You know the feeling: Mention a brand of beer, fuss about feeling old or muse aloud about starting a family, and the appropriate summer ale, cosmetic neurotoxin or
baby furniture ad will begin interrupting your Instagram stories and Love Island binges within 24 hours. The marketing-industrial complex envisioned in the likes of Minority Report today sits unsettlingly overlaid on science fact; the question is not whether corporations are mediating your experiences from the moment you wake up, but by how much.
Art, much as we sometimes hate to admit it, has always been a part of this whole mess — which is why it's always a little thrilling when an artist chooses to stare commerce dead in its cold, algorithmically assisted eyes. Lil Nas X was a sage 2 years old when Minority Report entered theaters, but in a way, he's lived it: For consumers of pop music, to walk the world during the summer of "Old Town Road" was to be accosted at every turn by a digital barker bent on seizing your attention, not unlike a talking hologram that knows your name. "Panini," his follow-up single and the standout of June's 7 EP, won't enjoy its predecessor's lightning-in-a-bottle virality because, well, nothing (apart from yet another stat-juking remix) plausibly could. What the artist does do in "Panini"'s official video is expand on the gleeful meta-narrative his megahit started, in which art and commerce are transparently wound together and behind-the-scenes manipulation is all part of the show.
With actress Skai Jackson — a fellow Gen Z star and living meme — as its embattled hero, "Panini" paints an everyday nightmare in which capitalism not only haunts every corner, but will chase you if you run. Disenchanted by a future where Lil Nas X's grinning mug adorns every floating billboard, hawking real-world brands from Fiat to Beats by Dre to his Internet alma mater, TikTok, Jackson tries to escape it all and can't. As she hustles down a steamy, Blade Runner-like alleyway, the rapper's likeness becomes a three-dimensional pop-up ad, blocking her path and filling her field of vision with animated lyrics. When she jumps in an Uber, there's no opting out from "Panini" as the on-board entertainment. She hops a plane; he appears on the wing in an absurdist Twilight Zone homage. She leaps out the emergency door; he follows in Iron Man repulsor boots.
Only as the song reaches its final notes does the torment subside, Lil Nas X using his powers of spectacle to conjure a garden of bright flowers and bonsai trees. Our hero knows this, too, is a simulation, but smiles anyway, the same way we do when baldly corporate appeals to mindfulness or self-care nonetheless make us feel a little something real. It's all a sly nod to the rapper's own cultural ubiquity this year.
After a record-setting 19 weeks on top, "Old Town Road" is no longer the No. 1 song in the country. But if he keeps finding new ways to blunt celebrity with self-awareness and a weirdly bracing honesty, Lil Nas X will be back.
7 is out now on Columbia Records.