To say that the rise of Lil Nas X has been meteoric is an understatement. His hit song, “Old Town Road,” flew up the charts, hitting No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and No. 1 on the country charts before it was deemed not country) before he had even been signed to a record label. Radio stations, eager to play the song, ripped it from YouTube because it wasn’t available through official channels. The YouTube copy, by the way, is set to a montage of footage from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. The ascendance of Lil Nas X on the back of “Old Town Road” feels very DIY, a web-native breakout hit happening entirely outside of the record-label and radio-DJ gatekeeping systems. The musician, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, is by no means finished. After a bidding war, he signed to Colombia Records, and a remix of his hit song, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, was released last night.
Lil Nas X’s understanding of pop culture and how it travels online is visible in various parts of this story. For instance, to facilitate his rise up the charts, he listed the song as country on iTunes and SoundCloud. He told Time that the track is a “country trap” genre-straddler. “He was going to these spaces, gaining a little bit of traction on their country charts, and there’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top,” Danny Kang, the co-manager of viral country-music kid star Mason Ramsey, told Rolling Stone. “That’s favorable versus trying to go to the rap format to compete with the most popular songs in the world.”
In addition to X’s careful planning, “Old Town Road” got a little lucky. It arrived during a moment in which black cowboy culture is having a bit of a resurgence, in the form of the “Yeehaw Agenda”. It benefited greatly from becoming a meme on TikTok, featured in clips where teens are transformed into cowboys, sometimes after drinking mystical yeehaw juice.
It also got a boost being the soundtrack to a serendipitous love story in which two teens (one with more than a million TikTok followers) share a moment while passing each other on an escalator at the mall. The multi-video saga surely boosted the track’s prominence.
An underreported part of Lil Nas X’s success, however, is his history operating a popular Twitter account. By trafficking in memes, viral threads, engagement bait, and Nicki Minaj stanning, Lil Nas X was able to create a six-digit follower base on Twitter, and it was that platform that served as a springboard for “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X may seem like an overnight success, but his breakthrough is the product of a years-long, 21st-century marketing plan — one which has been banned from Twitter for its reliance on spammy tactics and copying others.
Music publications have seemingly been strong-armed into not mentioning Lil Nas X’s online past, his Twitter account, @nasmaraj, in particular. “This article was updated to correct an error about Lil Nas X’s involvement in Nicki Minaj’s Barbz Fan Army,” reads a post on Billboard that no longer mentions Nas Maraj. An update to a piece on Hot New Hip Hop states that “Lil Nas X’s team has reached out to us to confirm that the Lil Nas X did not run a Nicki Minaj fanpage, despite Billboard’s initial reports.” It’s a curious denial, given how much Nas Maraj activity remains visible online, clearly connected to Lil Nas X, and how frequently fans mention his history in relation to “Old Town Road.”
“Isn’t this an ex twitter barb? Go off @NasMaraj fffff,” one user wrote on the popular stan forum ATRL. “Nasmaraj is really gonna get a #1 before Onika,” another said (Onika is Nicki Minaj’s full first name).
The Nas Maraj account is suspended now, but it is very easy to find traces of it online. Deprecated embedded tweets can be found on websites, and hundreds of individual posts are visible through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and on poorly organized meme repositories like me.me. Some of Maraj’s tweets are often in support of Nicki Minaj — her most loyal fans are known as Barbz, short for Barbies — but they run the gamut of viral fluff optimized for social media.
Some examples: In May of 2016, Maraj resurfaced a 2012 video of a bus monitor getting bullied, which had ignited a public firestorm at the time (at least 10,473 retweets). In March of 2017, Maraj posted a fake, but still viral, tweet about throwing a birthday party for his dog that nobody came to, gaining attention and followers in the process. The saga was chronicled by BuzzFeed. In late 2017, when net neutrality was in danger, Maraj posted a thread about the importance of the principle (at least 9,753 retweets).
Nas Maraj was also well known for his “scenario threads” on Twitter, choose-your-own adventures based on the threaded tweet format. The threads were viral enough that YouTubers would play them for their vlogs and narrate the experience.
Nas Maraj’s activity on Twitter is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with “tweetdecking”: networks of popular accounts that coordinate retweeting and promoting each other, and rip off viral tweets from less prominent accounts. In other words, it is forced, gamed virality. On March 9, Twitter began purging some of the most popular tweetdecking accounts, citing new rules against spam. Among the casualties were notorious accounts like @Dory, @GirlPosts, and @MemeProvider.
At the same time these accounts were suspended, so was @NasMaraj. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that the account was suspended for violating spam policies, the same justification used to unseat other tweetdecking accounts.
By the following month, April 2018, Nas Maraj was back, this time posting under the account @nasmarai, a look-alike name swapping the “j” for an “i.” This trick is common among suspended users who create new accounts and want to regain followers or users hoping to impersonate someone else.
Marai quickly got back to his old routine, posting content meant to go viral. Marai posted video of Terry Crews testifying to Congress about sexual assault (at least 83,857 retweets) and dreamed up a cast list for a hypothetical live-action movie based on the Danny Phantom cartoon series (at least 27,069 retweets).
There are a few techniques that help paint an airtight argument that Nas Maraj and Lil Nas X are one and the same. One obvious tell is the Reddit user u/NasMaraj, whose activity is almost entirely devoted to promoting Lil Nas X tracks. “My new song mixes trap and country. What do y’all think?” asks a thread in the r/hiphopheads subreddit posted by Nas Maraj. It features the “Old Town Road” video, just two days old at the time (and currently has 74 upvotes). Another thread asks for comments on “Sonic Shit,” a Lil Nas X track from his Nasarati EP that can also be found on his SoundCloud.
If that weren’t definitive enough, u/nasmaraj directly identifies himself as Lil Nas X in a comment left in a thread in r/BlackPeopleTwitter, the subreddit devoted to funny posts from Black Twitter. “Does this person know how vital they are to this subreddit?” a user asks in a comment thread for a @LilNasX tweet. u/nasmaraj replies, “I think people are getting tired of seeing my tweets honestly lmao.” (There is an extremely remote possibility that u/nasmaraj is someone impersonating Lil Nas X, but the timestamps on Reddit posts asking for feedback predate the rapper’s fame.)
In one particularly funny instance of self promotion, u/nasmaraj posted in the r/NameThatSong subreddit. He asked, “What’s the name of the song that goes “take my horse to the old town road”?
The avatar for u/nasmaraj at one point was also the same avatar used by @NasMarai, according to June 2018 Wayback Machine snapshot. In those same snapshots, @NasMarai’s Twitter bio features the same Gmail address currently linked in Lil Nas X’s Twitter bio and links to Lil Nas X’s SoundCloud.
But the most bulletproof evidence that Nas Marai and Lil Nas X are one and the same comes courtesy of Twitter. One interesting thing about Twitter is how its URLs are structured. Take this one, for example:
The only thing that really matters in that URL is the string of digits at the end — 1020070841424515072 — which form the ID number for the tweet itself. I could write in …
… and, if the tweet is still live, the URL will redirect to the current name of the account holder. Let’s see what happens when we visit that old Nas Marai tweet. Ah. Here it is.
So that’s incontrovertible proof that @LilNasX, the web-grown hip-hop wunderkind, was previously @NasMarai on Twitter. If you check out that tweet in the Wayback Machine, you’ll find yet another of the countless smoking guns: a reply from a different account (confusingly then-named @LILNASX) promoting his music on YouTube and SoundCloud.
At some point, Lil Nas X swapped handles, transitioning his popular meme-posting account into one more suited to a hip-hop artist but still retaining the followers he’d acquired through tweetdecking. Still, traces of the old habits remain.
Lil Nas X’s Twitter account has also faved multiple tweets probably referring to his old suspended account, @NasMaraj.
So just to lay this all out as clearly as possible, here are the broad strokes:
- @NasMaraj was a popular Twitter account with a six-digit follower count that gained said following through artificial boosting engagement through aggressively producing viral threads and meme posts. It was suspended by Twitter at the same time as many other prominent accounts employing similar strategies, a network of tit-for-tat promotion known as “tweetdecking,” for the same reason.
- @LilNasX still hosts tweetdeck-style posts and used to be @NasMarai, an obvious replacement for @NasMaraj.
- The Reddit user u/nasmaraj posted Lil Nas X tracks before they had gained any traction online, and the user identified themselves as the same person running the Twitter account @LilNasX.
- @LilNasX is also the handle for the current account of the rapper Lil Nas X.
Anyone reasonably fluent in the elaborate ecosystem of meme accounts on social media, and the politics of viral fame, can easily see that Lil Nas X was a part of that world. Still, he is apparently trying to bury that fact — with his reps trying to scrub any mention of it in the press — for reasons that are understandable. (Lil Nas X and his reps at Columbia Records did not respond to repeated requests for an interview or statement.) A feel-good story of ingenious platform disruption and merit-based achievement plays a lot better than using pay-for-play meme-propagation systems based on infringement and misrepresentation to build a following and then release a hip-hop track.
Regardless of the quality of “Old Town Road” and its viral success on platforms like TikTok and its shrewd manipulation of streaming charts, its real launchpad is rooted in the mildly seedy, artificially inflated world of tweetdecking. It makes sense that one might want to sweep that aspect under the rug. Still, the internet has a long memory, especially for those who navigate it intent on harnessing attention and fame.