Cheated by his partner and unsatisfied by his material possessions, Lil Nas X is fed up with his hedonistic, consumeristic existence, so he decides to drop everything and take up the life of a cowboy.
Ridin' on a horse, ha
You can whip your Porsche
I been in the valley
You ain't been up off that porch, now
Originally released on December 2, 2018, the track blew up as a result of memes on the social media platform TikTok, where users have uploaded clips using snippets of the song, plus the hashtag #oldtownroad. Lil Nas uploaded the song to TikTok himself, masterfully using the platform to launch the track.
The song racked up huge streaming numbers in March 2019 and topped Billboard's Streaming chart dated April 6, when it also rose to #15 on the Hot 100. On April 5, a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus was released and the song exploded, going to #1 on the Hot 100 the week ending April 13.
Like most unknown artists, Lil Nas X wasn't signed to a label when he uploaded this song to YouTube and various streaming platforms. When it became a viral sensation, radio stations added it to their playlists, but had to get it by ripping the song from YouTube because there was no label to service it. With a hit on his hands, Lil Nas X found himself in a bidding war among multiple labels. Columbia Records won out and Lil Nas X inked an exclusive agreement with them on March 22, 2019.
The trap song incorporates country elements. Rap and country crossovers are nothing new; St. Louis rapper Nelly blended elements of country music in his songs back in the early 2000s, including hooking up with Nashville star Tim McGraw for "Over and Over
The beat was created by a Dutch teenager named Kiowa Roukema, who goes by YoungKio. He uploaded it to a site called BeatStars, where Lil Nas X bought it for $30.
YoungKio's beat is based on a banjo run sampled from Nine Inch Nails' 2008 track "34 Ghosts IV," which he discovered while poking around YouTube. Nine Inch Nails released the song under a Creative Commons license, an unusual move that encouraged fans to rework the track as they pleased, but only for noncommercial use. When "Old Town Road" hit, this became an issue because the sample was not properly cleared. The writers of "34 Ghosts IV," Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, were added to the credits but terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
The first official video for this song
was posted on December 2, 2018. Lil Nas X doesn't appear in it; footage is from the video game Red Dead Redemption
. On April 9, 2019 a new unofficial video
was posted for the remix using grainy performance and behind-the-scenes footage of X and Billy Ray Cyrus.
On May 17, the official music video for the remix dropped, with Lil Nas X and Billie Ray Cyrus as Old West outlaws on the run in 1889. Billed as a "movie," it runs 5:08, starting with a horseback chase scene where the town sheriff, played by Chris Rock, is after the pair. Rock calls it off, telling his deputies, "When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let him fly." But there's more trouble ahead for the outlaws, especially for Lil Nas X, who escapes gunfire by jumping into a bunker that turns into a wormhole, transporting him to modern-day Old Town Road, where he's out of place with his cowboy gear and horse. The locals warm up to him though, and he earns their respect when he wins a drag race with his horse.
Later on, Lil Nas meets up again with Cyrus, and together they turn a bingo night at the town hall (led by rapper Rico Nasty) into a line-dancing-filled party. Diplo backs them up by strumming on a washboard as the senior citizens take to the dance floor.
Other cameos include rappers Vince Staples, HaHa Davis and Jozzy as well as "Old Town Road" beatmaker YoungKio. It was made by the director Calmatic, whose work includes "Young, Dumb and Broke
" for Khalid and "Bubblin'
" for Anderson Paak.
Thanks to gaudy streaming numbers, this song reached the Hot 100 on March 16, 2019 at #83. The same week, it also placed at #36 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and #19 on the Country chart. The Hot 100 doesn't distinguish by genre, but Billboard has to designate which songs are eligible for the other two, which is typically determined by how they are promoted by their labels. Viral hits often fall into the hip-hop bucket, but "Old Town Road" also has country elements and was allowed on the Country chart, which is far more conventional in terms of how songs are selected.
Traditionally, the Nashville music machine promotes their artists through country radio and other channels, which eventually lands their songs on Billboard's Country chart. An unsigned rapper storming the chart threw a wrench into this machine, and the following week "Old Town Road" vanished from the Country tally because Billboard ruled it ineligible. Billboard offered no official explanation, but later explained that the trap beat and lack of country airplay contributed to their decision. It's likely they faced pressure from the country music establishment, which has a tendency to promote a core group of artists (usually men) from a small set of labels. There was a whiff of racism in the decision, but Billboard maintained that race wasn't a factor and stuck to their guns, keep the song off the chart even after the Billy Ray Cyrus version was released.
Billboard's decision to pull this song from their Country chart led to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix and a fresh round of publicity. Cyrus was one of the first country stars to support Lil Nas X when it happened. "When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me, 'Take this as a compliment' means you're doing something great!" the "Achy Breaky Heart
" singer tweeted. "Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!"
The kind words stirred Lil Nas X to invite Cyrus into the studio to work on the remix, which he dropped on April 5, 2019. The country star sings lead on the intro and first chorus before crooning the third verse. Cyrus previously ventured into the hip-hop world when he released a rap remix of "Achy Breaky Heart," in 2014, working with rapper Buck 22.
YoungKio and Lil Nas X had no interaction on this track other than Lil Nas buying YoungKio's beat online. YoungKio first heard the song when someone tagged him in a meme. When he checked out "Old Town Road" on SoundCloud he found it had around 10,000 streams, so he contacted Nas on Instagram and said he'd help promote the tune if the rapper put "produced by YoungKio" in the title. Nas agreed to do so.
"He was cool with it," YoungKio told Billboard. "We didn't really have any connection. It was just him buying it from my beats store and me finding out after."
Their collaboration is mark of the digital age where producers and artists don't have to know each other to work together.
Lil Nas X dropped out of school in his teens so that he could concentrate on his music. The young rapper started to live with his sister as he was getting grief from his parents because they didn't feel he had a realistic future as a musician. However his sister was ready for him to go.
Lil Nas told Genius
that after finding YoungKio's beat on YouTube in October 2018, he penned this song with a "loner cowboy kind of vibe" in which he's "running away from everything."
Lil Nas added that he later changed the song's meaning "from a runaway type of story to Old Town Road being a symbol for a path of success, where you're just staying on it." He explained that in the first verse, he's "getting everything packed up and ready to go." The second verse finds him "in that lane now where everything's going right."
The song's hook of "Can't nobody tell me nothin', "is a sort of jab to Lil Nas's parents who wanted him to get back into school.
The original version of this song clocks in at just 1:53; the remix runs 2:37, making it one of the shortest #1 hits of its time. The shortest ever US chart-topper was Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs' 1960 hit, "Stay
," which lasts just 1:38.
In the week ending April 11, 2019, this song smashed the one-week US streaming record previously held by Drake's "In My Feelings
." "Old Town Road" earned 143 million US streams compared to 116.2 million for "In My Feelings" back in July 2018. It was the first tracking week since the release of Cyrus' remix.
This wasn't the first #1 hit that started off as a meme; Baauer did it with "Harlem Shake
," which rose to the top in 2013 after it was used in a series of memes spread on YouTube.
The song broke the record for the longest-running hip-hop #1 hit on the Hot 100. On the tally dated July 6, 2019, "Old Town Road" surpassed Eminem's "Lose Yourself
," The Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow
," and Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's "See You Again
," which each spent 12 weeks at #1.
On June 30, 2019, the last day of Gay Pride Month, Lil Nas X indicated he was gay by tweeting, "Some of y'all already know, some of y'all don't care, some of y'all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y'all to listen closely to c7osure"
The rapper included a rainbow emoji in his tweet, and dropped several other hints that he was gay in subsequent tweets. "C7osure
" contains lyrics about being true to yourself, with lines like, "Ain't no more actin'."
After the tweet dropped, some speculated there were some Easter eggs in "Old Town Road" about him being gay. In response, Lil Nas tweeted, "old town road is literally about horses."
Following the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, there have been several other official remixes of "Old Town Road," including ones with Diplo plus Young Thug and Mason Ramsey.
The single's fourth official remix, "Seoul Town Road (Old Town Road Remix)
," was released on July 24, 2019 featuring one of K-pop's biggest stars: RM of the boy band BTS. The title is a reference to the South Korean capital of Seoul, where BTS formed in 2013.
The song broke the record for the longest run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. On the week dated August 3, 2019, it sat in the #1 spot for a 17th consecutive week, overtaking the 16 weeks spent at the summit by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day
" in 1996, and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber's "Despacito
" in 2017.
"Old Town Road" was finally toppled by Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy
" after 19 weeks at #1.
On July 26, 2019, Nas tweeted: "It's crazy how any baby born after March has not lived in a world where 'Old Town Road' wasn't #1."
This won Song Of The Year at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. Lil Nas performed "Panini
" at the ceremony.
It was Trent Reznor's management team who informed him that Nine Inch Nails had been sampled without permission in a single that was climbing the charts. He told Rolling Stone
that his response was: "Look, I'm fine with it. I get how stuff goes. They're not saying they didn't sample it. Just work it out but don't be a roadblock to this."
Reznor hadn't heard "Old Town Road" at that stage, but did a few weeks later. He remembered listening to what Lil Nas X had done with "34 Ghosts IV," turning it into this other thing. He felt "strange at first. But I thought he did a good job with that."
Reznor admits falling victim to the earworm, calling "Old Town Road" "undeniably hooky," and saying, "It's been stuck in my head enough."
The Guardian newspaper
named this their best track of 2019. They wrote: "A completely brilliant song, top to bottom. Every part, from the drawled verses to the hearty chorus and taunting bridge, sounds amazing hollered from the back of a car, karaoke bar, or Shetland pony ride. Its biggest line may be a triple negative - 'can't nobody tell me nothing' - but 'Old Town Road''s success is nothing but positive."
When he performed this at the Grammy Awards in 2020, Lil Nas X was joined by a number of artists who appeared on various remixes of the song: BTS, Billy Ray Cyrus, Mason Ramsey and Diplo. Then the original Nas - the rapper whose career got going in the '90s - joined Lil Nas on stage in a surprise appearance.
The song took home awards for Best Music Video and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
This plays in a 2020 Doritos Super Bowl commercial
with Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott. They line up for a duel, and when Elliott says, "make your move," Nas busts out a dance move, triggering a dance-off. Billy Ray Cyrus appears in the kicker, saying "I ain't dancing."
When the song was awarded its 14x Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on January 9, 2021, it broke the record for the most Platinums a song has ever received. Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber's "Despacito
" previously held the title, having gone platinum 13 times.
The Platinum certification means that an album or song has over one million equivalent units in sales. According to the RIAA, one equivalent song unit is equal to a single digital song sale, or 150 on-demand audio and/or video streams.