Lil Nas X is treating his latest single “J Christ” as a new beginning, a clean slate as he launches into his first album since his debut record Montero nearly three years ago. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,” reads a Bible verse that appears at the end of the newly-released video. After he’s survived a treacherous storm, he begins steering his ark towards calmer waters. The rapper even dedicated the record to “the man who had the greatest comeback of all time.” But comebacks work a little differently for biblical figures than for pop stars defending the sanctity of their artistry. “The problem is y’all judge everything at face value. I’ve never released a visual without an underlying meaning and y’all know that,” the rapper posted on X (formerly Twitter) ahead of the single. “Since I’m a troll, y’all discount my art as just ‘pissing people off.’”
He was responding to premature reactions to “J Christ,” which he teased with a fake college acceptance letter from Liberty University, a photo of him laying on a cross, and an announcement that he was officially entering his Christian era. It was deemed blasphemous before anything had even arrived. The popular Twitch streamer Kai Cenat recently went on a rant about the rapper, spitting: “God gonna handle you, bro. He’s extremely disrespectful. Go on his page, bro. He’s disrespecting God himself. He’s disrespecting the whole culture.” But Lil Nas X learned long ago that provocation is too good of a marketing tool to pass up. As a Black, gay musician simultaneously operating at the intersection between pop and rap, his general existence is a cultural lightning rod either way.
Is he at fault for getting ahead of the inevitable and using it to his advantage? Or are those who end up scandalized at fault for taking the obvious bait in the first place? It’s not like pop music has ever had a particularly healthy relationship with religious figures or conservatives, either. Doja Cat made use of religious imagery last summer when she rode a dragon to her rendezvous with the devil in “Paint the Town Red.” And Sabrina Carpenter still felt light as a feather in October when a Brooklyn priest was demoted for letting her film a “violent and sexually provocative” music video on church property.
Lil Nas X wrote and directed the “J Christ” video himself, building on the narrative he crafted with co-director Tanu Muino on “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” There, the rapper rode a stripper pole to hell after being stoned in a colosseum full of crumbling stone spectators. In “J Christ,” he’s in the arena once again, this time competing in a game of one-on-one basketball with the same devil he seduced and dethroned in that first video. This time, Lil Nas X’s audience is full of actual humans cloaked in white garments and cheering him on to victory. But when he’s later affixed to a cross, those same people gather to cheer on his crucifixion.
Skeptics were anticipating mockery and outrage from the video, but what arrived was a biblical parallel commenting on the grueling cycle the rapper has found himself stuck in since “Old Town Road” took over in 2019. It was one of the biggest songs on the planet, but he was dismissed as a one-hit wonder. Then, the success of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” was largely discounted as a product of provocation as conservatives cried over sneakers and lap dances. Even the unmistakable dominance of “Industry Baby” — where he flexed about the Grammy Awards and platinum plaques people swore he’d never have — was ignored by institutions like BET, which Lil Nas X once claimed had issued an odd request for him to confirm that he isn’t a satanist.
“Niggas be like ‘you desperate for attention’ then proceed to give it to me,” Lil Nas X posted in 2021, commenting on the fixation people seem to have on him while remaining hesitant to actually engage on an artistic level. It’s the same criticism that was aimed at Lady Gaga when she released the video for “Judas,” in which she gets stoned to death as Mary Magdalene. “I have attention,” she told Rolling Stone in 2011, questioning: “Is it that you believe that I am attention-seeking or shock for shock’s sake, or is it just that it’s been a long time since someone has embraced the art form the way that I have? Perhaps it’s been a couple of decades since there’s been an artist that’s been as vocal about their opinions, as vocal about culture, religion, human rights, politics.”
At the time, Lady Gaga was being relentlessly compared to Madonna, who had also made an enemy of the church when she released the fiery music video for “Like a Prayer.” In a March 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, Madonna explained: “Sometimes I’m wracked with guilt when I needn’t be, and that, to me, is left over from my Catholic upbringing. Because in Catholicism you are born a sinner and you are a sinner all of your life. No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time.” And when that same Catholic iconography appeared when Nicki Minaj staged an exorcism at the 2012 Grammy Awards, the rapper was criticized and compared to both Madonna and Lady Gaga. The difference in context for each of these instances, and the dozens of others throughout pop culture history, shows the imagery for what it is: a fruitful communicative tool that none of them have an explicit claim to.
Earlier this week, Lil Nas X pushed back against comparisons being made between himself and these aforementioned artists, writing: “With all due respect IDGAF what they did and I’m doing what I want with my career.” His urge to stand on the frontlines in defense of his own work — dismissing comparisons, insisting that there is a deeper meaning beneath the antics, that he isn’t just pulling the same gimmicks with a bigger budget — is understandable. But at a certain point, the more time spent attempting to reason with people who have already decided they have no interest in understanding, or engaging critically, with a piece of art, the more this cycle of provocation and disproportionate reaction feels as old as the biblical stories all of these artists are evoking.