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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"DEAD RIGHT NOW," a reflection on fake friendship and love in the wake of stardom

One of the many highlights on Lil Nas X's debut album, its personal narrative stands out to me.

It's Day 46 of my Senior Year Soundtrack project, and I honestly don't know how I made it here without covering any hip hop or rap.

Admittedly, it's a genre with which I remain less familiar as a whole than others, simply because I didn't grow up with it in my house. Sure, I had its precursors in all sorts of R&B, soul, and funk, but my parents' record collection stopped there. It took me until my high school years to really begin appreciating the genre and its craft, and I'm glad I finally came around to it, because it opened up a whole new world of music to me. I'm most well acquainted with the mainstream side of the genre just because of exposure via radio, YouTube, and other music services, but I'm really enjoying listening to all sorts of strands of hip hop and rap. We'll see which strands I end up covering down the line.

Today's selection is as mainstream / trending as it gets, because it's from Lil Nas X's debut album, MONTERO. Few artists have impressed me in the past couple years like Lil Nas X. To call him a trailblazer is an understatement for the work he's done. In purely musical terms, his kaleidoscope-like fusion of genres and sounds has helped increase the variety in the popular music sphere tenfold. In doing everything he does as a gay Black man — and continually using his music to develop narratives around his status — he brings attention to and elevates some of our society's most marginalized groups. While my selection for today, "DEAD RIGHT NOW," is a more standard-sounding hip hop track and doesn't explicitly revolve around that part of his identity as much as others, it most certainly still falls in line with his other songs, and the effect of his pioneering efforts remains very audible. One of MONTERO's most somber moments, "DEAD RIGHT NOW" is Lil Nas X's response to those who have faked caring about him over the years. While such a theme is common in hip hop circles, X's narrative hits closer to home than most, with his identity serving as relevant subtext.

Production-wise, "DEAD RIGHT NOW" has qualities reminiscent of some of Lil Nas X's earlier tracks. The keyboard pads remind me of "Panini" in their 80s flavor and warmth, and the trumpet synth makes me think of "INDUSTRY BABY," though the line played here is much more mellow, even somber. Trap drums and sub bass lay the foundation for a contemplative, but nevertheless hard-hitting track.

Speaking of hard-hitting, X's lyrics do just that, calling out the people he knows who only feign caring about him now to profit off his fame. His ear-catching first line, "Breaker, breaker, 9-1-1, somebody come get this bitch," demonstrates self-awareness about his celebrity status while also referencing his prior output — the trucker lingo reminds me at the very least of the country-like sound of career springboard "Old Town Road," while the reciting of the emergency number after "breaker" instead of the typical CB "1-9" arguably ties in with his prison break in the video to "INDUSTRY BABY." He follows the opening line with a verse from the perspective of one of the aforementioned 'fake friends' trying to get into his good graces for financial gain. While these people may argue that a "couple thou'" to "fix my whip" is a pittance to someone as famous and well off as Lil Nas X, he isn't the type of person to do handouts. He wants to make sure what he does give goes to people who have truly been with him the whole way, and he doesn't want to bother with those who haven't. If "you never used to call" him before he made it, "[k]eep it that way now," he sings before he begins the chorus, which furthers that message:

I'll treat you like you're dead right now
I'm on your head right now
You wanna fuck with me so bad right now
Well, now you can't right now, oh, oh, oh

While the chorus' first line may make it sound sinister, it's really an expression of exasperation toward the old contacts who finally call him now. The section is also tinged with a bit of triumph, as he knows those people won't bother him... plus, of course, he's reaping the benefits of everything he's sown over the years. The latter point is the topic of his second verse, in which he details his perseverance through early career struggles. In the verse, he credits two people who most definitely were there for him in those times: firstly, his sister Bianca, with whom he stayed after he dropped out of college and his first EP's sales were low; and secondly, his father, R.L. Stafford who questioned his decisions but nonetheless supported him as he believed he was "that one" in the "one-in-a-million chance." Stafford, a gospel singer, continues to support him in his endeavors and be proud of his success, and their relationship has strengthened since he came out. Stafford's influence and voice can be heard in the gospel-like backing vocals to "Hallelujah, how'd you do it?" at the end of the verse, as well as in response vocals in the track's final chorus. The second verse also references his depression and suicidal thoughts — a situation quite common for the younger LGBTQ population — before circling back to the 'fake' friends.

The third and final verse is the deepest-cutting moment in the entire album; in it, Lil Nas X opens up about his strained relationship with his mother. It opens with lyrics that could be interpreted as either infidelity or failure to overcome her drug addiction ("Mama told me she was gonna stop fuckin' around with that n**** / Told me she'd be clean but I'm knowin' that her ass is a deceiver"), then demonstrates how she continues to try and cut him down despite his success. While she claims her son "ain't even all that," his success begs to differ, and her statement that he "ain't helpin' out with" her struggles of addiction and homelessness goes against what he's said on multiple occasions. It's clear that her belief that "God won't forgive [him]," likely a statement on his sexuality, doesn't help the relationship either, which only makes Lil Nas X's efforts to reach out all the more admirable even when he knows the help he offers may not be well received.

I'm glad I went back and listened to all of MONTERO again, because "DEAD RIGHT NOW" was not a track that stood out to me on my first go-through. In focusing on its lyrics, I gave due attention to Lil Nas X's most vulnerable moments in his entire catalog thus far. I admire how open he was willing to be, even though it was clearly emotionally taxing for him to do so. I hope that people like him — most notably the Black LGBTQ community — are able to connect to his life story and understand that they aren't alone, and that they have someone to whom they can look up and connect who has made the most of their life despite the difficulties their identity has caused them.


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