It's the most provocative moment of the video for the music wunderkind's latest hit single, "Industry Baby," a song that chronicles his rise to the top and raises a giddy middle finger to his naysayers.
The video provoked extreme reactions: some loved it for its catchy, trumpet-heavy tune and the focus on a smirking and glistening Lil Nas X. But others were outraged by the gay, Grammy Award-winning pop star for offending them with the video's homoeroticism. Homophobic backlash erupted on social media -- and it didn't stop there.
In the face of it all, Lil Nas X did what he does best: double down and tweet.
Lil Nas X's unapologetic commitment to his identity has become even more essential in the wake of DaBaby's comments. He's proven he's not successful in spite of his sexuality -- he's successful because he embraces it. In the process, he's carving out a new space for the future of LGBTQ musicians to express themselves without limits.
Lil Nas X is building on a foundation laid by other Black and queer musicians
Lil Nas X isn't the first Black man in the music industry to challenge gender norms.
"Lil Nas X is absolutely important, but he also is very much built on a history of other Black, queer and queer-adjacent artists who walked so he could run," said Alfred Martin, a communications professor at the University of Iowa who researches Black and queer media studies.
Even as flipping gender norms in the arts grew more mainstream, many queer musicians still tried to set some boundaries between their professional and personal identities, in an effort to circumvent overt discrimination. It was often easier not to be 100% open about every aspect of their sexuality.
But pushing boundaries has always been a staple specific to rap, said Matthew Oware, a sociology professor at the University of Richmond who researches race and gender identities in pop culture
This goes back to rappers first including explicit language, content and controversial political statements, as heard in "F*** Tha Police" by N.W.A.
"There's still that general sentiment that this type of rapper, a gay, male rapper, isn't representative of masculinity," Oware said. "What Lil Nas X is doing by upping the ante is no different than what we see a stereotypical, heterosexual rapper do by upping the ante in their lyrics."
In both Lil Nas X and DaBaby's videos, the rappers perform shirtless, sing about sex and speak to their successes. But Lil Nas X receives backlash much more often because of what he represents.
"Queerness generally, but Black queerness specifically, still functions as this kind of scarlet letter for many folks who want to work within the media and culture industries," Martin said, adding that rappers are still more likely to cling to hypermasculine values, which makes it hard to accept queer artists.
This shows in the way many rappers defended DaBaby's comments, while the backlash largely came from those outside the genre, Martin said. For a long time, Black queerness specifically was used as a joke in media, Martin said, and it's hard for those deeply immersed in the rap world to break out of that mindset.
"As a man who has had to make his own way from very difficult circumstances, having people I know publicly working against me -- knowing that what I needed was education on these topics and guidance -- has been challenging," his apology said.
"In this particular moment, we have DaBaby saying these really uninformed things about HIV/AIDS -- but because of all of the work that these other artists were able to do, we get to see this swift takedown of DaBaby," Martin said.
Carving out a future for LGBTQ creators in the music industry
The ripples of Lil Nas X's success may not immediately lead to a flood of queer, Black creators into the music industry, Martin and Oware said. Lil Nas X is the first star of his kind -- Black, gay, genre-bending, Gen Z and award-winning.
With time, Lil Nas X's success may make more record companies open to signing on more Black, LGBTQ musicians, Martin said.
"The issue with being the first is often that the first also becomes the last for a really long time," Martin said. "Black queerness has only very recently become really legible as something other than a punchline. There's a lot of work, of undoing that needs to get done. And Lil Nas X might be part of that undoing."