The first Christmas back after leaving home can be an anxiety-provoking experience, as countless college students would attest. What was it like for Montero Lamar Hill, the 20-year-old who reinvented himself as Lil Nas X, to return to Atlanta after spending the previous year building to six Grammy nominations and charting the biggest song, well, ever? Quite simply: He was Santa Claus.

“I rented out an Airbnb and everybody came over,” says the rapper, wearing an oversized tie-dye suit, Reebok by Pyer Moss kicks and sporting a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid on his lip while lunching at West Hollywood’s Soho House.

“I got presents for all my nieces, nephews, cousins, second cousins and gift cards for the adults. My family treats me pretty much the same way. Of course, I have more freedom now — I don’t have to sit in the house. But after a minute, it gets tiring and you remember why you left.”

One might not necessarily associate trap beats with an artist who embraces spirituality and self-help books but overnight success and global fame have tested Nas’ mental health in ways he never imagined. At the end of September — a month after the record-breaking 19-week run of “Old Town Road” at No. 1 came to an end — Nas announced that he was cancelling performances at two festivals so that he could take a break, which some media outlets misinterpreted as putting his career on hold.

“I wanted to do more performances last year, but it didn’t go as planned and I didn’t have confidence,” says Nas. That insecurity stemmed from his inexperience on the stage. Nas had not only never performed at a concert, he’d never even attended one.

“When the crowd sits? l felt like I was butt-naked on stage,” he marvels of the reaction to new (read: unfamiliar) songs. “It crushed me.” The downtime gave him an opportunity for self-reflection, but it wasn’t all that restful. “I would start to overthink it all and I’d get overwhelmed. Like, what song should I put out next? Or should I put out multiple songs? Or how do I prove this person wrong?”

Lil Nas X Variety Cover
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“While his story is so incredible and it’s been such an unbelievable journey — a fairy tale — there is the downside of that,” says Adam Leber, Nas’ co-manager, along with Gee Roberson, at Maverick. “He’s had to learn everything on the fly, and he’s still learning.”

Second-guessing can be death to creativity, but when the college dropout rented time at a local Atlanta recording studio in December 2018 and created “Old Town Road,” he had nothing to lose other than the $50 it set him back ($30 to download the beat and a $20 flat rate). Buzz about the genre-blurring country-trap mashup began, as many out-of-nowhere smashes do these days, on social media.

After self-releasing the infectious earworm to SoundCloud and iTunes the day after he recorded it, Nas turned his attention to TikTok, where it eventually went viral thanks to his inventive #Yeehaw challenge and tireless promotion via Reddit, Twitter and Instagram. Then it cracked the Billboard Hot 100, and just as “Old Town Road” was about to take over the top spot on the country chart in March, Billboard disqualified it as “a mistake,” claiming the song exhibited too much trap and not enough twang. What followed was a controversy over perceived racism and whether genres in music matter at all anymore. (Today, nearly 10 months and 1.8 billion streams later, it still stings for Nas, who says, “I don’t feel like any specific place in the music industry accepts me as a whole.”)

But getting booted from the country format turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Lil Nas X. His song soared up multiple streaming charts and a bidding war to sign him broke out, which inevitably attracted the attention of Ron Perry, the newly installed chairman at Columbia Records.

“Culturally, ‘Old Town Road’ brought people together, which is important in these divisive times,” says Perry. “And musically, it moved us toward a genre-less world.”

Perry took an unorthodox approach to wooing Nas: He slid into his DMs on Instagram. Says Nas: “He knew the best way to approach the guy who’s on Twitter tweeting memes.”

By contrast, the process of signing a record deal proved to be decidedly old-school. “Ron was acting like a mad scientist,” Nas recalls. “I brought my dad, and [Ron] was, like, ‘We’re going to make your son a millionaire and super-famous.’ It sounded like I was on an episode of ‘Punk’d.’ ” The ceremonial contract execution at the Columbia offices lasted the equivalent of eight episodes of “Empire” —  from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m.

“A lot of people thought Ron was nuts when he went after that record,” Leber says of “Old Town Road.” “They were doubting him, but Ron just believed and went all in 100%. And it paid off in a major way.”

Lil Nas X Variety Cover Story
Ryan Pfluger for Variety

As did securing Nas’ dream duet partner: Billy Ray Cyrus, something that Leber, longtime manager of Miley and Noah Cyrus, and Perry facilitated. With verses written for Cyrus by Missy Elliot protégé Jozzy (“Baby’s got a habit, diamond rings and Fendi sports bras / Ridin’ down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car”), the “Old Town Road” remix dropped on April 4 and catapulted straight into the pop-culture zeitgeist.

There’s no danger of nas forgetting where he came from because his father and 10 siblings won’t let him. They’re not impressed by hysterical fans clamoring for hugs, selfies and autographs. Rather, his father’s go-to is disapproval, like chiding his son for sloppy handwriting. “He’s critical in smaller places where he thinks he can help — like penmanship,” says Nas.

R.L. Stafford, a gospel singer without a Twitter account, has been one of his son’s toughest critics. Nas’ parents, who never married, split when he was 5, and he moved into his grandmother’s home in a housing project. His father gained custody when he was 9.

“I had a rebellious period,” says Nas of his teen years with his dad. “I felt trapped. Even when I was about to go to college — just as I finally felt freedom — I dyed my hair, and my dad was so mad at me. I was, like, ‘I’m 18.’ He feels like whenever I do something different, I’m trying to follow in somebody else’s footsteps. I used to feel that way, too.”
Ironic considering that Lil Nas X is himself groundbreaking. Although he used to date women when he was younger, Nas came out publicly on June 30, the last day of Pride month in 2019. “It could have gone either way,” he says of the reaction to his announcement, which nearly broke the Internet. But then this is an an artist whose career was built on taking risks, not playing it safe.

His courage wasn’t lost on Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. “Lil Nas X coming out early in his career — and being met with praise from critics, fans, and both the hip-hop and country communities — is an overdue game-changer,” she tells Variety. “Not only did he break glass ceilings in music, but he’s sending a message of affirmation to LGBTQ black men, who rarely see themselves celebrated in Hollywood and the broader culture.” Asked about his own GLAAD Award nomination for outstanding music artist, Nas says: “I hope my actions are enough to inspire other young LGBTQ children  coming up to not be afraid to be themselves, but I feel pressure to be a role model for the community.”

Prior to becoming the most unlikely poster boy for gay pride, Nas did not consult his managers, publicists, or the head of his record label. But Nas did call his dad.

Lil Nas X Variety Cover Story
Ryan Pfluger for Variety

“We have become closer,” he says of their relationship. “I mean, especially now because I don’t have anything to hide. It was a shock for him. It’s still the beginning phase. I’m not comfortable bringing a guy around yet.”
(Of his live life, Nas says: “I have met a lot of great people this year. Relationships are hard because either I end up being too busy or I end up falling for another person. I fall super-easily.”)

Nas has found a maternal figure in his stylist, Hodo Musa. Born in Somalia, she studied fashion in Norway and outfits the rapper in undeniably sexy looks while being mindful that he not “be sexualized.” For her, it’s about striking a balance between a “masculine black man that can still look fly” and “dressing in feminine colors or textures.”

Musa confesses that at first she was reluctant to work with Nas. “When I saw his Instagram, I couldn’t figure him out,” she says. “I was raised in Europe so I have different associations than Americans. To me, a cowboy is somebody from the South that doesn’t like people that look like me. The Western movies I saw when I was little didn’t include black people so I couldn’t relate to the cowboy aesthetic — that’s why we’ve been playing with it.”

They’ve also been playing with gender norms, and Musa’s beliefs about fashion and freedom are in line with her client’s ideals about art. “In the culture of American black men, there are all these rules, so it’s fun to live your life however you want.”

Nas embraced the most American of male archetypes because it represents “fearlessness,” he says, echoing his stylist’s sentiment: “A cowboy lives by his own rules.”

But Nas also learned about powerlessness in the last year, while secretly trying to get his mother into rehab — and into recovery. Says Nas: “I never really talk about my mom. She’s an addict so we don’t have the closest relationship. Even trying to get her better — things didn’t quite work out. But there’s still love.” Loneliness, too: “The biggest surprise of becoming globally famous? On the outside, everybody loves you — but on the inside, everything [feels] the same.”

Nas also credits a series of losses as invaluable life lessons. “So much happened during my rise,” he says, referring to the deaths of Nipsey Hussle, XXXTentacion and Juice Wrld. “You know, drugs and murders. And my grandmother passing [in 2018]— she was the first person close to me who died. It was devastating. And it made me a hypochondriac: I’d wake up, heart racing. It was scary.” That led to a period of self-medicating — “smoking [weed] heavily,” he admits. “But then I started feeling more connected with the universe, and taking everything as a sign.”

“On the outside, everybody loves you — but on the inside, everything [feels] the same.”
Lil Nas X

“People don’t know that he’s much deeper than what we see on Twitter or Instagram,” says Musa of Nas. “He has all these worldly thoughts and is very spiritual. He’ll kill me for saying this, but we do a lot of yoga.”

A mind-body connection? Check. And what of his art and commerce? “He is calling the shots in terms of his creative integrity,” says Leber. “He wrote the [futuristic] ‘Panini’ video treatment himself. He made [the Grammy-nominated ‘7’] EP himself. We came in and helped by introducing him to certain producers and we’ve guided him along the way for sure. But you certainly don’t see myself or anyone from the label guiding him on his Internet strategy. None of us in a million years would have the ability to come up with what he comes up with.”

Maverick’s Roberson concurs, telling Variety: “I have seen what a visionary [Nas] is. He knows what he wants and he doesn’t compromise. He has a picture that he wants to paint, and nothing will sway him from that. With no fear of blending genres — even a genre that’s not open-heartedly accepting of his craft — he was able to cut though and defy multiple odds. And to do it off his introduction to the game? Off his first single? Destroying every record known to man? I don’t think people get how much of a mission impossible that is.”

“Country radio is the one format that we haven’t been able to penetrate,” Leber notes. “This next generation of music executives has a difficult task at hand, which is to redefine how we look at music from a genre perspective — and if genre even makes sense anymore. If ‘Old Town Road’ taught us anything, it’s that music has no boundaries. It’s going to be harder to identify songs with specific genres moving forward because kids listen to everything — rock, alternative, hip-hop, pop — and it doesn’t matter. It’s all on one playlist.”

“Intuitive” and “confident” are words Nas’ managers use to describe their client. And maybe it needs not be said, but the artist is also a workaholic. “I want to rule the world, baby,” says Nas. “There is a difference between wanting to be a star or a superstar,” he says, taking a dramatic pause. “And I want the superstardom.”

Nas got his first taste of massive screaming crowds when he joined Billy Ray Cyrus for “Old Town Road” onstage at the April Stagecoach Festival, country music’s answer to Coachella. While Leber and Roberson were understandably nervous about the surprise appearance — it was Nas’ first time onstage ever — two weeks spent in rehearsals “teaching him how to perform” mitigated the risk of disaster. Or so Leber told himself. In the end, says the manager: “He went out in front of thousands of people like it was nothing. He slayed it.”

Lil Nas X Variety Cover Story
Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Nas’ next surprise performance was with another Leber client, Miley Cyrus, at Glastonbury in the U.K., where he stole the show in front of 180,000 people. “Miley’s been doing this for 15 years and she was nervous,” Leber notes. “For him to go out on that stage and do what he did? I just found it unbelievable.”

Nas had never heard his name cheered by that many people, which boosted his  confidence considerably. “That’s literally why I came out — because of that performance,” he says.

The next onstage moment that has a lot riding on it? When the most nominated male artist at the Grammys performs “Old Town Road” at the ceremony on Jan. 26. (It’s up for record of the year, pop duo/group performance and in the music video category.) Sources say that he’ll be joined onstage by Diplo, BTS, Mason Ramsey and Billy Ray Cyrus, though neither the label or the Recording Academy have confirmed a lineup.

Then he wants to hit the road.

“I hope to have an album done by the middle of this year, mostly because I want to go on tour,” says Nas. “This generation supports the artists themselves more than the music, and I want to meet my fans. I want to put together an actual show and not just do karaoke on stage.”

“There’s pressure,” says Leber of a full-length debut, noting that much of it is self-inflicted. “He’s a perfectionist. He wants every song to be amazing and doesn’t want any filler on the album. I don’t believe in putting the schedule before the creative. The sophomore slump is typically due to too much pressure on timing to follow the first album. We want him to take his time and get it right. I’m not saying I want it to come five years later, but it’s got to be right. What’s the point of putting out a mediocre body of work?”

Roberson emphasizes that even once the full album is finished, it’s still just the beginning: “Put on your seatbelt and grab the popcorn!”