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Lil Nas X, 'Jolene'

This had to happen. Lil Nas X wraps his salty baritone around the ascending scale that Dolly Parton made indelible and history shifts (again) to accommodate his world-conquering charm. Here is the logical end of the arc that began with "Old Town Road," a song that undid country music's seemingly intractable conservatism with the careless force of a stream overflowing its banks, and which kept building with every outrageous video and deeply sincere self-revelation as Montero Lamar Hill simply kept insisting on being himself.

"Jolene" has already been queered (by Nadine Hubbs, on the Dolly Parton's America podcast), retold from the antagonist's point of view (by Cam, in "Diane") and made into a pro-vaccine anthem (by Dolly herself). But in his canny, casual way, Lil Nas X renews its subversiveness. His voice couldn't be more different than those of most singers who've taken on the anthem: where they soar and claw, he murmurs. His cool approach throughout the song recalls the almost-interior monologues of Billie Eilish or that other country music game-changer, Kacey Musgraves. It's a new way of being expressive about a well-traveled emotional crisis, as playfully challenging as it is sincere.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.