By Michael Corcoran
A year ago, almost to the day, the Washington Post published the most brutal takedown of a musician ever. Writer Jeff Weiss called Post Malone “a rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese.” And that was just the appetizer.
“Post Malone’s music is dead-eyed and ignorant, astonishingly dull in its materialism, an abandoned lot of creativity with absolutely no evidence of traffic in his cerebral cortex…” Weiss opined. The well-written barbs, including extreme spoofing of Malone’s predominantly white audience, were relentless.
But also pretty clueless.
Anybody who sees the 24-year-old Malone as the new Vanilla Ice, a talentless white dude from the Dallas suburbs dumbing down and dominating a black-invented art form, isn’t really listening. Compare Malone to another DFW resident; he’s the Charley Pride of hip hop. Wrong pigmentation, right implementation.
Music doesn’t know color. It doesn’t know gender. It doesn’t care if the singer has words tattooed on his pudgy face. Music is a spirit that wants to hum inside you and stir your soul with rhythm.
Hip hop’s history is chock full of beat maestros and wordsmiths, but nobody’s brought melody to the form like the singer, often misidentified as a rapper, they call Posty. You see all those Air Pods dangling from ears at the gym? Probably half of them are pumpin’ P.M., the most-streamed artist of all-time next to Drake. But maybe only a quarter of them would admit it.
The guilty pleasure’s new Hollywood’s Bleeding is his slapback to critics. Not because it’s the only album of 2019 to top the LP sales charts three weeks in a row, but because there’s not a bad track on it. All 17 debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on an opening week the LP drew 365 million streams on Spotify. The songs seem, at first, too catchy, the backing tracks too groovy, to be of substance. But this is an album that you end up listening to from beginning to end and have a new favorite track every day. It does what music is supposed to do.
The kid who slept in the closet so he could use his bedroom as a studio is back from the beerbongs & bentleys blow-out with something to prove. (Thank you, Mr. Jeffrey Weiss!) Malone still brags too much about how rich he is, but finally sounds like he deserves it. And no one can accuse the former Justin Bieber opening act of making it on his looks.
It’s all happening fast for the kid born Austin Post, who went from clownish curiosity to goofy superstar with the Sept. 15, 2017 release of “rockstar,” featuring rapper 21 Savage. With its hypnotic loops and waves of words that mean less than they sound, Malone and producers Louis Bell and Tank God created the Song of the Summer (Extended.) Time magazine named it the worst song of the year (of course), but even hardcore rap fans who dismiss Malone as lightweight ear candy had to tilt their domes to “rockstar.” It stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks and streamed on Spotify more than a billion times, as did the followup “Sunflower,” a kiddie-rap collab with Swae Lee from the Spiderman: The Spider-verse soundtrack. Not being able to use the most popular word in hip hop hasn’t hurt Malone at all.
Coming onto the scene like a millennial minstrel in cornrows and gold teeth with 2015’s “White Iverson,” Post was tagged a “culture vulture.” But what was he going to do, go back to his old job at Chicken Express?
Did your high school have a weird creat(ive)ure who was never without his guitar? Someone who soaked up all kinds of music, from emo to hip hop to country? That was Austin Post at Grapevine High, voted “Most Likely to Become Famous” as a senior in 2013, but the next year he was a nobody at Tarrant County Community College. Saved up his money for two years at the fried chicken joint and blew it all on a pair of $800 Versace loafers. Austy was going to stride like a star, even if fame was a million miles away.
It was only 1,400. Malone’s high school friend from the ‘vine, Jason Probst, had just moved to L.A. after turning a Minecraft obsession into a career as a game streamer/commentator. Flush with YouTube cash, Probst rented a house in Encino with other gamers and shakers and saved a room for his best friend back home. Malone, who got his moniker from a rap name generator, showed up a month later. One night, an upstart manager from England named Dre London came by the house and Post pulled out his guitar and sang “Santeria” by Sublime. That engaging rasp! London courted him the next four months before Malone stuck out his hand one day and said, “I guess you my manager.”
With London and co-manager Austin Rosen handling the business side, producer/songwriter Louis Bell was brought in to oversee the music. The 37-year-old Bell, who looks like Nick Kroll in a porkpie hat, hit L.A. (from the Boston suburbs) around the same time Malone did. And they’ve been musical soulmates- the Michael and Quincy of streaming- ever since. A feast of collaboration, Hollywood’s Bleeding is 60% Post, 25% Bell and 15% everybody else (notably Andrew Watt, Frank Dukes and Brian Lee).
The beats come first, then Malone comes into the studio and freelances melodies over them, around them, in them, for about 15 minutes. They pick the three or four they like best and piece them together. Then come the lyrics, which are the opposite of Leonard Cohen. At the end there are the rap breaks, perfunctory flavor featuring Meek Mill, DaBaby, Travis Scott, Lil Baby and Future, and guest vocals from Ozzy Osbourne, SZA, Halsey and Young Thug, on the new LP.
It’s a process that takes two or three days per track, instead of the month many other artists need. “He’s so decisive,” Bell has said of Malone. “He just knows who he is.” Also, Bell is allergic to overproduction. His light, peppy hand lets the vocals guide the way, which is best exemplified by “A Thousand Bad Times,” whose lyrical message- I can take whatever you give me- is basically “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” from the male perspective. It’s a rock song, but Post and Bell chill it into a new wavish head-bopper.
On first listen Hollywood’s Bleeding sounds disappointing compared to beerbongs & bentleys. Where are the “rockstar” and “Psycho” superhits? But the overall soundcraft and cerebrum-renting melodies will eventually win you over. The 2016 Stoney debut sounded thrown-together, though “Congratulations” remains Malone’s signature tune. It was the calling card, while beerbongs & bentleys was the stomp of arrival. But the party’s over on Hollywood’s Bleeding, which ditches the entourage for the creative team. “Used to have friends, now I got enemies,” Malone sings on the LP’s third track. “Used to be close now they’re dead to me.” He’s been burned by fake friends, but his music always gets the big room.
Born in Syracuse, NY on July 4, 1995, Post moved to Dallas with his family at age nine when his father got a job running concessions for the Cowboys. And here’s that gawky kid, just 15 years later, headlining the 100,000-capacity Jerry World. “Always go for for it, never punt, fourth down/ Last call, Hail Mary, Prescott touchdown!” he sings on “Wow.” It’ll be a special night for the Grapevine Kid. Let’s hope he acts more headliner than host, unlike last year’s inaugural Posty Fest, at a much smaller venue. That’s the sloppy event the Washington Post tagged for their evisceration. The headline was “Post Malone Is the Perfect Pop Star for This American Moment. That’s Not a Compliment.” It was calling him Trumpism’s boy band. But music doesn’t care who’s president.
He’ll never be hip, but Olive Garden-loving, Crocs-wearing, Bud Light-swilling Post Malone is the ubiquitous embodiment of music in this American moment, which is the only one we have right now.
For all our problems, our tensions, our current climate of Idiocracy, America is still a place to ask what’s the downside of doing what you were born to do and having people love it?