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Gen Z Pop Stars Made Their Mark in 2021. Beware, Millennial Forebears.

On August 30, the archetypal millennial Drake revealed the cover of his new album, “Certified Lover Boy.” Designed by the British art provocateur Damien Hirst, it depicts 12 emoji women of varying skin tones, all pregnant, presumably by (emoji?) Drake.

Much like the cover of Drake’s 2016 album, “Views,” which featured him perched moodily atop Toronto’s CN Tower, this image was first met with disbelief, a little bit of cringe and then an unending torrent of memes. The most memorable came from a onetime internet troll who has, over the past few years, risen to become one of the 35-year-old Drake’s musical peers: Lil Nas X.

In a viral tweet, the 22-year-old Lil Nas X simply flips the gender: 12 emoji men, all pregnant, presumably by (emoji) Lil Nas X. Ever a canny self-promoter, Lil Nas X captioned the tweet with a reference to “Montero,” his own forthcoming album, which was to be released just two weeks after Drake’s.

When it came to album sales, Drake won this battle. Like just about everything else he touches, “Certified Lover Boy” became a cultural juggernaut, moving more than half a million copies in its first week and spending several consecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200 — which meant that when “Montero” was released, despite a relatively strong showing, it debuted at No. 2. In a recent GQ interview, Lil Nas X admitted that he was at first disappointed by this chart statistic before he realized, in amazement, “Drake’s my idol.”

In less quantifiable terms, though, “Montero” served as a reminder that a new, younger and entirely less predictable type of star is suddenly nipping at Drake’s — and his entire cohort’s — heels. Their playful competition is evidence of a dynamic that has been increasingly noticeable this year: the growing generational divide between pop’s millennial elders and their Gen Z heirs.

For the past few years, at least within music’s A-list, the now-19-year-old whisper-phenom Billie Eilish has been treated by Grammy voters and critics alike as pop’s token Zoomer, shouldering the burden of representing her entire generation and all the changes it has wrought in the music industry. (Even she believes she’s won too many Grammys.) But this year — on the Billboard charts, Grammy ballots and year-end lists — a fresh front of Gen Z pop stars like Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, Chloe Bailey and the Kid Laroi have emerged and reached a critical mass. To quote LCD Soundsystem, and thus out myself as a crusty old millennial, the kids are coming up from behind.

Some high-profile pop mentors have actively aligned with the new brood. Beyoncé has been championing the R&B sister duo Chloe x Halle since she signed them to her label as teenagers in 2015, and so it felt like a kind of cosmic torch-passing when the now-23-year-old Bailey’s sultry breakout solo single “Have Mercy” dropped the very same week that Queen Bey turned 40. On the ubiquitous duet “Stay,” the 27-year-old Justin Bieber enacted a kind of pop-musical version of the Will Smith clone thriller “Gemini Man” when he traded verses with his own younger doppelgänger, the 18-year-old mop-topped crooner the Kid Laroi — who flaunts his precocity right there in his stage name.

For all their stylistic variances, what these younger artists have in common is that they’ve all grown up on the internet, which means that their history of admiring or even “stanning” the artists who are now their contemporaries is well documented, always just a Google (or at least a Wayback Machine) search away. Lil Nas X was a member of Nicki Minaj’s formidable stan army and the prolific poster behind the Twitter account @NasMaraj. Olivia Rodrigo, 18, identifies as a “huge Swiftie” and considers her so-called “mom” Taylor Swift’s music so formative to her own that she interpolated the piano riff from Swift’s 2017 track “New Year’s Day” on “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” from her debut album, “Sour.”

But as Lil Nas X and Rodrigo have proved themselves to be not just one-hit wonders but formidable forces in the pop firmament, their relationships to their forebears have become a bit more complicated. Both Drake and Minaj declined Nas’s invitations to guest on “Montero.” As a child of the open-sourced creative ethos of the internet, Rodrigo’s open homages to her influences may have also backfired: Both Swift and members of the rock band Paramore were added as songwriters to her hits “Déjà Vu” and “Good 4 U,” neither of which nod to their songs as directly as “1 Step Forward.”

Perhaps those results are not surprising: Both of these upstart artists are, after all, coming up against some of the industry’s most entrenched power players. But they also represent something thrillingly — and, perhaps to some, threateningly — new.

As a Disney star turned hitmaker, Rodrigo has followed a markedly different — and truncated — pathway to maturity when compared to the rocky road traversed by her 29-year-old forebears Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato — all of whom were still signed to the Disney Music Group’s squeaky-clean label Hollywood Records when they were Rodrigo’s age. Even though she will still appear on a forthcoming third season of the show her fame has since outgrown, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” Rodrigo’s decision to release “Sour” on Geffen gave her certain lyrical and stylistic freedoms that allowed her to be truer to herself.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Oh, did you just swear so that people would know that you’re not a Disney kid anymore?’” she said in a Variety interview earlier this year. “It truly isn’t a calculated decision in my head. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be an edgy kid now.’ I just tend to have a very dirty mouth, and I think that obviously reflects in my songwriting.”

Lil Nas X, as an openly gay hip-hop artist working in a genre that was in his own lifetime so one-dimensionally macho and heteronormative that it propagated the mantra “no homo,” has experienced a particularly radical ascent. Naturally, the way he has come to center his sexuality in his music videos and award show performances has ruffled some of the old guard’s feathers, but he also exemplifies a younger generation known for its open-minded views on gender and sexual fluidity. As he put it on The Breakfast Club in September, defending the joyfully subversive imagery in the music videos for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and “Industry Baby,” “I want the videos to be entertaining. And whether you like it or not, seeing men do different things than what men always do is much more entertaining.”

As their forebears either evolve into maturity or descend into self-parody, I’d have to agree. Rodrigo has slotted easily into the blank space that Swift left when she began making less pop-oriented music with the albums “Folklore” and “Evermore.” (In some sense, too, she made a better Lorde album than Lorde did this year.) And Lil Nas X is able to nimbly avoid the most awkward blind spots of his idols, such as Minaj’s strange 2020 about-face “used to be bi, but now I’m just het’ro.” “Say that you a lesbian, girl, me too,” Drake raps lazily on “Girls Want Girls,” a “Certified Lover Boy” single that feels both gauche and outdated, more reminiscent of the shamelessly queer-baiting era when Katy Perry kissed a girl than when Lil Nas X made out with a man at the BET Awards.

“I do feel like this newer generation of rappers who are coming in, and the ones who are here, are going to have to reshape their thoughts,” Lil Nas X told the playwright Jeremy O. Harris in a recent interview, when asked about “the hypermasculine breakdowns that have been happening in hip-hop lately.”

And to the Gen X rocker Courtney Love’s dubious claim that Rodrigo had plagiarized the cover of Hole’s “Live Through This” (which itself borrowed liberally from the 1976 film “Carrie”) in a publicity photo, Rodrigo was equally open-minded — if gently barbed. “I mean, to be honest, I’m flattered that Courtney Love knows who I am,” she told Variety. “She’s from a totally different generation, so I thought that was cool.”

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