An unlikely hit
According to Billboard, Old Town Road was the biggest hit of 2019. Wikipedia tells me that the song and its remix were #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 19 weeks. Remarkably, the song spent time on Billboard’s Hot Country chart as well (until they made the highly questionable move to remove it). People got excited about the song’s cultural meaning. What did it mean for a rapper to appropriate country music sounds and to wear a cowboy hat? And who gave this modern take on country style the brilliant name “ yeehaw agenda”?
I love how music can cross cultural barriers. It does an end run around people’s preconceptions. For a minute and fifty-three seconds, it unites a divided nation. And when a song that’s so unusual tops the charts, I throw my hands in the air and dance around the room! But then my music analysis brain kicks into gear. What is this song, anyway? How did it come into existence? What lends it such energy? What makes it so catchy? And how come I can listen to this song again and again and not get tired of it? (Even if you may be.)
The more I thought about this song, the more my music-theory-nerd brain was obsessed by its sheer weirdness. I’d never heard anything else like it. It seems to be full of wrong notes. The chords they imply don’t match the usual triads you hear in pop music. The instrumental track, behind the very 2018-sounding drums and bass, is just an overlapping series of short non-tunes played on what sounds like an ancient banjo, usually in straight quarter notes or eighths.
So how did this song come to be? And why is it so effective?
First of all, how it came to be. It’s a story about how music is made in the age of the Internet, where people all over the world end up collaborating, spontaneously, without ever meeting each other. Lil Nas X bought the beat (the instrumental track) on a site called BeatStars for $30. He brought it to a studio, sang and rapped over it, and the rest is pop music history. The beat was created by a young Dutch producer named YoungKio, who ran across a spare, not-at-all-pop-friendly instrumental track by Nine Inch Nails and decided it would be a great source for a country-infused trap beat.
The tune Lil Nas X adds is catchy. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without YoungKio’s sparse, ambiguous beat. The conflict between these two keeps the song fresh. As you enjoy a straightforward melody, your ear is constantly entertained by trying to piece together the bits of banjo into coherent tonality.
To truly understand this strange journey, we’ll dive deep into the weeds. We’ll follow this song’s unlikely journey from Nine Inch Nails instrumental to YoungKio beat to Nas X pop sensation!
(In this analysis, I’ll deal exclusively with the Lil Nas X original, not the remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, who I still haven’t forgiven for Achy Breaky Heart. Or Miley.)
Nine Inch Nails
In the 1990s, Trent Reznor and his band Nine Inch Nails made music that was hugely popular and culturally influential. In contrast, their 2007 album Ghosts I-IV seems completely uncommercial. The music is sparse, refusing to pull the listener in. Trent Reznor described how it was created: “This music arrived unexpectedly as the result of an experiment…. We began improvising and let the music decide the direction. Eyes were closed, hands played instruments and it began.” To me, the result seems unfriendly, abstract - unlikely source material for a massive chart-topper. But what do I know? The album was downloaded 780,000 times in the first week of its 2007 release.
Let’s look at the track called “34 Ghosts IV”. It begins with a minute and fifteen seconds of sparse and unmelodic banjos, and perhaps other twangy instruments (I can’t tell) playing in straight quarter notes or straight eighth notes. Toward the end of this section, we’re rewarded with a bit of piano. And then the music shifts into something completely different. To me, this music is utterly unremarkable.
It turns out, though, that this little bit of music hid emotional energy and potential. (Did I mention it was actually nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance?) When YoungKio sampled it for his beat, repeating key parts again and again, its latent melodic and harmonic potential emerged. The microscopic details grew into major features of a massive hit song! So let’s begin by examining those 75 seconds in the great detail that we’ll see it deserves.
The opening section is built from a 7½-second-long pattern that repeats 10 times. (Do the math. That’s 75 seconds.) Then, the music abruptly shifts into something completely different. YoungKio’s beat deals with this opening section exclusively - and so will we.
Let’s call each 7½-second-long pattern a “cycle”. The cycles occur in pairs (hypercycles?). And the whole section can be divided into three phases.
Phase One: Cycles I and II
Cycle I introduces the bass line that repeats throughout the section, anchoring the music:
In Cycle II, a banjo plays four notes over the bass, one per measure:
This music contains only two pitches per measure. Still, as the ear hears these eight notes again and again, it will do its best to fill in the gaps and perceive chords. But - what chords?
In the absence of other information, the ear will at least try to perceive each chord as something built on the bass note. So let’s start with the hypothesis that the chords are some flavor of G, Bb, F, and Eb.
- The G chord: Of the four chords, this feels the most like a triad, as it’s the only one that contains a third. We’d need more information from the pitches in subsequent chords to perceive the G and B as, say, an E minor triad in first inversion - and we don’t have that. So let’s call this a G major.
- The Bb chord is just a root plus a dissonant second. To me, it feels just a bit like a Bbsus2, since my ear perceives the influence of F from the following chord, a connection that’s strengthened by the fact that the treble stays on C. In any case, this chord is quite ambiguous.
- The F chord feels stable, since it contains a fifth. But there’s no third. So - is it an F major or an F minor? More ambiguity. If your ear had to make a choice, it would pick major, since A, the major third, is in the same general scale as the rest of the notes, and since we do eventually hear an A when the other banjo line comes in. (The alternative, F minor, seems unlikely, since that would require an A-flat.) We don’t really have to choose, though. Modern rock is full of power chords, chords with just the root and the fifth that may lean major or minor but aren’t truly either. For now, this is a power chord.
- The final chord, Eb, has barely anything to define it as an Eb chord at all. Is it an Eb6? A Cmi chord in first inversion? Who knows? Ambiguity!
G, Bb, F, Eb. What key is this in? The first chord is a G, so that’s a logical first theory. But none of the other chords do anything to strengthen a G tonality. There’s no IV, no V. In fact, none of the other chords are built on notes from the G major scale.
If we say the song’s in G, what do we do with the second chord, Bb? This chord has no function in the key of G major. Perhaps we could treat the Bb as a case of what classical theorists call mixture, the practice of drawing a chord from the minor mode. It’s a bit different, but in the world of rock, a chord built on the flat third isn’t so unusual, as the flat third is part of the blues scale. Then how does that Bb function in the tonality of the song? To me, the Bb resolves plagally to the F. Since it contains a fifth, the F is a stronger chord than the Bb, so it’s easier to hear the Bb-F motion as a resolution to a consonance. As pitches get added to this sparse beginning, we’ll see more evidence for this way of hearing the movement from Bb to F.
The Eb chord presents a greater analytical challenge. It follows the F chord and precedes the return to G, but it doesn’t relate in a conventional way to either of those. Like the Bb chord, the Eb feels like another distraction drawn from the minor mode or the blues scale. Unlike the Bb chord, it doesn’t have a clear function. But if we interpret the Eb as an inverted C minor chord, suddenly it follows logically from the F chord, like a IV-i progression. Plus, the C minor would flow logically to the G chord that starts the next cycle, like a iv-I. Yes, that would give us two more plagal cadences!
We won’t try to decide whether this is an Eb or a C chord yet, since we don’t simply know. We’ll soon see that when YoungKio samples this and adds his bass line, the debate gets even more interesting!
Thus G and F are the most strongly expressed chords, the two pillars of the progression, with the Bb and Eb passing in between. Could the song be in the key of F instead of G?
Since the G and Bb seem to resolve down to the F, and as our collection of pitches contains Bb and Eb, you could easily make the case that the song’s really in F. On the other hand, the first chord is G, and it’s the only chord that contains the third. But then the F is the only chord that contains the fifth. My answer is - so far, we don’t know which chord is the tonic! We’ll have more information once YoungKio creates his beat, but, we won’t truly know until Lil Nas X adds his melody. Until then, suffice to say that this tiny collection of eight notes induces ambiguity upon ambiguity.
Although Cycles I and II sound nothing like music from the 90s alternative rock era in which Nine Inch Nails became successful, I do hear some connections:
1. Including potential Bb and Eb chords in a song that’s potentially in G major. A number of 90s alt-rock songs created catchiness by building chords on pitches borrowed from the minor scale. The contrast between, say, the major third and minor third could make for quite the hook! Let’s reimagine the potential
G-Bb-F-Eb progression of the NiN song by playing it in the manner of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
2. That chord with a bass Bb and treble C. In classical theory, that C would be dissonant, since it’s a 2nd, or perhaps a 9th. But sometimes in pop music the 2nd scale degree can be consonant. It’s a resting point that pleases the ear because it’s stable, but not an obvious, classical consonant interval like, say, a 5th. Perhaps we hear the 2nd as a 9th - as the top of two stacked fifths?
Pop-infused musical theater is full of sus2 chords. And though I’ve never done a scientific survey, I’ve noticed this phenomenon in plenty of 90s alt-rock. An extreme example can be found in Filter’s song “I Don’t Remember”, whose chorus consists, incredibly, solely of parallel ninths:
Doesn’t that sound a bit like the Nine Inch Nails music? It’s the 90s™, people!
We’ve spent a lot of time on these eight pitches. But I hope you’ll see that they’re pregnant with possibility. Their ambiguity and the tonal shifts they imply keep the song’s energy flowing in a way that something more square, more defined, would struggle to do. Now, let’s move on.
Phase Two: Cycles III-VI
In Cycle III, at 0:15, a new banjo line enters the picture, playing two short phrases. Let’s hear that over the bass line:
|D C D G||D||—||A G F|
Let’s combine that with the original banjo line to show all the pitches in this cycle:
|D C D G||D||—||A G F|
The first phrase strengthens the G tonality. It’s built around D and G. And it provides the first measure’s G major chord with a D, its missing fifth. That first chord is now a full major triad!
The new banjo line doesn’t do much for the other chords, though. The Bb chord now has a third - the D. But the banjo sits out entirely during the F chord, and during the Eb chord it plays a very strange
A-G-F. It’s as if the banjo player started off by playing a catchy tune, the
D-C-D-G-D that ends in a hooky surprise as the D is reimagined over the Bb chord - and then they just gave up and played some wrong notes. But that’s characteristic of this song, where bits of catchiness are juxtaposed with bits of sparseness. It will take Nas X to make sense out of this second phrase.
Note also that the first banjo phrase, this unassuming five-note tune, directly inspires a key bit of Lil Nas X’s melody - the part where he sings, “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’”.
In Cycle IV, we start to hear what sounds like a pizzicato violin playing some F’s off the beats. Cycle V more or less repeats Cycle III. In Cycle VI, at 0:37, another banjo starts to repeat the note G. And I’m pretty sure someone else is playing occasional C’s. These repeated notes, especially the G’s, extend the idea of the G chord throughout each cycle. When YoungKio samples this, they’ll help lend his beat its trancelike quality.
Ultimately, we have a constellation of small notes that add up to produce the sort of vague G tonality that will characterize Old Town Road. It’s the sort of bluesy major G that includes sevenths from those Fs, and which can accommodate both a strong major-third B over the G chord and a strong chord built on the minor third, Bb. Faint offbeat F’s are present as well. Coupled with the C’s, we get us a bit of an ambiguous quartal harmony, like something McCoy Tyner might have played.
Phase III: Cycle VII-X
At Cycle VII (0:45), the banjo pattern changes in a subtle but crucial way:
Notice that the last two treble notes are different! And each of them strengthens the chord it’s played over. The A makes the F clearly an F major triad, and the Bb gives the Eb chord its fifth. This feels more like a conventional pop song, based on a progression made of four reasonably strongly expressed major chords.
The banjo pattern
(B-C-A-Bb) is an odd, tuneless melody, composed of two half steps a whole step apart. But it’s rather catchy, stepping up to the dissonance on the C, resolving down by minor third leap to the A and ending on a surprise twist in the Bb. And it emphasizes the hooky contrast between the major and minor thirds (B and Bb).
At Cycle IX (0:59), a piano comes in, perhaps as a way to transition to the piano solo in the next section 1:15. The piano plays this new
B-C-A-Bb “tune” as well, adding some new pitches in Cycle X.
And that’s it! That’s the minute and fifteen seconds that will form the foundation for YoungKio’s beat and Nas X’s pop hit, even though it’s a spare, twangy, slow, subtle instrumental. The music begins in harmonic and melodic ambiguity, but as it progresses, new layers define the chords more strongly. The pitches combine to build a vague G major tonality, coupled with a strong blues inflection and a whole lot of quartal ambiguity.
Next, let’s turn to YoungKio’s beat.
YoungKio somehow discovered this rather obscure music by a well-known band and thought it was ripe for sampling. For details, I recommend Dylan Tallchief’s super informative video, in which he reconstructs the process of building the beat. YoungKio started by EQing the original music so it would sound like an ancient recording, perhaps something “discovered” by an ethnomusicologist wandering through the Mississippi delta. He sped the music up slightly, boosting it up a half-step in the process. Then he cut it up, keeping the parts that were catchiest, which contained the “hooks” - even though the “hooks” here were rather subtle.
YoungKio introduces some intense stylistic ambiguity to this music. By EQing the original so that it sounds like old folk music, he drags it even further from the world of modern top 40. And then he adds to that a trap beat and 808 bass that could be in dozens of hip-hop songs in 2019.
As we examine the music more closely, we’ll see that YoungKio’s work starts to lessen some of the tonal ambiguity of the original, making it more suitable as the anchor of a pop song. And he also introduces a new structure that’s compatible with traditional verse-chorus form.
After some careful listening, I created this chart to show how YoungKio probably cut and pasted the original (plus or minus a detail or two that I might have missed.) Whereas the Nine Inch Nails original contains 10 cycles of 7½ seconds each, YoungKio’s beat runs for 16 cycles of 7 seconds apiece.
|Timestamp||YoungKio cycles||NiN cycles|
|0:00||I & II||IV & II|
|0:14||III & IV||VII & VIII|
|0:28||V & VI||II & II|
|0:42||VI & VIII||IX & X|
|0:56||IX & X||II & II|
|1:10||XI & XII||VII & VIII|
|1:24||XIII & XIV||VII & VIII|
|1:40||XV & XVI (fadeout)||IV & VI|
Just like “Ghosts IV 34”, YoungKio’s beat is built from pairs of cycles. Typically the cycles in each pair occur in the same order as the original, with one exception: at the beginning, he samples cycle IV, then cycle II. In this way he avoids the spare first cycle, which is just a bass line. At least cycles II and IV have a bit of a melody and more tonal content. So, YoungKio’s beat begins like this:
YoungKio I & II = NiN IV & II
(Remember that when YoungKio sped up the beat, he also boosted it by a half-step.)
Next, he skips past the next four Nine Inch Nails cycles, right to the fuller, more defined, cycles VII and VIII:
YoungKio III & IV = NiN VII & VIII
|D# C# D# G#||D#||—||A# G# F#|
|(offbeat F#’s, occasional downbeat G#’s)||G# + F#||G# + F#||G# + F#|
So, first YoungKio introduces the song’s weird ambiguous take on tonality, and then he fast-forwards ahead to the original’s most active, tonally clear section. He’s making a beat suitable for a pop song, so he can’t wait for six cycles like Nine Inch Nails! Instead, he shows us the strange source material, and then moves right away to the friendliest part. These four cycles comprise the beat’s intro.
The next two cycles return to the original sample, but now adding trap drums and a huge 808 bass, kicking off the main portion of the song. Once the 808 bass enters, the original banjo bass is barely audible. So what we really hear now is the treble banjo line over the new bass:
YoungKio V & VI = NiN II & II + bass and drums:
For the first three measures, YoungKio’s bass follows the original. But in the last measure he plays a C# followed by a F#, instead of playing an E. At least, I think it’s a C#, which is why I put it in italics. Played so low, the 808 bass is so detuned that it doesn’t express a distinct pitch. I personally heard it as a D# until I saw Dylan Tallchief’s video.
What’s up with the C#? Did YoungKio mishear the original? Did he just think C# sounded cooler?
Whatever the reason, my ear loves the weirdness caused by the conflict between the 808 bass and the banjo. The note sounds vaguely wrong (vaguely because the banjo is so quiet that you don’t really know what’s wrong), but since it’s part of a perfectly timed bass and drum pattern you hear again and again, your ear is forced to accept that it must be “right”. It’s just one of many ambiguities in the song that grabs your attention, that keeps you awake.
Also, remember back at the beginning of this analysis, when we were trying to determine whether the fourth chord of the cycle was an Eb6 chord or an inverted C minor? If we hear YoungKio’s bass as a C#, then we’ve just made a powerful case for that inverted C minor. But in YoungKio’s beat, and in “Old Town Road,” I don’t hear this as a C# minor chord. I just hear the bass as something undefined, anchoring a chord that’s forever ambiguous. (Did I mention before how unusual this song is?)
Interestingly, though, as the E in the bass of the original sample is effectively canceled by the 808 bass, the remaining pitches fit well into the G# blues scale, and the song begins to feel more like it’s based around a single G# chord. When Nas X adds his tune, this process will be brought to completion.
YoungKio VII - XVI
For cycles VII and VIII, YoungKio samples NiN IX & X. As described above, NiN IX & X function similarly to NiN VII & VIII, except that they bring in the piano. The addition of the extra instrument makes this feel like a chorus, which is exactly how Nas X will use it.
YoungKio then returns to NiN II & II, then back to NiN VII & VIII. NiN IX & X never return. Why didn’t he just use VII & VIII every time? Why did he use IX & X only once? Who knows? Probably he just thought the piano sounded neat and made a quick choice to include it once. Maybe he forgot. It’s unlikely he ever expected people would hear his beat billions of times.
Cycles I-X, the first 1:24 of this beat, follow a pattern: two cycles of sparse NiN samples, followed by two cycles of less sparse. This corresponds to three very quick (14-second) verses and three equally quick (14-second) choruses. As the first “verse” and “chorus” lack drums and bass, Nas X will use them as an intro and a refrain.
The last six cycles drop this pattern. Why? I have no idea. But I think that this change in pattern, plus the surprise switchover to NiN IX & X, prove ingenious. They mean that the resulting song, already tonally ambiguous, is also structurally ambiguous. Whereas the verses share an instrumental track, the choruses vary subtly. It’s like the song is always growing and changing in ways you can’t quite describe. I think it’s part of why the song spent so long on the charts: you think you know it, but then you’re always noticing new details.
YoungKio has transformed the Nine Inch Nails original, by speeding it up, sampling the catchier parts, and giving it more clear tonal and structural profiles. By EQing it to sound “old-timey,” he’s taken it further into the world of country, while simultaneously dragging it into the hip-hop realm by adding 808 bass and trap drums. While reducing its tonal and structural ambiguity, he’s introduced a whole new stylistic conflict.
The Lil Nas X song
YoungKio dragged the Nine Inch Nails sample into the world of modern hip-hop. Now let’s see how Lil Nas X transformed it into a pop hit!
This chart summarizes the pop song structure he imposes on the original beat. Two different sections could be called the “chorus” - the part where he sings “I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road” and the part where he sings “Can’t nobody tell me nothing”. The “nothing” part functions more as a traditional chorus, since it comes after the verse. But because the “old town road” part contains the title of the song, I’ve chosen to call that the chorus, and the other part the “refrain”.
|Timestamp||YoungKio cycles||NiN cycles||Lil Nas X structure|
|0:00||I & II||II & II||Intro|
|0:14||III & IV||VII & VIII||Chorus|
|0:28||V & VI||II & II||Verse|
|0:42||VI & VIII||IX & X||Refrain|
|0:56||IX & X||II & II||Verse|
|1:10||XI & XII||VII & VIII||Refrain|
|1:24||XIII & XIV||VII & VIII||Chorus|
|1:40||XV & XVI (fadeout)||II & VIII||Outro|
Why is this song so short? Ethan Hein speculates that, whereas many producers buy a beat and play with it to match a desired form, Nas X probably just bought this beat and rapped over it as he found it. Throughout this analysis, I’ve assumed that’s the case.
So how does Nas X pack so much catchiness and action into a song that’s less than two minutes long? As we have throughout this piece, we’ll focus on the music analysis, not the performance. We’ll see that Nas X gives the song a clear structure and a more recognizable tonality while letting the beat’s original oddness shine through.
Nas X starts the song by riffing around on a G# blues scale. This is the first human voice we’ve talked about in this analysis, and it has a couple of important effects. Of course, the voice makes the Nine Inch Nails material more accessible. And, to the analyst, his pitches pull the tonally ambiguous music closer to a clear G#. Here’s the pitches in the intro:
|Voice||-||B||G#||F# G# B A# G#||G#||B||G# D#||C# B G#|
The G# tonality is still not explicit. No one’s playing a G# triad! Our ears still need to infer it from this smattering of pitches.
- In Bar 1, he adds nothing. When the cycle repeats in bar 5, he doesn’t add anything new, but he does land hard on the G#.
- Bar 2 and 6, he adds nothing new, leaving this moment just as nontonal as ever.
- In bar 3, Nas X’s tune preserves the original quartal harmony over the F# bass notes, creating
F#-C#-G#in bar 3, and even a
F#-C#-G#-D#stack of fifths in bar 7.
- Bars 4 and 8 get the most new pitches. They now feel more like some version of an E6 chord.
Note, though, that each vocal phrase descends solidly to G#:
- phrase 1:
- phrase 2:
- phrase 3:
- phrase 4:
So this tune helps establish a G# tonality, even while maintaining much of the tonal ambiguity of the Nine Inch Nails original.
Next, Nas X sings the chorus. This comes early for a modern pop song - just 14 seconds in. But in music of the pre-rock era, when verse-chorus forms competed with 32-bar forms, strophic songs, and the like, it was common to state the song’s title right up front. (Think of “ Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “ When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”.) For a song that sounds like it’s based on an ancient banjo sample, this fits. Besides, getting the chorus in up front helps drag the music into the realm of pop.
Just as with the pitches Nas X sings in the intro, the pitches in the chorus are firmly in the G# blues scale, composed of phrases that once again each descend to G# (give or take a small diversion down to F#):
|D# C# B G# G#||D# C# C# G# F#||C# C# D#||B (A# or G#) G#|
Here’s a complete score showing all the pitches in this chorus:
|Voice||D# C# B G# G#||D# C# C# G# F#||C# C# D#||B (A# or G#) G#|
|Banjo||D# C# D# G#||D#||—||A# G# F#|
|Quiet Banjo||(offbeat F#’s, occasional downbeat G#’s)||G# + F#||G# + F#||G# + F#|
As with the intro riff, the chorus melody helps bring the music into focus. First of all, of course - hey, we’ve got a melody! And not just a little tune like that
D-C-D-G-D banjo riff. Nas X connects the two little banjo riffs and fuses them into something grand and soaring. Look at the voice and banjo in the first two measures:
|Voice||D# C# B G#||D# C# C#|
|Banjo||D# C# D# G#||D#|
The humble banjo riff has been transmuted into a lovely two-bar melodic phrase. Here’s the next two-bar phrase:
|Voice||C# C# D#||B (A# or G#) G#|
|Banjo||—||A# G# F#|
Nas X’s second melodic phrase actually normalizes the weird, nontonal
A#-G#-F# by transposing it up to
B-A#-G# (or sometimes
B-G#-G#, depending), where it descends gently from the fifth to the third scale degree in E. Coupled with the voice, the banjo
A#-G#-F# sounds like a bluesy inflection in E major.
And then, by filling in some missing pitches and reinforcing others, the melody strengthens each of our four chords:
- the G# chord: Nas X’s tune contains all three pitches in the G# minor triad, descending gracefully from the fifth scale degree to the first. You’d think the voice’s B would clash with the banjo’s B#, but it doesn’t really. Instead, the B#/B conflict produces a nice G# bluesy major/minor triad. You may also recall how in the NiN original, the Bb chord came out of nowhere. Now, since we’re transposed up a half-step, that would be the B chord. Since Nas X’s tune uses the note B in the first measure, when the B chord in the second measure now sounds quite natural.
- the B chord: the melody in this measure emphasizes the C# in the banjo, our second scale degree. But it also contains the D#, a third. This chord still feels ambiguous, but less so. It’s more like a consonant second scale degree in one of those alt-rock songs described earlier. Plus, if you add in the banjo’s offbeat F#’s, this chord now contains all three pitches of the B major triad.
- the F# chord: the melody expresses a strong C#. Add that to the F# and A# in the main banjo lines, and we’ve got another lovely major triad.
- the E chord: in the NiN original, this chord was tonally weak. Now the melody expresses a strong B and G#, making it a clear major triad. And, as mentioned above, the tune erases the banjo’s confusing
A#-G#-F#, replacing it with
Incredibly, Nas X’s tune has transformed each ambiguous chord into a full triad.
Verse and Refrain
I’ll go over these sections in less detail, because the story’s similar: Nas X’s melody continues to normalize the source material and bring it into the realm of pop. Here are the pitches used in the verse:
|Voice||G# C# D# D# C# D#||B C# C# B C#||C# C# C# B C# C# B||C# C# C# D# C# B G#|
And here’s the pitches in the refrain:
|Voice||D# D# C# C# D# G#||D# C# B||G# G# G# G#||C# B A# G#|
|Banjo||D# C# D# G#||D#||—||A# G# F#|
|Quiet Banjo||(offbeat F#’s, occasional downbeat G#’s)||G# + F#||G# + F#||G# + F#|
Nas X sings consistently in the G# minor scale, just as if he was singing over a more conventional track. This defines a clear tonal center for music that lacked this previously. He also ends each section with a melodic descent to the tonic, G#. Notice how he completely ignores the F# chord in the refrain, opting instead for the G# in the banjo, the dissonant second we earlier noted was characteristic of 90s alt-rock. It’s the more hypnotic choice of simply pretending the song’s always in the same chord. Notice also how he continues to emphasize that alt-rock second scale degree over the B chord in both the verse and chorus.
Nas X sings a verse over the sparser cycles and a chorus over the busier ones, molding a clear form out of YoungKio’s beat. The first part of the chorus melody, where Nas X sings “Can’t nobody tell me nothing”, is inspired directly by the banjo line. Ingeniously he transmutes this small detail in the original into a singalong section of a pop anthem.
This melody’s not uninteresting, but I think a lot of its appeal emerges from the contrast between the quite predictable, stable melody and the unpredictable instrumental. The repetitive bass and chant-like melody relax us, the complex drums engage our ears while maintaining a steady beat, and the original instrumental maintains its forest of ambiguity.
The rest of the song
After the second refrain, Nas X returns to the chorus, even though the instrumental track is still repeating the music he used for the refrain. Here, his structure completely departs from the instrumental. While the listener is trying to figure out why he’s singing the chorus over a different background, and what’s up with this whole strange experience anyway, the song is suddenly over. And then… you want to hear it again!
We’ve just seen how YoungKio and Lil Nas X collaborated without collaborating to transform a sparse, ambiguous Nine Inch Nails instrumental into a pop gigahit (1,666,336,259 Spotify streams for the original plus the remix). I think this song could only have happened in this way - by musicians working at different times and places without ever knowing each other. YoungKio and Nas X just happened to share a spirit of open-mindedness, a willingness to uncover musical gold in unlikely source material. Each worked to transform something strange into something familiar. The result is a song that combines the predictable with the unlikely, the ambiguous with the clearly defined, in a way that no one would have ever come up with in isolation.
Could any of them read music? Did any of them study music theory? Unlikely. Did any of them do the sort of analysis we’re doing here? Nope. And yet these unrelated musicians used their ears, their intuitions, to create something quite wonderful that a theorist wouldn’t have thought possible. The result is a mix of styles, ambiguity, and multilayered associations that make an arresting, surprising bit of music. Isn’t that what “catchy” means?
When something so bizarre becomes so popular, we have to stand up and cheer!