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'Road' To Record-Breaking: How Lil Nas X Is Making History

"All throughout this 17 weeks, it's been a breadcrumb trail of new information," pop critic Chris Molanphy says.
Noam Galai
Getty Images for BuzzFeed
"All throughout this 17 weeks, it's been a breadcrumb trail of new information," pop critic Chris Molanphy says.

Lil Nas X has officially broken the record for the longest-running No. 1 single on Billboard's Hot 100 list thanks to his breakout hit "Old Town Road." Billboard announced on July 29 that the genre-jumping song has topped the chart for 17 straight weeks. But what's the significance of such a feat?

"What's most remarkable about the run that the song has had is that it has literally dodged all of the major contenders forsong of the summer by some real pop heavyweights," pop critic and chart analyst Chris Molanphy says. Since being officially released via Columbia Records and skyrocketing to No. 1 in April, the "Old Town Road" remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus has edged out music by pop music darlings Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran and more from the top spot.

In order to logistically pull this off, Molanphy says consistency is key across three major metrics: Sales, streaming and airplay. According to Molanphy, "Old Town Road" has been "dominant" in all three fields since its release.

"Streaming has overwhelmingly been the reason why 'Old Town Road' has stayed at number one so many weeks," Molanphy explains. "But it's also been a big hit at radio and it has outsold most songs on downloads for much of the last three to four months."

If the original track, which was released independently by the rapper on Dec. 3, 2018 and first gained rapid popularity thanks to the music app TikTok, wasn't enough, three subsequent remixes — first featuring Cyrus, then with Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, then with rapper RM of the K-pop supergroup BTS — undoubtedly tipped the scales in Lil Nas X's favor.

In claiming this 17-week throne, "Old Town Road" has beat out the other contenders who've held the previous record of 16 weeks — 1995's "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men and 2017's "Despacito" remix by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber. Molanphy points out that all three of these long-reigning No. 1's, at 16 and 17 weeks respectively, were collaboration records that paired larger-than-life artists together and created a moment in the music world, whether it be two R&B titans teaming up or an unexpected bilingual crossover. "They're kind of event singles, if you will," Molanphy says.

In the case of "Old Town Road," Molanphy thinks the contention surrounding the song's genre designation is what propelled it into being an "event record."

"Folks debating whether or not it qualified for the genre of that Lil Nas X was claiming it belonged in; country music," he says. "And then, to sort of step it up a notch, he invites an actual country veteran, Billy Ray Cyrus, to do a vocal on the first remix and that just kicked it into overdrive and turned what was already a very viral song into a total event."

Outside of the music industry push, the 20-year-old artist has been able to keep the momentum on his song going by intuitively harnessing the power of the Internet. Lil Nas X teasing remixes on Twitter, adding sly cameos to the music video and creating residual viral moments all helped to keep the conversation around the song feel current.

"All throughout this 17 weeks, it's been a breadcrumb trail of new information — exciting new content, if you will, memes, if you will — related to 'Old Town Road' and I think that's gone a long way toward keeping it front of mind with certainly a younger generation and American culture in general," Molanphy notes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.