In a genre obsessed with authenticity, Post Malone has found his niche, though not without plenty of controversy.
Jeff Weiss’ Washington Post article detailing the inaugural Posty Fest isn’t a traditional stinkpiece so much as it as an unwavering Comedy Central roast. “What Post Malone is selling is the chill-bro relatability of the third-most-sensitive member of a frat house, softly crooning acoustic guitar rap covers to seduce Gammas after a pledge paddling. He is the dynamite hack — the platonic playlist substitute at the Duke University coffee shop so the vice president doesn’t fire you for playing Young Dolph.”
While the biting hot take was promptly lambasted across the internet as a snobbish attempt at satire, with Post responding rather curtly via Twitter, it contains one undeniable truth: America has fallen head over heels for the “rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese.” Critics have long complained about the lack of substance in pop music, issuing lengthy diatribes that range from sensationalistic narcissism to pretentious finger-pointing. When it comes to Post Malone, they’re rarely complimentary. Purposefully inflammatory pieces from both sides of the aisle fuel the raging fires of hypocrisy to the point where it’s impossible to find an answer that will satisfy everyone. And attempting to appease all parties involved, as it turns out, can have the complete opposite effect.
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Austin Richard Post, the suburban-Dallas-raised rapper who was named by Nielsen as 2018’s most popular musician, is by no means a revolutionary, but he is a harbinger of the times. He’s a descendant of the melodic drift that set sail the day Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak blueprint was released to the masses. Dubbed by Weiss as the “avatar of algorithm culture,” Post boasts music that is moored in sentient lethargy and watered down understandings of heartbreak, loneliness, and self-pity. His quirky and occasionally endearing sing-song tunes are designed for Get Turnt and Sad Boy Hours playlists alike.
Nonetheless, the 23-year-old has had to develop a thick skin ever since he reached mainstream attention in 2015. He’s been called a glorified country star, artistically problematic, impulsive and short-sighted, talentless, outright deaf to the “narratives of ownership that course through hip-hop,” and just about every other insult imaginable. Some critics have expressed more comprehensive concerns, with radio personality Charlamagne Tha God condemning Post as the next “Great White Hype” and citing Iggy Azalea and Macklemore as previous examples of white rappers who have found massive commercial success.
To say that Post’s music is en vogue would be a laughable understatement. The Ringer staff writer Lindsay Zoladz put it simply: “he’s so popular right now that you can’t ignore him.” Last April, the aspiring genre lane-changer’s Beerbongs & Bentleys debuted at No. 1, shattering streaming records via the same candy-coated formula of previous efforts. Post’s Twitter proclamation that he wanted to take hip-hop and “stretch it so far that people who may not listen to it, listen to it” proved to be wildly prophetic, with his sophomore outing landing as the second most-streamed album in the U.S. on Spotify in 2018. Perhaps even more impressive is that Stoney, his two-year-old debut, somehow managed to hold on at No. 5, a statistic that speaks volumes on its own.
Post comes off as a sincere and likable goofball in all the interviews that he’s been a part of, whether it’s crushing hot wings with Sean Evans, going undercover with GQ, or casually chatting with Ethan and Hila Klein of H3H3. A lot of the hate that he endures is superficial: he looks like the Pig-Pen equivalent of a gas station clerk who would happily offer to share the California rolls that he purchased at an employee discount price. He seems well aware of this unfortunate “even my shadow reeks of cigarettes” characterization: “On Halloween, they came dressed up like me, which is easy: Just look homeless.” Over the past year or so, he has undergone a quasi-Queer Eye makeover, abandoning the “White Iverson” cornrows for a stringy man-bun before most recently settling on a musty mess of curls after claims surfaced of him smelling so bad that it induced vomiting among those who met him. His limited-edition collaboration with foam clog company Crocs (which sold out in mere minutes) is a testament to his oddball, “cowboy shit” tendencies and 21-century status as a living and breathing music-meme hybrid.
For those whose objections run much deeper, Post stands an embarrassing embodiment of everything “wrong” with hip-hop, an industry plant embalmed in day-old Bud Light and zapped back to life to roam unchecked across the music charts for the amusement of unsavory white rap fans. These accusations have been fueled in part by incidents such as an apology-inducing 2015 video of pre-fame Post using the N-word, a rambling response to a question about the Black Lives Matter movement during an interview with The Breakfast Club, and his dismissal from XXL’s annual Freshman cover in 2016 due to reports that he was “going in more of a rock/pop/country direction.”
He’s made numerous attempts to distance himself from the “rapper” title in favor of the more nebulous “musician,” a move that is perceived by critics as ignorantly dismissive due to the way that it caters to white artists. His struggles to wrestle with questions of race and what it means to be black in America have elicited cries of white fragility and privilege. "If you're looking for lyrics, if you're looking to cry, if you're looking to think about life, don't listen to hip-hop," Post told Polish news outlet NewOnce in 2017. He later passed off his provocative comments as being the result of a beer-tasting session that took place during the interview (NewOnce denied these claims).
And yet, the pop savant has been handsomely rewarded for his efforts. It’s a bizarre conundrum: are listeners to believe Post’s assertion that “genre is stupid,” and that there’s no contradiction in him making a song with Justin Bieber one moment and 21 Savage the next? Or is he not appropriately exercising due diligence in partaking in a predominantly black artform?
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There exists a perceptible grey area between musical inclination and self-perception that leaves plenty of room for criticism, although Post’s diehard fans seem wholly unbothered by such matters. In fact, his curated “outlaw” renown has only made him more popular. "Post is like the Donald Trump of hip-hop," bragged Rob Stevenson, an executive at Malone's label, Republic Records. "Things that should've killed his career have only made him bigger."
Post’s desire to reinvent himself, to achieve artistic anonymity without consequences, is the root cause of this controversy. The empty signifiers, or rather “empty calories,” of his entire musical existence are ironically both the reason for his enormous success and the reason for his perceived “culture vulture” inferiority. He’s a product of the current climate in which music that is instinctively accessible trumps all. Sonic aesthetic is increasingly prized by a mainstream consumer-base that enjoys music as a passive activity, something to be thrown on in the background and forgotten until later notice (or until Spotify updates its Rap Caviar playlist). Palatable, pop-friendly trap trends are what’s in, and Post has continued to mine this jackpot with a sound that is undemanding and mind-numbingly catchy.
For better or worse (depending on your view), he’s part of the new wave of “rappers” blurring the edges of hip-hop and expanding its boundaries. Emo, rap, and folk no longer function as distinct boxes to be checked in a drop-down menu. Instead, they’re now elements to be blended every which way. It’s a particular kind of musical experimentation that is difficult to pull off in convincing fashion, but Post remains undeterred in his quest to create “bops for everyday use.” And his current moment of pop ubiquity as a sequined “redneck country rebel” has shown no signs of letting up anytime soon.
Post Malone’s staying power was cranked up to the absolute max in 2018, as evidenced by his streaming monopoly. It’s true that numbers don’t lie, but one can’t help but wonder if he’s built for the long haul, or if it’s a forgone conclusion that his expiration date is just over the horizon. “I know it piss you off to see me winnin’,” he confidently warbles on new single “Wow.” It’s his latest entry in a catalogue that includes plenty of thematically cheesing odes to the “haters.” Admittedly, Post seems to be fine with the giant target on his back. While it’s possible that there will be future missteps and more cringeworthy, off-color remarks, his growing legion of supporters will continue to drown out the incredulous outbursts from critics. Whether or not you believe that he’s exploiting modernity’s most bankable music form by churning out “one of the shallowest bastardizations of rap to date,” his appeal remains as sturdy as ever, much to the chagrin of industry gatekeepers.