After Billboard removed the rising artist’s viral track from its Hot Country Songs chart, a discussion about the technical and racial elements in genre gatekeeping emerged.
Around this time, 14 years ago, the self-proclaimed “Big Blackneck” country-rapper, Cowboy Troy, charted his first entry on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Launching at No. 56, “I Play Chicken With The Train” eventually peaked at No. 48 on the April 9, 2005 edition of the chart. The song features a twangy hook sung by country duo Big & Rich, underscored by electric acoustic guitars and fiddling violins. The opening frame of the video shows a marquee branding Cowboy Troy’s style of music as “Hick-Hop.” At one point, Cowboy Troy even raps “But I already been on the CMA’s/Hell Tim McGraw said he like the change/and he likes the way my hick-hop sounds.” It appeared, Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart welcomed the change as well, as Cowboy Troy’s Loco Motive debuted and peaked at No. 2 later that year.
Ironically, that same chart featured a No. 1 debut from Toby Keith, who made Billboard history four years prior with his song “I Wanna Talk About Me.” The track became the first country-rap song to top the Hot Country Songs chart on the November 21, 2001 edition. At the time of the song’s hype, outlets defined Keith’s fast-paced spoken word twang as “country-rap,” although the singer himself opined, “They’re going to call it a rap, [although] there ain’t nobody doing rap who would call it a rap.”
In December 2018, Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road.” The 19-year-old Atlanta artist’s song originally debuted at No. 19 on the Hot Country Songs chart, before it was revealed that Billboard decided to strike the track from the ranking, releasing a statement attesting that it did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music.”
Billboard’s removal of Lil Nas X from the country chart is blatant real-time erasure of a young black artist pushing the boundaries of country music, the same way his predecessors did. By both cultural and sonic standards, “Old Town Road” is a country song, and the executive choice to deny it indicates how rules are often bent by institutions and gatekeepers that historically and continuously disqualify hip-hop’s cross-genre impact on music and pop culture as a whole.
According to critics and country songwriters, Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me” is not the only Country Songs charting entry from Keith that contains elements of rap. 2011’s comedically-enhanced “Red Solo Cup” peaked at No. 9 in February of 2012. In 1998, “Getcha Some” reached No. 18, a few months after Kid Rock released “Cowboy,” the single that many credit as the first ever country-rap song on wax. Due to his addition of country-flavor to his already rap-skewing sound, Kid Rock had inspired a generation of country stars incorporating hip-hop into their discography— ranging from Jason Aldean to Big & Rich. Despite “Cowboy” making Billboard’s Rock Songs chart rather than their country’s, the song’s overarching influence has pushed mainstream favorability for white rappers, such as Bubba Sparxxx, Colt Ford, and Redneck Souljers — who have all received charting success on Billboard’s country charts.
In an interview with Billboard (published after the chart removal), “Old Town Road” producer, Youngkio, categorized his hit as “country-trap.” He believes that although the song’s production “is not a country beat,” Lil Nas X— who purchased the beat from Youngkio’s online store— took artistic liberties to give “Old Town Road” “country vibes vocally.” Youngkio goes on to say, Lil Nas X “turned it into a country-type song with what he did with the lyrics, his vocals” and the song’s packaging and promotion.
The “Old Town Road” beat may sonically qualify as trap, but it also contains subtle elements of country music. Youngkio sampled Nine Inch Nails’ “34 Ghost IV,” which is a dark ambient rock song. The sampled portion of that particular instrumental is driven by the chords of banjos, which ultimately enhances Lil Nas X’s lyrical intent and vocal delivery. The banjo has historically been an integral part of traditional American music. The literal construction and sound of the banjo was a byproduct of what enslaved Africans carried over, that would later become a main instrumental component to both folk and country music.
Despite all of this, Lil Nas X has faced accusations of “Old Town Road” not being country enough and has been labeled an “outsider” attempting to infiltrate the genre. In their weekly “Five Burning Questions” column, editors on the Billboard staff called “Old Town Road” a “fascinating fluke hit” and “parody rap,” to which the artist seemingly responded to on his Twitter stating, “just because old town road has funny lines doesn’t mean it’s parody. it has a theme. anybody with ears can tell i put some kind of effort into that song.” Some even described his vocal delivery as “a twangy ‘white’-sounding voice,” and “overly affected.” The issue with these statements is that throughout country music’s entire existence there have been charting efforts that maintain a similar vocal delivery but have been taken seriously on the charts and by critics. In fact, this twangy vocal styling is shaped by the notion that country has often been referred to as “Hillbilly Music” that draws from the accents of southern regions. There were even black hillbillies during country music’s beginning days, further proving that black roots warrant any black artists’ current involvement in country music.
In 2013, Toby Keith commented on how current mainstream country has been utilizing hip-hop to stay afloat commercially. In his frustrations with the re-emerging trend, Keith expressed, “You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?’” Later on, the singer would have to backtrack those statements after considering the history he made in country music with his own style of rapping, acknowledging his fears of overstepping genre classifications back in 2001 when “I Wanna Talk About Me” became popular.
Still, Keith’s words didn’t seem to make that much of an impact, as country music continued on with incorporating the sounds of hip-hop, reaping the commercial benefits in the process. In 2017, Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road”— which is backdropped by DJ Mustard-esque “ay”’s— peaked at No. 6 on the all-genre encompassing Billboard Hot 100, also becoming a record breaker on streaming platforms. Hunt would hold the record for the most weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs until pop singer Bebe Rexha partnered with Florida Georgia Line later that year.
Florida Georgia Line found international success with 2012’s “Cruise” which features Nelly on the remix. Rexha’s “Meant To Be” incorporates trap hi-hats over its chorus, which repeats “ride with me, ride with me.” At the end of its No. 1 run on Hot Country Songs, “Meant To Be” spent 50 weeks at the summit, ultimately peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100. Traditional country fans were not pleased with the success of “Cruise,” “Body Like A Back Road,” or “Meant To Be.” Despite the backlash, all of those songs still managed to top Billboard’s Country Airplay charts respectively, except for Nelly’s remixed version of “Cruise.” Judging by recent events, it looks like the buck had to stop with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” before things got too virally out of hand. The difference is, while all the aforementioned country successes are from white artists, Lil Nas X and Youngkio happen to be black.
Billboard has had a rough history with trying to categorize the songs that do end up on their charts, as well as dealing with their dominant runs. The publication once named their Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart “Hot Black Singles.” Billboard has also changed their methodology of weighting paid subscription streams versus non-paid ones. In 2017, it was announced that hip-hop and R&B are the most consumed genres of music in America; looking at streaming sites such as Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, hip-hop skewing songs tend to have the most success on these streaming, on-demand platforms. Although this rule change has been implemented, hip-hop continues to fare well on the Hot 100, as many white artists with genre-bending music have also topped the Hip-Hop/R&B chart with no removals.
With all of that in consideration, Billboard’s current actions cause reason for skepticism. At the time of this article’s publication, the No. 1 song on Hot Country Songs is Luke Comb’s “Beautiful Crazy.” The runner up is Dan + Shay’s former No. 1 “Tequila.” In accordance with the methodology of the Hot Country Songs chart, streaming data, radio airplay, and sales data from Nielsen are factored to determine chart positions. The Hot 100 follows the same methodology, therefore positions on Hot Country Songs mirror the Hot 100 activity of tracks Billboard classifies as country. On the Hot 100 at the time of this article’s publication, Luke Combs “Beautiful Crazy” sits at No. 25, while Dan + Shay are at No. 38.
And which song sits in the middle of them at No. 32? Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”
Judging by the momentum “Old Town Road” has gained— with continuous endorsements from the likes of Ski Mask The Slump God— the song is forecasted to possibly become a Top 10 hit and outpace “Beautiful Crazy.” That would have meant “Old Town Road” would have most likely been a number one on Hot Country Songs. And with the present methodology, popular songs like “Meant To Be” and “Body Like A Back Road” have been able to dominate the charts during their run. There’s no telling what records “Old Town Road” would have broken if given the same opportunity.
What’s most alarming about Lil Nas X’s erasure from Hot Country Songs, is the notion that other hip-hop songs that occupy country haven’t received the genuine thought of being initially included. Youngkio noted in his interview with Billboard that Young Thug would be perfect for a remix. The Atlanta rapper’s 2017 effort of Beautiful Thugger Girls is country-trap, but didn’t receive recognition from those critics. Around the time Toby Keith landed at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 2001, Nelly released “#1,” which wasn’t considered, nor was his 2004 country-rap duet with Tim McGraw, “Over and Over.”
Examining the history of country and rap and charts, with “Old Town Road” checks off most of the requirements other songs and artists have met. Just as easily as Lil Nas X is being labeled a rapper, he should equally be regarded as a country crossover— especially considering the rich history of black artists who have existed in that music scene since its inception. It seems like the gatekeepers of country music may soon regret their decision of trying to cast him out of the conversation when the momentum is just starting to pick up.
What remains to be unanswered is when more black artists will be genuinely embraced in country music— and other music scenes outside of hip-hop and R&B — without any discrepancies. Maybe the solution is a lot more simple than people would like to believe; the industry needs to adapt to changing times and sounds and study the history of black artistry before attempting to discredit it or dismiss it. And maybe artists don’t need to get better at meeting arbitrary and misguided chart genre rules. Maybe the industry should get better guidelines. Or better yet, get better gatekeepers.
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Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101