You can always count on rapper Lil Nas X to make the headlines — and to drum up the usual storm of Twitter hate — every time he drops a new song. His latest single and its accompanying music video are no different.
Musically, Industry Baby is a boisterous, horn-filled song that's replete with braggadocio: 'Funny how you said it was the end/Then I went did it again,' he raps in the pre-chorus. In another verse, he playfully alludes to his on-going lawsuit with Nike over his so-called "Satan Shoes": 'I ain't fall off, I just ain't release my new shit/I blew up, now everybody tryna sue me.'
But it's the song's music video that steals the show. To some, the decision to use a prison as a backdrop for a music video for a queer Black man is a bold — if controversial — one; it's no secret that the American prison system is a deeply flawed one, especially with regard to how LGBTQ+ individuals and people of colour are treated.
In that vein, the setting can be read as an allegory for the snares of homophobia and racism: That Lil Nas X manages to find joy within these confines — twerking with other black inmates in the yard, dancing naked in the showers, and ultimately banding together with them to break out of the institution — reads as the rapper's ability and desire to break out of those limitations in real life.
But the rapper isn't just using prison as a convenient backdrop — or to stir up controversy for the sake of it.
In tandem with the video's premiere, Lil Nas X also announced a collaboration with The Bail Project, an American non-profit organisation that seeks to end cash bail, something that critics have noted is one of the key contributors to mass incarceration and structural racism in the American criminal justice system.
Of his partnership and support of the organisation, Lil Nas X said: “It’s personal. I know the pain that incarceration brings to a family. And I know the disproportionate impact that cash bail has on Black Americans and the LGBTQ community. Let’s bring people home & let’s fight for freedom and equality.”
Industry Baby is a buoyant, victory-lap song paired with a perfectly realised music video — one that furthers Lil Nas X's journey as a queer Black musician who's carving out a space for himself — and in turn, for others — in the industry and the world at large.
The video's one misstep lies in featured rapper Jack Harlow's verse: While Lil Nas X and his fellow inmates celebrate their newfound freedom, Harlow is shown to be enjoying the attentions of a female warden. 'I sent her back to her boyfriend with my handprint on her ass cheek,' raps Harlow; the camera summarily pans to show said warden in a thong. Video vixens and otherwise derogatory portrayals of women are par for the course with most mainstream rap videos, but it's a disappointingly crass and discordant note in an otherwise progressive piece of work.
The premiere of Industry Baby was met with unsurprising criticism. Beyond the usual hand-wringing, some Twitter users also took umbrage at the 'feminisation' of black men — but Lil Nas X, as always, came prepared.
"The emasculation and attack on black men is so disrespectful," read one Tweet.
In reply, Lil Nas X said: "The truth is there is no attack. You view femininity as weakness. You don't like gay black men because you are afraid of black men — as a whole — being viewed as weak. You cling on to your masculinity because without it you have nothing else going for yourself."