Talking to Billboard recently about how she “slid down the mountain” following her brief run as one of the biggest acts in popular music, Iggy Azalea made a point about the nature of 21st-century celebrity that few, if any artists in her position have ever quite articulated before.
“It’s hard to separate trolling from legitimate criticism,” she offered, referring to some of the snap comments she made when being questioned about her place in hip-hop culture. “When you get thrown into the deep end, you have a natural inclination as a human to defend your character. There were times, in retrospect, where I was way too defensive… where there was so much coming from every direction that I just didn’t have the ability to pick through what was valid and what wasn’t. I just felt like, ugh, I’m walling off everything.”
Austin Richard Post — better known as Post Malone, the quasi-rapper who today (Apr. 27) releases his long-anticipated sophomore LP Beerbongs & Bentleys — is certainly as far into the deep end as Iggy Azalea ever was. Despite only releasing his debut single “White Iverson” three summers ago, he’s enjoyed a rapid ascent to being one of the most commercially bankable stars in pop: Beerbongs lead single “Rockstar” topped the Hot 100 for eight weeks; follow-up “Psycho” debuted at No. 2 in early March and is still lingering the top 5; debut LP Stoney has been on the Billboard 200 albums chart for 71 weeks and was still in the top 10 as recently as a week ago. At this year’s Coachella festival, he played just before Beyoncé.
But with great commercial success has come massively increased scrutiny for Post Malone. As a white artist achieving stardom in a traditionally black genre, he’s been asked questions that he’s been unable to answer effectively — about Black Lives Matter, about the politics of race in the music industry, about hip-hop in general. And with each unintentionally controversial statement he makes, he’s received backlash from music fans and media, who understandably want to see an artist with his platform take responsibility for his place in the culture.
And this is where Post Malone really gets tripped up: When the heat gets turned up underneath him, he’s consistently resorted to dismissing critics outright, the same way he would Twitter trolls. Talking to Rolling Stone about the Black Lives Matter question he was originally asked on The Breakfast Club, he offered, “I wish I’d said, ‘What are you doing for Black Lives Matter?’ Some sassy shit to shut him up. Like, maybe my music’s not the best, but I know I’m not a bad person, so you’re just being a hater.” He echoed those sentiments at the end of his weekend one Coachella gig, introducing breakthrough top 10 hit “Congratulations” by decrying those who had dismissed him as “one-hit wonder,” “culture vulture” and “piece of shit,” and adding, “I see those same motherfuckers… And they always say, CONGRATULATIONS.”
To a certain extent, his attitude is understandable. Post Malone has been underestimated since “White Iverson,” dismissed by many as a novelty act, at best. He has been the subject of a lot of snarky negative reviews that undersell his legitimate talents. Few outside of his fanbase would’ve guessed from his early hits that we’d still be talking about Post in 2018, but here we are discussing him as one of the biggest acts in contemporary music — and in that sense, he was right to ignore the haters. Where Post finds trouble, though, is conflating those pundits who threw “one-hit wonder” at him with those who deemed him a “culture vulture” — because consistent commercial triumph only invalidates one of those two labels. Like Iggy, he’s struggling to separate trolling from legitimate criticism.
On Beerbongs & Bentleys, he sorta stops trying altogether. The album is largely what you’d expect from Post given his recent singles and the largesse they’ve brought him: It’s a celebration of being young, famous and fantastically wealthy, with an undercurrent of heartbreak casting a pall on the artist’s superficial prosperity. One song, called “Rich & Sad,” could very accurately title the whole album, the contrast broken down fairly literally into its chorus: “I just keep on wishing that the money made you stay.” It’s not the most urgent of subject matter, though given Post’s current age and status — “Multi-millionaire by the time I’m 23,” he reminds us on the yuk-ily titled “Zack and Codeine” — and his reluctance to embrace difficult subject matter, it’s hard to know what else he really should be writing about.
And to Post’s credit, the album sounds great. Listening to Beerbongs‘ opening run of could-be-smashes, it becomes abundantly clear that though his resume as a rapper might be slightly muddled, the dude is a pop savant. He understands the little bits of phrasing that turn memorable choruses into absolute brain infestations, like the way his voice unexpectedly jumps at the end of the “I would throw it all away!” refrain to “Rich & Sad,” or how he and guest Swae Lee drop the title phrase of the winning “Spoil My Night” in different ways at different moments in the hook, guaranteeing at least one of them catches. Even on the G-Eazy and YG-featuring “Same Bitches,” whose chorus takes a somewhat questionable page from 2Pac’s misogynist ’90s anthem “All About U,” you can’t argue with the chorus’ economy: “Population 4 million, how I see the same bitch?”
Then there’s “Rockstar,” which feels like it came out several years ago at this point, but whose glimmer still deserves a moment’s recognition. The song’s relatively lightweight concept and somewhat dated debauchery belies an incredible sonic depth — courtesy of Tank God and Louis Bell, with the latter producer’s fingerprints thankfully found all over Beerbongs and Bentleys — and expert songcraft. Post’s airy whisper and special guest 21 Savage’s flat baritone contrast beautifully within the same minor-key melody, as they mix mythologies from the rock, pop and hip-hop worlds with vivid lyrical snapshots, all over a glorious setting-sun beat that intensifies and fades (and occasionally disappears entirely) as necessary. It’s one of the strangest, most indelible compositions to ever top the Hot 100, really, and it’s a brilliant illustration of just about all the things Post does well.
What Post still doesn’t do well, of course, is save himself some trouble by keeping his foot out of his mouth for 18 tracks. On Beerbongs, he doesn’t even make it through one: Opener “Paranoid” begins with the rapper bemoaning being hounded by the cops (“In the whip I pray to God I don’t see flashing lights/ Goddamn they right behind me”) — which, maybe not the best time — and goes on to disavow political allegiances (“Politicians and their lies/ Tell me, what’s the point of picking sides?”) — which, definitely not the best time. Past wrist-slaps he’s received for times he’s misspoke don’t seem to have humbled Post; on breakup track “Over Now,” he literally declares, “Won’t apologize, don’t give a fuck if you offended.”
There’s a lot of good to be found on Beerbongs & Bentleys. While the album largely follows in the vein of its advance singles — sometimes to its detriment, as the album doesn’t throw enough different looks at listeners to justify its 18-track length, leading to an inevitable second-half sag — it does have a couple moments that see Post stretching his musical boundaries, to promising effect. “Over Now” builds over thick drums to a drop that almost feels like it belongs on Linkin Park’s Meteora, with the cacophony of its pounding outro cleverly giving way to the soothing chimes of the irresistible “Psycho.” “Stay,” which Post already debuted live, is a surprisingly convincing acoustic ballad, a hybrid of Britpop melody and emo bloodiness, the kind of smartly detailed lighter-waver The Chainsmokers undoubtedly wish came more naturally to them. Even the inexplicable 100-second interlude “Jonestown” — a mix of chopper-engine bass, ringing guitars and an oddball mantra about “drinking the Kool Aid once again” — is appealing, in large part because it just doesn’t sound like something you’d hear anywhere else.
It’s unfortunate that Post Malone’s musical growth doesn’t seem to come with the personal maturity he’ll need to recognize his place of privilege — or to get through another album cycle of tough questions and attempts to hold him artistically accountable. Again, Post is still just 22 and relatively new to stardom; it’d be unfair to expect total responsibility from him, or to think he can’t ever improve in that area. He doesn’t seem like a bad-intentioned person or artist. But after Beerbongs & Bentleys becomes a best-seller — as it seems destined to do, given the success of its lead cuts and the radio and streaming potential of new tracks like “Spoil My Night” — will it just reaffirm to Post that his success will outlive the haters? And if so, will he just continue to wall off all criticism — including the kind it’d behoove him to actually listen to — as needless trolling?
If he does, Azalea’s arc looms as a cautionary tale. Post Malone is on an incredible heater at the moment, but so was Iggy in 2014, before it all went up in smoke for her. Post has sharper musical instincts, picks his collaborators well, and seems to have a better self-awareness about what his fans want and expect from him — but his footing at pop music’s apex is by no means totally secure. And as Iggy and countless other white artists in hip-hop history will tell him, once you start sliding down that mountain, it’s much, much harder to climb your way back on top.