When Montero Hill, a nineteen-year-old from Atlanta who makes music as Lil Nas X, told his father that he wanted to drop out of college to become a rapper, he was met with concern. It wasn’t the usual paternal doubt—rather, his father was worried that the hip-hop playing field was already too crowded. ...As a song, “Old Town Road” is an unassuming experiment—the product of a kid messing around with the limited tools at his disposal....Stylistically, the track is country music, but it also feels like a clever joke about country music. It’s a novelty song, but it’s far too convincing and catchy to be written off as pure parody.
The cross-pollination of country music with hip-hop, pop, and dance music has been happening for decades, and has been well documented on Billboard’s own charts. Recall that Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—a pure pop hit if there ever was one, and far less “country” than “Old Town Road”—stayed atop Billboard’s Hot Country chart for nine straight weeks, while more recently a pop-folk act like Kacey Musgraves continues to be a country-chart mainstay.
The question of whether a song belongs to country music—or to any genre, for that matter—is an outdated one. Traditional radio and chart formats, dictated by genre, have long been usurped by free-associative, mixed-format consumption habits on streaming services and even more rogue platforms like TikTok—platforms that have never bothered to consider any sort of formal taxonomies. It is now Billboard’s duty to play catch-up, and for pointers it might turn to Hill. When asked by Time what he thought of the chart controversy that he’d inspired, he gave a vague and disaffected answer that indicates he isn’t concerned about drawing lines around his music. Is “Old Town Road” a rap song or a country song? “It’s not one, it’s not the other,” he said. “It’s both.”
Carrie Battan (April 8, 2019) in the New Yorker