The Week In Pop

Post Malone Doesn’t Care About Rap Music

It’s one of my life’s great regrets, but I can’t deny it: Last Friday I helped Post Malone’s new album Beerbongs & Bentleys break the single-day streaming record.

To be clear, Post probably would have set the record without me. His breakout hit, 2015’s “White Iverson,” has more than 558 million YouTube views. His 2016 debut album, Stoney, was still in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 as of last month and is lingering at #11 this week. The lead single from Beerbongs & Bentleys, “Rockstar,” debuted at #2 on the Hot 100 last fall and went on to spend eight weeks at #1. Post’s label Republic Records famously tried to juice the song’s streaming figures by sharing a loop of its chorus on YouTube — the idea being that folks would stream that, realize it wasn’t the whole song, then stream the full “Rockstar” at Spotify or wherever — but such chicanery was never necessary. People were already flocking to the song. He’s one of the most dominant artists of the streaming era.

So of course Beerbongs & Bentleys accrued a record 47,930,039 US track streams on Spotify in its first day, smashing J. Cole’s record of 36,656,086 from the previous Friday. Of course Billboard is projecting it to surpass Drake’s record for most streams in a week (384.8 million for last year’s More Life) and log the biggest week for an album since Taylor Swift debuted Reputation. Of course Beerbongs & Bentleys was certified platinum four days after its release. Post doesn’t need my paltry 18 streams of pop-columnist due diligence or the several dozen others that came from revisiting the album to write this column. He is an unstoppable force.

Perhaps he became so popular because he is so emblematic of his generation. A hirsute, jewel-encrusted Texan gun and video game enthusiast, he was born Austin Richard Post in Syracuse on the 4th of July, 1995, which is just too perfect given the way he embodies every outside-looking-in stereotype about gauche American excess. Yes, that means he’s only 22, and no, he doesn’t look a day over 37. Post got into playing guitar as a kid after getting hooked on Guitar Hero. He started making hip-hop as a young teen and got his stage name from an online rap name generator. After his high-school classmates voted him most likely to become famous, he dropped out of community college at age 18 and moved to LA with his friend Jason Probst, a popular gamer and YouTuber known for livestreaming Minecraft. (Post himself is a frequent streamer on Twitch.)

Before Post turned 20 he had fallen in with Atlanta production team FKi and released “White Iverson,” a song that turned drugged-out trap music into smoothed-out easy listening. It was the sound of getting high on Auto-Tune and floating, numb but contented, on an inner tube — or as my colleague Tom Breihan thoughtfully described it, “a wispy barely-there sigh that sounds like what might’ve happened if Justin Vernon got all gassed up after the first time he sang on a Kanye song, if he tried to launch his own gleefully clueless rap career.” “White Iverson” made Post an instant superstar, scored him a deal with Republic, and put him in touch with the Kanyes and Biebers of the world. (Both have recorded songs with him.) It also won him enemies like leather-voiced Tennessee drawler Starlito, who accused Post of cultural appropriation verging on blackface.

Lending some credence to those allegations are Post’s own words. From the get-go, he has insisted that he’s not a rapper but rather an “artist.” He had to apologize for an old Vine in which he jokingly used the N-word. He recently told Nardwuar “White Iverson” is his only good song, thereby dismissing “Rockstar” and his entire trap-infused debut album. Last year, he told a Polish interviewer, “I’m a white guy, so I have a lot of emotions,” and advised listeners, “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.” This called to mind Miley Cyrus, who made a fortune adopting a hip-hop aesthetic, then discarded the genre and told Billboard she’d matured past it — and as with Cyrus’ comments, the backlash was swift and merciless. In a video apology, Post claimed the interview followed a beer-tasting and pondered, “Who am I to tell you that you should feel a certain way when listening to something?” But the larger point was already made.

Appropriation is a complicated topic, but it’s hard not to see Post’s interaction with rap as some vampiric Pat Boone business, especially given how obsessed he is with rock-star iconography at the expense of any and all reverence for hip-hop. On “Rockstar” he compares himself to Bon Scott and Jim Morrison; he’s done acoustic Nirvana and Green Day covers in concert; he has tattoos of dead rock legends Dimebag Darrell, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley on his fingers. Surely if he cared about rap at all he could spare a digit on this knucklebound Mount Rushmore for 2Pac or Biggie?

Countless rappers have called themselves rock stars or compared themselves to dead rock icons. More pointedly, Post’s contemporary Lil Uzi Vert also insists he’s not a rapper and has publicly pledged allegiance to Paramore and Marilyn Manson. But the optics and cultural context are very different when a black rapper from Philadelphia adopts this posture versus a white rapper from suburban Dallas. The contrast is even sharper because Uzi hasn’t expressed such open contempt for the music he made his name on — and make no mistake, even if Post and Uzi are trailblazing a genre-agnostic path that could have never existed before this moment in history, by far the largest circle in both artists’ Venn diagram remains rap. Shawn Setaro at Complex put it well:

Without trap drums, guest appearances from rappers like Quavo and 21 Savage, hip-hop slang, and the sing-song-style rapping that is the lingua franca of trap these days, Post’s earliest bursts of attention would be, to put it frankly, impossible to imagine. Songs like “Go Flex” are the same mediocre singer-songwriter drivel you can hear at any neighborhood cafe on a Wednesday night. Minus hip-hop, he’s just another long-haired songwriter with a smidgen of a sense of melody, a Nirvana cover or two in his repertoire, and an ego that far outsizes his talent.

Post does have some talent, though. On his hits, he mostly just latches onto one melody and repeats it ad infinitum against an amniotic backdrop of 808s and synths — but those melodies are sticky and intuitive, and those backdrops are the sort you can just bask in. Throw in some hip-hop slang and empty talk about the lavish superstar lifestyle, and boom: You have a hit Post Malone song. This was the formula for “White Iverson.” It was the formula for “Congratulations,” his top-10 hit with Quavo. It was the formula for “Rockstar” — albeit toggled from his typically pleasant sound to a minor-key fog befitting guest rapper 21 Savage’s sneering disposition. It’s once again the formula on “Psycho,” his current smash with Ty Dolla $ign, perhaps Post’s least sophisticated yet most purely beautiful piece of music yet.

These songs are hollow vessels, mood pieces equally suitable for zoning out or showing out. Hip-hop on the whole is not as bankrupt as Post Malone thinks, but Post Malone’s hip-hop absolutely is — and it has made him filthy rich. Combined with his outrageous look and magnetic personality (just watch him replying to posts about himself in this GQ video), these vaporous flexes have made him an avatar for millions who aspire to a life of hedonism and materialism and who engage with rap music as pure escapism, at a surface level only. In this sense he is the anti-Macklemore, a white rapper not even slightly interested in proving his bona fides or paying homage to the culture he’s wearing for profit, at a time when being a white rapper is more profitable than ever.

Now that he has his foothold in the mass consciousness, he’s starting to pivot. Post’s biggest hits have always had a certain rootsy soft-rock quality, like he’s channeling John Denver or Gordon Lightfoot or the Eagles at their most chill. Beerbongs & Bentleys rocks harder. The album still has lots of floaty, miasmic potential hits like “Spoil My Night” with Swae Lee and the hilariously on-the-nose “Zack & Codeine.” It still has lots of boasts about seeing “boobies” and references to Prada, Dior, and St. Laurent. Yet it treats Post’s tentpole hits as a jumpoff point for venturing further out onto the FM dial, including the classic rock and “active rock” stations populated by decades of critically maligned uncle music. The spirit of Foreigner is strong with this one. The spirit of nu-metal is even stronger.

It’s not to hard to see the so-called SoundCloud rap scene — with all its post-traumatic outbursts, nightmarishly cartoonish icons, and drug-fueled self-loathing — as a descendant of late-’90s nu-metal. If so, Post Malone is operating in parallel as its Staind: the heartier, more sensitive Family Values Tour alternative. The correlation becomes even stronger when you consider Staind frontman Aaron Lewis later went solo and started singing country songs about being a proud redneck and whatnot, a destiny easy to imagine for Post.

In the meantime he’s raging in a rap-rock context on “Over Now” and “Otherside” and “Blame It On Me,” tunes that obliterate the blissed-out vibe of “Psycho” and such. Or he’s evoking post-crossover Incubus on “Stay,” an acoustic ballad that suggests he’d better not stop making hypnotic white-boy trap ballads like “Psycho.” Or he’s finding common ground between Jeremih and MAGIC! on the reggae-inflected “Better Now.” These songs coexist awkwardly alongside bids for mainstream rap airplay like “Ball For Me” with Nicki Minaj and “Same Bitches” with G-Eazy and YG. They cast him as a one-trick pony who has overextended himself. Even worse, outside his wheelhouse all the most obnoxious qualities are amplified until they drown out his redeeming qualities. Take it from somebody who mildly enjoys the guy’s singles: Hell is a Post Malone deep cut.

Will these missteps matter? If anything this evolution with probably strengthen his stranglehold on the market. Post didn’t get to the top by being bashful about who he is and what he loves. Upon the release of Stoney, Republic exec Rob Stevenson even called the shamelessly trashy Post the Donald Trump of hip-hop: “Things that should’ve killed his career have only made him bigger.” A year and a half later, he’s bigger still. Given that his crimes are against sensibility and good taste rather than America itself, he’ll probably still be making the music long after the Donald faces it.

Speaking of famous Donalds: On last week’s episode of Atlanta there was this genius sequence in which rising trap star Paper Boi and his entourage find themselves at a frat house full of Southern white undergrads. It has its very own gun room filled with antique firearms and is presently populated by a bunch of naked pledges with bags over their heads. They end up sprawled on a couch in front of a giant Confederate flag, smoking weed while the pledges are forced to dance to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy.” The polo-shirted fraternity brother in charge of this hazing begins talking music with the celebrity in his living room. “Dude, I’ve gotta tell you, you’re one of my two favorite rappers,” the guy says, piquing Paper Boi’s interest. Then comes the punchline and the prophetic word: “You and Post Malone.”

CREDIT: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Drake keeps his streak going and Ariana Grande has a grand return, but this is J. Cole’s week to rule the Billboard charts. Not only does KOD become his fifth straight #1 album with the best first-week sales of 2018, he also debuts a record three singles in the Hot 100 top 10.

Let’s start with the album. Billboard reports that KOD moved 397,000 equivalent album units, easily topping Justin Timberlake’s previous high-water mark of 293,000 for Man Of The Woods. However, KOD’s 174,000 in traditional sales is still second to the 242,000 Man Of The Woods racked up in its first week.

Cole also had the biggest week for a rap release since Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. did 603,000 in its opening frame last spring. And with 215,000 streaming equivalents (via 322.7 million on-demand audio streams), it’s the biggest streaming week of 2018 so far and the third-biggest week ever after Kendrick’s DAMN. debut (340.6 million) and Drake’s champion week with More Life (384.8 million).

After Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy at #2 is the #3 debut of A Perfect Circle’s first album in 14 years, Eat The Elephant, which did 68,000 units and 63,000 in sales. 4-8: The Greatest Showman, Jason Aldean, XXXTentacion, Migos, the Weeknd. Lord Huron score their first top-10 album with a #9 debut for Vide Noir via 32,000 units/29,000 sales. (Read our interview feature.) Closing out the top 10 is Black Panther: The Album.

As for the singles chart, Drake’s “Nice For What” is #1 for a third straight week. Combined with the run he had directly before that with current #2 “God’s Plan,” Drake has now owned the #1 spot for 14 straight weeks. That’s remarkable, but this may be even more so: Per Billboard, it’s the first week in the 60-year history of the Hot 100 that four singles have debuted in the top 10 simultaneously.

Ariana Grande’s excellent “No Tears Left To Cry” is one of them. The song enters at #3, tying “Problem” as her top-debuting song. “Tears” is her ninth top-10 hit and sixth to debut in the top 10. After Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” at #4 and Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #5 comes “ATM,” the first of three J. Cole debuts in the top 10, “ATM,” at #6, which barely edges 2016’s #7-debuting “Deja Vu” as his highest-charting single. Cole also lands “Kevin’s Heart” at #8 and “KOD” at #10. And rounding out the top 10 are Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” at #7 and BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive” at #10.

POP FIVE

Christina Aguilera – “Accelerate” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz)
As you’ve probably heard, Kanye West produced this song — Make Aguilera Great Again? “Accelerate” certainly bodes better for his upcoming buttload of music than the bullshit he’s released under his own name in the past week. An artsy, deconstructed dance duet punctuated with Ty Dolla $ign rasps as raw as Kanye’s genre-melting production, it’s the best Xtina single in recent memory, one that sounds fresh and surprising but also one a virtuoso singer like herself knows exactly what to do with. The 2 Chainz verse is almost perfunctory, though as usual it’s nice to have him around.

Céline Dion – “Ashes”
Speaking of singers who dominated during my adolescence, Dion is back with another impassioned ballad from a movie soundtrack. Perplexingly, this one is for Deadpool 2? And features Ryan Reynolds dramatically dancing in character as Deadpool in the video? It’s a pretty funny, self-aware move from Dion that more than makes up for the song falling so far short of “My Heart Will Go On.”

Shawn Mendes – “Youth” (Feat. Khalid)
Khalid is going to make a career out of social consciousness anthems, isn’t he? Last year he sang on Logic’s anti-suicide anthem “1-800-273-8255,” and now here he is duetting with Shawn Mendes on a ballad about young people persevering in the face of gun violence. “You can’t take my youth away,” goes the refrain. Catch them onstage at the Grammys next winter.

Troye Sivan – “Bloom”
This guy perfected his aesthetic years ago — an ’80s-nostalgic synth-pop shimmer rendered in glorious modern hi-fi — and now he’s finally got the songs to live up to it.

Camila Cabello – “Never Be The Same” (Feat. Kane Brown)
Cabello and her team have been grinding hard trying to take the dreamy pan-genre float “Never Be The Same” to the same heights “Havana” enjoyed, but it’s just not as good of a song. Nonetheless, they’re pulling out all the stops, even recruiting country star Kane Brown to turn it into a duet. This does not improve the song — it still involves pronouncing “heroin” so that it rhymes with “nicotine” and “morphine,” for instance — but given the success these pop-country crossovers are enjoying lately, as a commercial gambit this might work.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Selena Gomez’s “Back To You,” from the 13 Reasons Why season 2 soundtrack, is out 5/10. [Twitter]
  • Ed Sheeran is a puppet in his “Happier” video. [YouTube]
  • G-Eazy was arrested for assault and cocaine possession in Stockholm. [TMZ]
  • J. Cole announced the inaugural Dreamville Festival in Raleigh 9/15. [Twitter]
  • Zedd and Maren Morris performed “The Middle” together live for the first time in Vegas. [Instagram]
  • Cardi B and Offset hung out with Sasha Obama at Broccoli City. [Twitter]
  • The Weeknd teased his collab with A Bathing Ape. [Twitter]
  • Camila Cabello opened up about her OCD in Cosmopolitan U.K.’s June issue. [Cosmo]
  • Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa released a video for “One Kiss.” [YouTube]
  • Anne-Marie took her Marshmello collab “Friends” to The Late Late Show. [YouTube]
  • Katy Perry met the Pope — no word as to whether they discussed the nun who died while locked in legal battle with Perry. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME