The Post Malone Problem

(No, it’s not catchiness.)

Photo by Luigi Rizzo

This decade has seen the internet star Cinderella story — average citizen sings/raps/dances et. al into a cheap microphone/camera, goes viral seemingly at random, and reaches triple A mega-fame in the span of a weekend or two — become all but passé. As the 2010s draw to a close, the music industry is beset with a slew of uniquely 21st century figures both arisen and sustained almost solely through the World Wide Web. Sometimes they don’t stick, not so much fading as dropping into obscurity about as quickly as they come up, and sometimes, they do.

One such case took shape in the summer of 2015, when a scraggly white dude danced in front of a Rolls Royce Ghost in the middle of the desert to a maddeningly catchy trap ballad titled “White Iverson.” Four years and three studio albums later, Post Malone is now one of the most prominent voices in pop and hip-hop music (though which of the two he falls under can be harder to conclude than it seems).

Post Malone is something of an outlier in the sea of internet rappers who comprise the mainstream these days, largely due to his undeniable talent that’s hard to ignore regardless of generation or musical taste. He was blessed with a stunning voice that he wields to nail Bob Dylan covers and tender acoustic ballads just as well as belted pop hooks and icy rap noir, as well as a serious knack for writing hits, albeit with the aid of a relative thinktank of help. And based on every bit of interview and live footage out there, he’s a seriously down-to-earth, funny guy in a way that is distinctly untrained and genuine.

It all seems well and good; of all the people to be in his position Post is a suitable candidate, and everyone you know likes at least one of his songs. But with each new release, the same question echoes in my brain: How can music so seemingly innocuous be not only poor in quality, but actively harmful?

The first issue at play here is a pretty straightforward one: the music is simply not that good. His primary unit of construction is glitzy beats that try and fail to hide bland pop songwriting, usually bolstered by a decent hook or two. Shallow, vapid lyrics are not inherently a bad thing — they can be pretty great when they’re used in a creative way — but Post’s lovelorn hedonism rarely comes off as anything but pandering, focus-grouped into oblivion to satisfy whatever combination of thrill-seeking, love, lust, and sadness is dominating the zeitgeist it’s being manufactured under.

It isn’t that simple though — the problems with the music of Post Malone run deeper than being subpar. Post and his roster of songwriters and producers are at the forefront of a disquieting moment in popular music, first the early adopters and now the primary distributors of a specific new kind of musical product. Namely, he’s the poster child for a style emerging at the crossroads of traditional pop music and hip-hop wherein a strange alchemy occurs. In melding them the specific, sterilized way that Post’s music does, the music’s chart-topping power doubles by totally draining the personality out of both styles.

In simple terms, his style robs the pop of its bouncy fun by making concessions to the flow of adjacent rap music, and sucks anything resembling a worthwhile groove out of the hip-hop by forcing it to conform to pop music’s structures and production style. Genre combinations and the eschewal of strict genre lines as we know them are vital in pushing music forward, and they’ve even been responsible for some pretty exciting music this year. But calling a flaccid reconstitution of musical ideals like “Rich & Sad” a fusion might be a little generous.

Post Malone’s music is emblematic of a larger movement growing in the industry, one that works to erode distinction in popular music, favoring algorithmic optimization and playlist placement over creativity, and creating a music economy tailored for good vibes and passive consumption over discovery.

Then of course, there’s the thornier problem with Post Malone.

In the past, Post has gotten himself in some cultural hot water for his scathing takes on hip-hop music, saying that “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.” Despite his tone-deaf defense of these comments, they make abundantly clear a fundamental disconnect from the genre, and a disrespect that borders on sinister for the sounds he’s twisted to make a residence on the charts.

The topic of cultural appropriation comes up a lot in discussion of Post Malone, but in isolation from those valid questions, there’s an undeniable failure of intent present in his sentiments. If he doesn’t respect the emotional power and potential depth of hip-hop, what does that say about the music he chooses to release under its umbrella?

All of this is illustrative of a larger issue: Post Malone is an improper avatar for stolen music.

Remember that the emphasis here is on “improper;” he is not totally invalid in his position, but the truth is that he’s selling black music. Post’s whiteness isn’t a bad thing, and using it alone to discount his work is futile and dishonest. But in combination with his complete lack of understanding of the music he sells, we can see that it is not his music, and that he’s using the privilege in public perception that his white maleness affords him in order to sell a disingenuous product that he does not understand.

And it’s clear that Post is aware of this issue, actively working to sow clout and legitimacy for himself within both hip-hop and black culture. The features on his latest album Hollywood’s Bleeding show this. A scattershot selection of artists from various tributaries of contemporary hip-hop (as well as Ozzy Osbourne and… Halsey) shows an artist trying to pander to everyone, attempting to sell to as many billions of people as humanly possible while maintaining a palpable sense of “real”-ness inside the genre in which he has entrenched himself. But trying to play both sides of the coin is a bad look, and the veneer is easy to see past.

Austin Post is seemingly not a bad guy — in fact from all evidence available he’s a very nice person. It doesn’t seem that he’s actively attempting to dishonestly usurp rap music from its cultural forebears, he’s just making what sells (and potentially, what he wants to). Nonetheless, his shocking lack of self-awareness and a confluence of musical and cultural issues larger than himself have made what would be a largely innocuous presence in the mainstream into a rather dangerous one.

two-stepping through banality

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