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Five Burning Questions: Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s ‘Industry Baby’ Debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100

Five Burning Questions: Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s ‘Industry Baby’ Debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100

For the second time in 2021, Lil Nas X has made an explosive debut on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks in large part to a captivating music video and an ensuing public discourse. Following the No. 1 bow of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” in April, this week, “Industry Baby” — alongside Jack Harlow, and with production from Take a Daytrip and Kanye West — pulls up just short of that benchmark, with a No. 2 start.

The song does it with Lil Nas X’s second headline-grabbing video of the year, a prison-set visual featuring the rapper being twerked on by fellow male prisoners, and then leading a group of them in a nude shower dance routine. The clip was No. 1 on YouTube the past week, and has drawn a ton of attention from the culture in general — particularly in the wake of fellow rap star DaBaby’s recent homophobic remarks live on stage at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival, and T.I.’s comments in support of him, which even claimed “If Lil Nas X can kick his s–t in peace… so should DaBaby.”

What is the significance of the song’s debut? And what does it mean for the artists involved? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. “Industry Baby” debuting at No. 2 marks Lil Nas X’s second top two launch of 2021, following the No. 1 bow of “Montero.” Two years after a breakout hit so large that seemed like it could be an albatross in “Old Town Road,” is he just a pop star full stop at this point, even apart from “Road”?

Rania Aniftos: When I think of Lil Nas X, I think of a number of other songs in addition to “Old Town Road” now — which indicates that he’s done an impressive job at proving that he’s more than just a one hit wonder. He deserves all the lasting success he’s getting and is fully a pop star in my book.

Stephen Daw: I don’t think anyone can deny Lil Nas X’s pop star status at this point, especially not the people who really want to deny his pop star status. You could take “Old Town Road” out of the equation (though you really shouldn’t), and Lil Nas X would still be a domineering figure in pop music today. “Montero” and “Industry Baby” both dominated conversations in the music industry following their releases because Lil Nas X has mastered the art of making good music that pushes all of the right buttons; if that’s not a pop star, I’m not sure what is.

Josh Glicksman: If he’s not a pop star at this point, I’m not quite sure what else he needs to do to achieve that status. In fact, he’s more than a pop star, if anything — feel free to count him as a rap star, a country star, and whatever else he tries his hand at, too. Sure, there’s no denying that the music videos are helping to get his more recent tracks some extra clicks, but there’s no question that the songs are hits in every sense of the word. And when he’s gearing up for a new release, everyone is tuning in to listen and watch. A bonafide pop star.

Jason Lipshutz: Lil Nas X has gone from “charismatic artist whose debut smash might overshadow the rest of his career” to “singular, hit-making superstar” in roughly two years’ time. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” giving him a second No. 1 hit earlier this year was an impressive way to shrug off any lingering one-hit wonder claims, but “Industry Baby,” one of the most high-spirited rap singles of the year and already a streaming behemoth, gives Nas yet another win in a totally different style. At this point, Lil Nas X is the best type of pop star: vital, artistically unpredictable and entertaining as all hell.

Andrew Unterberger: Yep, he’s there. The success of “Montero” may have seemed largely hype-driven at first, but the song has stuck around — spending 14 of its 18 weeks on the Hot 100 in the chart’s top 10 — and now “Industry Baby” looks on its way to following a similar trajectory. (As long as BTS is going to sell as many copies as they need to stay on top each week, No. 2 debuts are basically the new No. 1 debuts.) He’s got the hits, he’s got the videos, he’s got the live performances, he’s certainly got the personality and the social media presence — that adds up to a pop star in 2021, and a rather important one.

2. Also for the second time this year, Nas’ instant success has as much to do with a controversial music video as a hit pop song. Is anyone else in popular music using video as effectively as Lil Nas X right now? 

Rania Aniftos: I would say Billie Eilish in terms of creativity and cinematography, but Nas is in his own league in terms of controversy and “shock” factor. While I don’t think a gay Black man expressing his sexuality through art is necessarily controversial at all — especially since heterosexual sexuality is a common, noncontroversial music video theme — Nas knows that while progress has been made, the LGBTQ+ community is not accepted everywhere, particularly within the Christian faith. So why not toy with the religion that condemns him and give a lap dance to Satan?

Stephen Daw: There are plenty of people who are utilizing the power of good (and controversial) music videos — Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Doja Cat and Billie Eilish all immediately come to mind. But I don’t know that any of them are quite as tapped into the format as Lil Nas X, who has mastered the art of simultaneously trolling his detractors and rewarding his fans with A+ visuals.

Josh Glicksman: Do you know the T-Mobile commercial where Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton faces off against Little League pitching? That’s sort of how this feels. Lil Nas X is hitting one massive home run after the next with these videos, and the rest of the industry simply can’t compete. It’s also worth noting that no one is thriving on the level that Nas is right now on social media, either. He not only remains unflappable when time and again faced with silly “controversies,” but also possesses the ability to oftentimes turn them into brilliant PR opportunities.

Jason Lipshutz: We’ve entered an era in which a glut of pop stars are releasing compelling visuals, from Billie Eilish to The Weeknd to Cardi B to still-reliable vets like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. When it comes to eye-popping, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-open-up-YouTube juice, though, Lil Nas X has ascended to the top of the list. A large part of that has to do with how quickly his visuals move from scene to scene: the shower sequence in “Industry Baby” may have caused the most social media chatter, but the video — like the “Montero” clip before it — is bursting with ideas, and refuses to linger on one for too long. In that way, Nas has figured out a way to construct visuals for shorter attention spans — i.e., music videos for the TikTok generation.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s definitely a great time for pop stars making awesome music videos, but I don’t think anyone is quite as invested at turning their videos into events the way Lil Nas X is. He has the same grasp of music video’s power to shock and awe as prime Madonna — with a pinch of the cartoonish excess of his own hero, Nicki Minaj — and he’s willing to put in the work to make sure the execution of his visuals can support the weight of their concepts. It’s exciting stuff, and as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of MTV’s launch, you just wish there was a 2021 equivalent showcasing him and his fellow marquee video stars in heavy rotation, making them as ubiquitous as they should be.

3. Jack Harlow hits No. 2 for the second time, following his own “Whats Poppin.” How much do you think he contributes to the success of the song, and how big a deal is it for his own career that he appears on it? 

Rania Aniftos: Honestly, I think Nas has established himself in the music world enough that he didn’t need Jack Harlow for the song to be successful, though it’s a great guest feature and his verse is really sleek. It is, however, a big deal for Jack. He’s known for having A-list guests on his own tracks, and while Jack is a talented rapper, nothing has hit the viral success of “Whats Poppin.” It’s nice to see him get some well-deserved recognition on “Industry Baby.”

Stephen Daw: I don’t think “Industry Baby” would have worked quite as well as it did if Jack hadn’t offered up his excellent guest verse — his laid-back demeanor and top-tier writing adds an excellent flavor to the song. As for his career, I think “Industry Baby” is a big move for Jack; he was already one of the buzziest new names in the genre, but with his verse here, I think he just opened himself up to an even wider audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see his name in that No. 1 slot sometime within the next couple years.

Josh Glicksman: I don’t know if Jack Harlow moves the needle significantly in terms of the song debuting at No. 2 on the Hot 100 — given the social media teases, the music video and “Baby” being the follow-up single to “Montero,” it’s reasonable to think that the song may have reached No. 2, anyway. That said, Harlow brings his A-game in the guest verse, gliding over the track’s triumphant horns. He’s already a relatively established charts presence between “Whats Poppin” and the success of debut album Thats What They All Say, but showcasing his ability to excel as a feature on a major pop hit should open plenty of doors for him.

Jason Lipshutz: Do not underrate how important “Industry Baby” is for Jack Harlow, an artist who, like Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road,” broke through with a massive hit and had been trying to follow up its commercial success ever since. Harlow sounds superb on “Industry Baby,” balancing out Nas’ sing-song flow with quick lyrical jabs (including a very good University of Oklahoma pun) and effectively fleshing out the song. Even though he’s a co-star on “Industry Baby” after leading “Whats Poppin’,” Harlow now has another signature song, which bodes well for his overall longevity.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s a really good team-up, honestly. Their chemistry in the video is strong, and Harlow’s punchline-heavy, more conventionally bars-oriented rapping style makes for excellent late-verse fare — almost reminiscent of an old Ludacris spot for Usher or Missy Elliott. And it’s a good look for Harlow, getting to play in more of a top 40 arena and not appearing the least bit out of place. The two of them should have an absolute blast playing this together at award shows for the rest of 2021.

4. Listed as a co-producer in the song’s credits is an extremely familiar name in Kanye West. Is this the start of a Kanye comeback, and if so how do you feel about it? 

Rania Aniftos: I’ve admittedly never been a huge fan of Kanye’s, so I’m indifferent toward the comeback that he seems to be working on with the Donda release and this new production credit. However, it seems like Kanye has been deeply struggling with his mental health in recent years, and I’m hoping that getting back to a creative headspace is a grounding, healing experience for him.

Stephen Daw: I’m gonna wait until Donda’s out to see if this is Kanye’s comeback. I think his fingerprints are certainly all over “Industry Baby,” but he also has a tendency to swerve left just as it looks like he’s making a right turn. I guess we’ll see this weekend (unless the release gets delayed again).

Josh Glicksman: I’m hesitant to say that this is the start of a Kanye West comeback, as that’d imply he ever fell off commercially in the first place. His two most recent solo studio albums, Jesus Is King and Ye, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2019 and 2018, respectively, with Kid Cudi collaborative album Kids See Ghosts reaching No. 2. Grappling with Kanye’s legacy over the past several years has only become increasingly difficult, but it’s hard to imagine that I’ll be streaming anything other than Donda on the night that it drops.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s difficult to say if “Industry Baby” begets a renaissance for Kanye The Producer, since the song is a co-production with Take a Daytrip and doesn’t necessarily sound like a classic Kanye West production, as someone who remembers his mid-’00s run of beats all too fondly. West also seems pretty preoccupied with finishing up and unfurling Donda, so I’m not anticipating a slew of new Kanye beats to materialize in the coming weeks.

Andrew Unterberger: Remains to be seen, obviously, though I wouldn’t completely write off the significance of Kanye getting his name on a likely massive crossover hit — it’s been a few years since that seemed like a particular concern of his, and even longer since he was producing for any artists totally outside of his G.O.O.D. Music camp. I’m weary of a Kanye re-entry to the mainstream for any number of reasons — but really, the song is probably a bigger deal for co-producer Take a Daytrip, also co-producer on “Montero.” Daytrip broke out a few years ago with the housequaking beat for Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba,” his signature on “Industry Baby” feels stronger, and now he seems poised to be a go-to for big names for the foreseeable future.

5. Obviously the explicitly gay themes of both the song and the video have dominated conversation around it — but are we still underselling what a big deal it is for Lil Nas X to repeatedly chart this high with such themes front and center? Or has the discourse around the gay content overtaken discussion of the songs to an unfair degree?

Rania Aniftos: It’s hard for me to speak on this because while I am an ally, I am privileged to never know the struggles that the LGBTQ+ community faces when trying to achieve success. From an outside perspective, I love seeing a gay man be so successful while also being so explicitly sexual, and it makes me hopeful that the next generation of music lovers is more openminded and loving. I do agree that the controversy can take away from the music itself, because the songs are really good. On the other hand, Nas seems to love to generate buzz around his music videos, so if he’s cool with the discourse, I’m also cool with it.

Stephen Daw: This is the weird duality with Lil Nas X, because the answer to both questions is yes. It is a huge deal that a black, openly gay hip-hop/pop artist is singing about gay sex just as directly as straight artists sing about straight sex and regularly topping the charts while doing so. That is an unprecedented feat, and it should be acknowledged as such.

However, because of that fact, the discourse around these songs and videos has focused on some of the more trivial aspects of that, like having an all-male naked shower dance sequence, or watching someone offer Lucifer a lap-dance, or kissing a backup dancer at an awards show performance. That is, in part, by design, and I give Lil Nas X plenty of roses for expertly pissing off so many homophobes. But I do think that people should put more respect on Lil Nas X’s status as an absolute hitmaker, because both “Montero” and especially “Industry Baby” are certified bops from start to finish.

Josh Glicksman: Yes, we are still underselling it! The impact and importance of having an openly LGBTQ+ Black man as one of today’s biggest stars in music, landing splashy debuts time and again with such themes prominent both in his lyrics and his music videos cannot be overstated. At the same time, the idea that the discourse around the content is taking too much of the discussion is a fair point — though only in the sense that it’s shameful that backlash is a notable part of the response each time. The songs are hits. The videos are smashes. End of story.

Jason Lipshutz: As someone continually impressed by Lil Nas X’s artistry, my perspective is: “Industry Baby” is another important moment in the mainstreaming of gay culture in popular hip-hop, but also, “Industry Baby” rules as a song to blast too loud in your car on a hot summer day. Lil Nas X has boldly positioned his queerness at the center of his music and their accompanying visuals, while also having the hits and must-see clips to back up that boldness — as if one can’t help but listen to and watch the subtle revolution he’s concocting within pop music. The success of a song like “Industry Baby” remains a big deal, but based on how undeniable the song is, that success was always ensured.

Andrew Unterberger: I do think it’s a very big deal, and the way it seems to have some of heterosexual hip-hop’s bigger names squirming in their seats is pretty well demonstrative of both Lil Nas X’s impact, and how overdue it’s been in general. (I also love the way Nas doubles the discomfort for them by playing with more conventionally straight/macho hip-hop tropes, like him dropping upside down from the ceiling at the video’s beginning while shirtless, a la 50 Cent in “In da Club.”) But you do also hope that all the attention from videos and the controversy don’t overshadow his improvement as a songwriter and performer in finding his own voice — case in point being “Sun Goes Down,” the slower, lower-key single released in between “Montero” and “Baby,” which for my money is still the best thing he’s released this year, but which topped out at No. 66 on the Hot 100.

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