Lil Nas X has achieved a pinch-me level of stardom since releasing “Old Town Road” in 2019, which has become the biggest song of the 21st century. Some of the places that journey has taken him include a turn around the dance floor with Beyoncé at her and Jay-Z’s Halloween party — “She said she’s super proud of me and to keep going; it was a next-level experience” — and rubbing shoulders with Timothée Chalamet, whose star turn in “Call Me by Your Name” led Nas to make it the subtitle of his recent chart-topping “Montero” single and groundbreaking video
“I saw it at home while I was beginning to make my album,” recalls Nas, 22, about the 2017 independent film. “And I was really happy to see such an artsy gay film, you know? I used it as a subtitle because I felt like that song, even before I added in lyrics, sounded like that movie, taking sounds from Indian music, Arabic music, African music, Latin music.”
Nas ran into Chalamet at “Saturday Night Live” last October. “He was just hanging out backstage, and he like super supportive and showed love,” Nas says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s a crazy, full-circle moment.'”
In a short time, Nas has become a generation-defining artist, pushing boundaries as he proudly shows the world who he is — an empowered, gay hip-hop star. In this week’s Variety Power of Young Hollywood cover story, Nas talks about his life and career, including coming out of the closet in 2019 at the height of his “Old Town Road” success.
In the Q&A below, Nas discusses being an LGBTQ role model, the imagery in his music videos — including a pixilated jail shower dance sequence in “Industry Baby” — how he met his first boyfriend on Grindr and why he doesn’t want to share his thoughts on DaBaby.
I’m older than you. I remember knowing that I was gay in junior high school, and not having any role models on TV. What has it meant for you to make being gay cool for a new generation of kids?
I don’t know if we’re quite there yet, but I feel like being in this place where so much of the youth already supports me and being out and open with myself, a lot of those ones that are having those feelings will be more confident in themselves. I wish I saw that growing up more. I feel like that’s the reason why a lot of gay youth cling on to female pop stars, because they’re much more accepting of us and whatnot.
Who were your role models?
Knowing people like Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator existed, it definitely made things easier for me.
What has expressing your sexuality in your music done for you?
I had to think about it. I see myself as a pop star, and I look at what pop stars have done and what they’re not allowed to do. But then, also, look at the idea of an “out” gay artist. It has to be very sanitized and it has to be very clean and they’re not allowed to be actually sexual — not even using “he” pronouns, sometimes. It’s kinda like “my lover” or “my best friend.” I don’t want to be that. I know some people had no choice but to be that, but I feel like I live in an era where I don’t have to be that.
When you met Timothée Chalamet at “SNL,” what did he say to you?
I don’t remember exactly. I think he said something along the lines of him being proud of me, and he was on the set of “Dune” listening to one of my songs.
Was this before or after you had split your pants?
This was pre-split pants.
Let’s talk about some of the imagery in your music videos. For “Industry Baby,” why did you set that in a prison? On Twitter, people wondered if it was based on “Oz” or “Prison Break.”
“Prison Break” was definitely a big part of that. What else? The “Telephone” visual. Even there’s a reference “In da Club” by 50 Cent. But mainly, I really wanted to go to a place that I felt like people would not expect me to go for a music video.
Why the naked dancing in the prison showers?
If I go to prison and they were already doing it before they even saw the video, I knew people were gonna make those jokes about, “Don’t drop the soap.” Like, “Oh, he loves to drop the soap.” So it’s kind of… let me beat you to the punch.
The music video is pixilated. Were you actually naked when you filmed the dance scenes?
I don’t know. You tell me. You’ve got to find out.
Talk to me about the lyrics in “Holiday” where you come out as a bottom. [“Can I pop shit?/I might bottom on the low, but I top shit.”]
Not “come out as a bottom.” I’m dead.
Is that phrasing not accurate?
I think the phrasing is 100% accurate. I feel like even within the gay community, people see bottoming as a joke or something. And somebody who bottoms is beneath a top or something. The idea of that, I feel like, is a form of misogyny between men, you know? It doesn’t make any sense, and people attribute certain traits to whichever sexual position you decide to take. A lot of people say, “It’s just a joke.” But all jokes have truths to them.
How has becoming famous affected your sex life?
Oh, before fame, I didn’t really have a sexual life besides one person or two. It’s definitely made things a lot more interesting, to say the least. I’ve had some good boyfriends, some bad ones. A lot of them emotionally unavailable and whatnot. A lot of insecurity between them. But yeah, I found somebody special now.
You’re currently in a relationship?
Yeah. I think this is the one. I can’t explain it. It’s a feeling.
How did you meet guys before him?
You know how gay people meet guys.
Ha, ha. Yes. That’s how I met my first boyfriend.
Were you recognized?
I wasn’t famous. I didn’t even do music yet. This is in college. I believe [age] 18. Before that, I had a guy who — it wasn’t my boyfriend, but we met in high school, we met in middle school, and we talked after we both found out that each other were gay or whatnot.
When did you know you were gay?
Maybe like 5. I had feelings for my sister’s cousin on her father’s side. We have different dads. And I was like, “Oh my God. He’s really cute.” Not only that, a lot of other boys my age, I was, like, “Oh, this boy is cute.” I didn’t act on anything until middle school, but then high school.
Do you think you’ll see a gay president in your lifetime?
I think that I’ll see a trans president in my lifetime. Things are progressing really fast.
How long do you think it’ll take?
Hmmm. Maybe 12 years.
Have you ever been to the Abbey?
The Abbey? I have not.
Do you ever go to gay bars?
I have with some of my friends before. I went to a gay bar with Kevin Abstract before. That was really cool. I went when the pandemic had just started. I had a hat and a mask on, so I wasn’t as recognizable. Plus, I wouldn’t look people in the eyes.
Was this in West Hollywood?
How has homophobia affected you as an artist?
It bred a lot of self-hate, but it also made me stronger once I started getting over it. I was 17 or 18 [when] I finally accepted [being gay], and slowly, more and more, I’ve grown into that person who is 100% open with it.
In what ways have you observed homophobia in the music industry?
I’ll pass on that one.
Do you have a response to DaBaby’s homophobic comments?
The honest truth is, I don’t want to speak on a lot of the homophobia within rap and whatnot because I feel like this is a very dangerous playing field, you know? It’s more for my own safety rather than anything else.
Have you felt unsafe as a gay man in public?
Yeah, a lot of the times, absolutely. Especially once the “Call Me” video came out. There was literally someone who chased my car a few days after that video came out, and they were like, “Fuck you!” or something like that. They started to follow the car. That’s when I started getting security.
Because they were angry about you releasing your video?
I’m not sure exactly what, but I feel like it couldn’t be a coincidence — the timing of that and the video.
What is the first big splurge that you made after you got famous?
The first big splurge? I honestly don’t think I’ve made a big splurge until years later. I was so self-conscious with spending until my house, I guess. Once I got my house, I became more comfortable with spending, and that was this year. I bought this statue of this rainbow Jesus, and I think it was like a thousand dollars, and I was like, “Oh, this is really cool. This is worth it.”
Where is the rainbow Jesus?
It’s in my bathroom, on the counter.
This interview has been edited and condensed.