When you consider this in-line with the testimony of Shane Morris on Twitter, it seems like something entirely more nefarious could be at play.
Self-identifying as a “former country music label person,” his recent tweet thread kicks off in brazen fashion:
“@LilNasX was kicked off the Billboard country charts because the (mainstream) terrestrial country music market is filled to a surfeit with racism and bigotry.”
From there, he compares Lil Nas X’s plight to that of the rhythm and blues trailblazer Ray Charles before concluding on a purposefully confrontational note that puts the magnifying glass on systemic issues in the genre: “By removing Lil Nas X from the Country Charts, the powers that be (and yes, I'm openly saying the Country music industry operates like the mafia) continue what they want country music to sound like, and more importantly... LOOK like. Because this isn't about sound. At all.” Whilst he should be occupying the top spot in the charts, Lil Nas X is giving interviews to publications such as Time about how he’d like his Nine Inch Nails-sampling hit to be categorized as:
“The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both.”
In his eyes, he is by no means the progenitor of the sub-category and lauds Young Thug’s work on tracks such as “Family Don’t Matter” as the origins of the sound. Although this may just seem like a nod to one of his influences, his insistence that there are pre-existing roots to what he’s doing strikes to the very heart of the issue.
Hot on the heels of the triumph that was Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne’s claims that he’d be straying from the expected path to create a “rock album” stirred a fair amount of trepidation among fans. First pictured with a guitar in the video to “Leather So Soft” in 2006, the riff-oriented album was the logical conclusion to his dalliances with that world’s aesthetics and was treated by the press as such. While reviewers and pundits expressed willingness to judge it on its merits-- or lack thereof-- as a new foray for Weezy F, its ascendance to number 2 in the Billboard Hot 200 didn’t make it eligible for an appearance on the rock charts. Awarded the top rap spot upon its release, his attempts to diversify fell on deaf ears when it came to the higher-ups. Wayne's only appearances on the rock song or album charts have arrived in the way of features with Imagine Dragons and Limp Bizkit. Whether or not Rebirth is one of Lil Wayne’s lowest ebbs is irrelevant, what matters is that it had the hallmarks and numbers to make it on to the rock charts yet it was kept within its predisposed confines in the same way that Lil Nas X has been now.
In the modern music sphere, there are countless high-profile artists whose output toes the line between its hip-hop roots and elements that were incorporated from further afield. Whether it’s in the ‘emo-rap’ of Lil Skies, Lil Uzi Vert and Juice Wrld, the volatile hardcore punk of Ho9909, Death Grips, City Morgue, JPEGMafia and Rico Nasty or the pop balladry of Post Malone, there is no shortage of artists that could make a case for dual citizenship between genres. No matter how many times Juice Wrld insists he wants to be known as “more of a musician,” Billboard have staunchly kept their hegemony in place and they’re not the only culprits before us.
Comprised of clattering drums, ingeniously distorted guitars and no shortage of singing, it’d be hard to debate that Kids See Ghosts’ "Freeee (Ghost Town Part 2)" is an uproarious rock anthem. Far from an alternative view, it’s one that Kanye and Cudi themselves shared and submitted the track for Grammy Awards consideration in “Best Rock Song” and “Best Rock Performance.” For an award show that is routinely accused of an anti-hip-hop bias, voters could’ve easily extended this olive branch to the culture by letting two of its biggest artist change lanes. Once again, they opted not to do so and instead of employing a progressive mindset, reinforced the idea that the industry is only willing to deal with the unruly ranks of hip-hop on their terms and theirs alone.
In an effort to combat this, Mercury Prize winning British outfit Young Fathers even went as far to emblazon their records with the phrase “File under rock & pop” but still routinely find themselves positioned in the hip-hop section. As to why they took this action, Alloysious Massaquoi provided a thoughtful explanation that shines a light on the plight of all of our modern, sound-transfiguring artists:
“We don’t just love one particular genre. We’re just sponges and we just concentrate on trying to create a good song. We all have that moment when we hear a good song – it’s instinctual, we just know.”
Since the embryonic days of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll all the way to the boundaryless psychedelic idealism of the 60’s Summer of Love, music has been used as a unifying force. Just like the blues, jazz and R&B before it, hip-hop is providing the template for where the industry is headed and yet one of its artists is being penalized for trespassing on a form of music that is still seen as enemy territory. However, this decision has proven to be a grave lapse in judgment by Billboard in that it has mobilized more support for Lil Nas X than ever before. Across the generational gap, one thing that artists cannot stand idly by and condone is the onset of censorship and that’s exactly what they’re trying to implement.
Throughout history, the act of outlawing an artist’s music or creating controversy around it has birthed youth movements and led to fruitful careers for rock ‘n’ rollers, punks and gangsta rappers to name a few. By infringing on Lil Nas X’s creativity, they’ve shone a spotlight on their own malpractice that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Now that their suppression tactics have reared into focus, we can only hope that this’ll be a turning point in making the Billboard charts as inclusive as the society that we all strive for.