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What’s So Special About Post Malone?

The rapper’s latest single, “Rockstar,” has shattered streaming records despite being wholly unremarkable. How does he keep topping charts?

A photo illustration of the rapper Post Malone Getty Images/Ringer illustration

During a recent short with Noisey Raps, Post Malone, neé Austin Post, answered an off-camera question without thinking: “Then I really got into music, you know, due to my dad and due to Guitar Hero.”

It’s unrehearsed, but at least what Post says is the truth, or somewhat close to it. The question was probably some version of how did you get here, and the second part of that answer was: getting so good at Guitar Hero that I decided to play the guitar for real. This would’ve been sometime around his awkward tween years in Dallas, where he relocated, from Syracuse, with his family when he was 10. (These moves, and the internet, probably, are to blame for the regionlessness of his sound.)

The journey from that adolescent Point A to forcing Taylor Swift to nearly halve the price of her recently released single, in the compressed amount of time in which he’s done it, is worthy of suspicion. Post Malone was making Minecraft videos with his friends and doing acoustic covers of pop songs, and then, out of nowhere, there was “White Iverson.” It’s a “type beat” song about saucing, swagging, and braids. The music video has more than 413 million views and counting.

In a different Noisey interview, before his debut album Stoney racked up four (!!!!!) platinum singles and a billion (!!!!!!) streams, Post Malone acknowledged that this all happened a little fast. He called himself both a one-hit wonder and an industry plant. But Post Malone isn’t someone I’d expect to have something considered to say about Hillary Clinton, or about the Black Lives Matter movement, or about an unearthed pre-fame Vine on which he says nigga.

But is Post Malone a culture vulture? Well, yes. He’s guilty of what any white artist selecting from black aesthetics is guilty of. There are plenty of arguments against Post Malone, some even to do with the actual music; actually, he’s talented is one of only two goodish arguments for him. The other isn’t actually an argument in favor of Post Malone, but a response to criticisms raised against him that illustrates how likable and accidental he is. The words that come up when reading about a song he made, though—“airy,” “wispy,” “spooky,” “ethereal,” probably, if we hadn’t retired it—are the ones we use to describe the sounds we typically don’t have much more to say about.

If you’re confused about the quickness and height of his rise, or feel like Post Malone is being forced on you, I’m right there with you. Let’s start with the givens. “Rockstar,” Malone’s new song about being a rock star, which is hardly life-changing, is the most-streamed song on Spotify. “Rockstar” shattered Apple Music’s first-week streaming record—previously held by DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One”— with 25 million streams. There might be a thimble of substance in the whole song. On it, 21 Savage says he has a 12-car garage and only six cars.

It’s difficult to say what it is Post Malone adds, or does better than anyone else. But there is his jittery vibrato—heard here when he says he don’t give a daaaaaaamn and that all the girls here, in the trailer, all brought a friiiiiiiend.

When he builds a rough vocal idea into a yell that’s somehow primal and tender and wounded all at the same time, those are the times Post Malone is most interesting. Coincidentally, this is how he can hold his own on a song with both Kanye West and Ty Dolla $ign.

I can’t immediately think of any rapper who would flip a Fleetwood Mac song—the whole song, not a sample—for a mixtape. “Leave,” also on Stoney, is a bummer, but startlingly unique, and random, for an ostensible hip-hop album. “Feeling Whitney” is woodsy folk. But those songs aren’t the ones that are selling. Though Post subscribes to the easy line that he makes rap, but is not a rapper, that distinction can be defined only in terms that don’t matter much. He’s an artist, sure, but he has a Wi-Fi connection, too. And with internet access you can use Instagram and Google and YouTube and SoundCloud; you can shop any style, sartorial or musical, and the only tangible barrier to entry is connection speed. Shooting up the “urban” charts with borrowed effects is still appropriation, or at least toeing right up against it, no matter how big a fan you are of those effects. It’s not just that Post Malone shouldn’t sing about drinking codeine from a broken whiskey glass (which he does on a song literally called “Broken Whiskey Glass”), it’s also that we haven’t heard about Dej Loaf in months.

The possibility looms that Post Malone is a chess master gaming out some larger, sinister plan—using hip-hop for a leg up and then distancing himself from it, like Miley—or that he’s the beneficiary of a label-subsidized quest to make hip-hop less scary and more widely marketable. Both could be true, but, judging from his yawing about how sick and dope and crazy this all is, Post Malone seems as along for the ride as the rest of us, if perhaps also enjoying it a bit more. His Twitter display name is “Beerbongs & Bentleys.” (The name of his next project, and a lifestyle.) The beginning of that Noisey Raps segment shows him—with a bull skull tattoo on his neck and an ill-advised hairdo—singing and pounding away at air drums to songs by Megadeth and the Talking Heads. The only times he toggles off his default setting of personable bemusement are when he’s talking about guitars, or Bud Light. He’s like a tourist, but the kind in the Airbnb commercials who always manages to befriend a handful of locals. Tough to stay mad at, cursorily self-aware, and white, he can go anywhere, be anyone, do anything.

Even, perhaps, a “Rockstar.” There’s an official playlist that may or may not serve as a cypher for the song. “Rockstar” is on it, along with songs from Bob Dylan, Lexy Panterra, Rob Zombie, Green Day, 2Pac, Mark Morrison, Toby Keith, and Sublime, whose dorm-room reggae serves as a kind of epigram for Post Malone’s career. He’s all of these people, as in, he took from all these places and, to his credit, built something weirder, if less inspired. When so many competing sounds are blended together, the most compelling parts become the casualties. “Rockstar” is the highest charting song of his career, and it’s not appreciably different from anything else he’s made.

“Rockstar” is sanded down, polished, blank. It befits a mood and doesn’t require you to be conscious to listen to it. Few people go to music specifically to be challenged, but this is the exact opposite of that. The success of it, then, must lie in whether you see Post Malone’s sonic frictionlessness as a flaw, or as a selling point.