Lil Nas X Knows Something You Don’t: How Genre-Benders are Changing the Face of Pop

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X in studio

There’s always going to be something a little funny about crossovers in music.  They’re all about an artist whose genre or persona has been relatively solidified, who then jumps into an entirely new musical and cultural persona.  It’s unexpected, so it often comes across as funny. Comedy is, in its truest sense, an unexpected twist in something you thought you had all figured out, so it’s no surprise that our first response to something jarringly unexpected is laughter.

And you bet I laughed the first time I heard “Old Town Road.”  In emerging artist Lil Nas X’s viral crossover sensation, there are definitely a whole lot of subverted expectations.  The first time I heard Billy Ray Cyrus’ (yes, Miley’s dad) rumbly southern voice sing “I got the horses in the back…”  over a trap beat, I burst out laughing because it was so bizarre. But the same quality that made it hilarious is also what made me come back and listen again. There’s something really satisfying about sounds that are totally new to our ears, and I was fascinated by this particular sound – even if it was an old-time country vocal layered over trap synth.  Our ears love novelty, and you can’t deny that’s what “Old Town Road” is giving us.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X in the studio working on the “Old Town Road” remix

So how does this wildly popular crossover event bode for the future of pop? Well, we’ve already seen genre-melding work its way into – and then dominate – mainstream music with what used to be considered “electronic.”  Somewhere between 2006 and 2012 pop music started to gradually shift from full-instrumental-backed sounds like “Irreplaceable” to DJ-produced dance tracks like “We Found Love.”  (In fact, 2013 was a big year for unexpected EDM/country crossovers, with  Avicii’s “Hey Brother” and “Wake Me Up.”) Arguably, EDM now has the strongest influence over Top-40 pop, and dance tracks have a hard time making it if they don’t lean heavily into an electronic sound.

The late EDM sensation Avicii was responsible for some of the most ambitious genre-crossovers in mid 2000s pop

But as tastes change, so does the popularity – and innovation – of various other genre-crossovers, which leads us to totally unexpected record-breakers like “Old Town Road.”  I’m not claiming country-western-trap is necessarily our new pop default, but the boldness of genre experimentation is stronger than ever, and it’s opened up a whole world of fun, bizarre, and, occasionally, spot-on new sounds for mainstream ears.  It’s a weird and exciting new era for pop music, so we’re looking back at some of our favorite unexpected crossover moments in music history, along with some hidden gems that are driving real change in the music industry. Here are our top genre-melding picks:

The moody-indie rap fever dream:

“Lost in the World” Kanye West ft. Bon Iver

This 2012 collaboration between one of the world’s biggest rappers and one of the world’s most abstract, woodsy alt-folk bands was certainly an ambitious one, but it turned out to be well worth the hype. Justin Vernon’s breathy, blurry vocals create a sonic cocoon out of the beginning of the song, which then bursts open with Kanye’s standard, punchy flow.  Very unexpected, and at the same time oh-so-Kanye.

The newer alternative: “sidelines” -Zubin

With vocal layering on par with Bon Iver and the aesthetic of a kid that rolled straight out of a Saint Pablo tour stop, Zubin contains the sonic multitudes of the 2012 Yeezus collaboration, but as a single artist.  There’s something very honest and not over-produced about his sound, which strangely still manages to create a multi-layered atmospheric experience for the listener.

The original Emo Rap collab:

“Numb/Encore” – Linkin Park and Jay-Z  

This song was so ubiquitous in the early 2000s that almost everyone between 20 and 35 can sing the chorus, whether a Jay fan, a Linkin Park fan, or none of the above.  Definitely ahead of its time, “Numb/Encore” is like the popular older brother to this generation’s freshman emo rappers. It clearly helped pave the way for the crossover genre’s popularity, whether the new artists want to admit it or not.

The newer alternative: Lil Tracy (featured in “Awful Things” with late friend Lil Peep)

There are certain artists that come to mind when we talk about contemporary emo rap, and until recently, Lil Tracy wasn’t yet one of them. Initially a collaborator with his late friend and pioneer of modern emo rap, Lil Peep, Lil Tracy has since taken on the genre in his own way.  For true “Numb/Encore”-era purists, though, his feature in Peep’s “Awful Things” is one of the best emulations of early-2000s emo crossovers to be released in the last ten years.

The irreplicable pop/prog-rock opera:

“Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen

Maybe the most ambitious genre-melding experiment of all time. No introduction needed.

The Newer Alternative: “Spirits” – Eric Nally (of Foxy Shazam)

While “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t something that can really be imitated, poppy prog-rocker Eric Nally (formerly of Foxy Shazam) takes Freddie Mercury’s movement, theatricality, and facial hair into the 21st century.  With a sound that is definitely a bit brighter and funkier than traditional Queen, Nally doesn’t try to take or recreate what isn’t his.  Instead, he creates his own niche at the intersection of a few genres that isn’t often attempted these days, and evokes just the slightest bit of nostalgia in the process.

The stripped down, acoustic R&B single:

“How to Love” – Lil Wayne

The Wayne single that shocked the world, “How to Love,” may be less of an instant classic, but it’s an extremely solid, often-overlooked example of an acoustic/R&B crossover that still resonates.  If unexpected and novel is the name of the game here, Lil Wayne’s gravelly vocals over a laid-back acoustic guitar track demand to be included. A truly heartfelt crossover hit, from the best rapper to ever spit about lasagna.  

The newer alternative: “Sweetwater” – Malia

With a voice admittedly much smoother than Wayne’s, Malia is an upcoming R&B artist that does some very casual genre-bending, with subtle – but gorgeous – results.  Her music reads as more classic R&B – if it were always accompanied by an acoustic band and performed in sultry, low-lit dinner club. A bit of a diversion from the very hip-hip leaning R&B artists of late, Malia prefers her sound smooth and laid back, which is likely to gain her some big attention in the near future.

The country dance hit:

“You and I” – Lady Gaga

I don’t care if the sight of a cowboy hat makes you sick to your stomach, Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit “You and I” is objectively a banger.  It manages to combine the best of dance pop, stadium rock, and classic country into a truly catchy, Americana pop single. (It even samples “We Will Rock You,” with guitar by Queen’s Brian May.) With a music video as intentionally genre-ambiguous as the song itself, the total effect of “You and I” is a sort of futuristic Americana acid trip – but the kind you can definitely jam out to in the shower.  It’s just bizarre enough to work perfectly, which we’ve more than come to expect from Gaga.

The newer alternative: “Something Better”: Lady Antebellum & Audien

While Lady Antebellum isn’t exactly an “up-and-coming” act, they’re perhaps the first artists to capture a comparable stadium-style country-dance vibe in quite a while.  With the help of American DJ Audien, their 2015 single “Something Better” sits right in that sweet spot of American-dreamer country influence and everybody-get-on-your-feet electronic pop.  Maybe it has to do with the mix of bittersweet lyrics and thumpy dance beats. Either way, it’s a delicate balance to pull off, and Lady Antebellum certainly did it right.

In reality, the bending of genres and the introduction of bizarre, novel sounds into pop music isn’t exactly new.  The key difference in this musical moment, though, is that artists are fully willing to risk being taken seriously in order to produce wildly new and varied sounds.  While, yes, this may mean more horse-related content yet to come, it also means more creative abandon in popular music – and that certainly isn’t a bad thing.

Spread the love