Post Malone didn’t scoop the most significant pointy pyramid trophy thing at the American Music Awards earlier this month. But he did get exactly what he wanted. Sporting a powder-blue leisure jacket embroidered with a half-dozen snakes and his Paul Wall–ian ice grill, Malone accepted two nominally contradicting awards. The grungy rapper’s Beerbongs & Bentleys copped enough votes from teenagers to win Favorite Rap Album, and he also got the nod for Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist.
Earlier this year, the Texas-bred rapper spoke about the strains of spitting his rockabilly flow in a majority black hip-hop culture. “I definitely feel like there’s a struggle being a white rapper,” he told GQ in January, “but I don’t want to be a rapper. I just want to be a person that makes music.” Last November, Malone talked about what he perceived as modern rap’s lack of emotional resonance. “If you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop.”
The jab was odd for its timing. A few beats earlier, Malone had tipped his hat to the Southern hip-hop cosmology—from Atlanta producers Metro Boomin and Key! to his “Fade” collaborator Kanye West—that has helped sustain his career. But run back his most popular records—straight-up rap joints “White Iverson” and “Rockstar”—and Malone’s criticism rings true. In fact, Malone raps the dispassion, puerility, and fleeting pleasures you’d find in any college undergraduate’s Spotify-suggested playlist. By situating himself outside of rap, Malone avoids getting pigeonholed as a remarkably talented frat rapper, even if he fits rather snuggly within that lineage.
The subgenre we call “frat rap” seems as straightforward as a shot of Fireball. Its roots stretch back to hip-hop’s nascent period, when the Beastie Boys were inflicting property damage all over the world. In 2018, the subgenre is typically proffered by East coast dudebros like Hoodie Allen and Lil Dicky, who appeal to other dudebros about stonerism, endless parties, and hooking up with sauced up women at said parties. Their beats are usually sampled from ’50s rock songs, lullabies, and popular EDM records, all while maintaining an anthemic thump. And, as you might imagine, it works. Hoodie Allen’s first two albums, 2014’s People Keep Talking and 2016’s Happy Camper, reached nos. 2 and 1, respectively, on Billboard’s rap charts. Lil Dicky’s 2015 effort, Professional Rapper, went gold and featured collabs with non-frat rap artists like Snoop Dogg (who, let’s be honest, will appear on just about anybody’s album), Rich Homie Quan, and Fetty Wap.
Frat rap is, generally, white as hell. Historically black colleges and universities where, yes, black fraternities do indeed exist, were already deep in the funk of hip-hop writ large. But the Beasties—the trio consisting of Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, and the late Adam “MCA” Yauch—were frat rap avant la lettre and thoroughly in the mix when black and Afro-Latinx New York hip-hoppers migrated downtown. In their new collection of memoirs, Beastie Boys Book, Mike D thanks his lucky stars for Thursday nights at the East Village reggae club Negril, where they first saw Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay spin. “Harlem and the Bronx were closer to my parents’ apartment than the downtown clubs,” the emcee remembers, “but I would’ve been way too intimidated to go to Harlem World to witness the culture where it began. Instead the culture came to us.” After signing with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons at the dawn of Def Jam, the former punks threw on their Adidas track suits and became B-boys. But it’s the staging of their first headlining tour named after the album, Licensed to Ill—featuring an 8-foot-high DJ riser painted like a six-pack of Budweiser, a ’60s-style go-go dancing cage, and a massive hydraulic penis that would make a hormone monster giddy—that defined the debaucherous, testosomoronic spirit central to frat rap and the stigma attached to it.
For years, the Beastie Boys operated as the sole purveyors of frat rap. Purist hip-hop heads and punks alike dug the wild blitzkrieging samples and witty parodic wordplay that treated New York like the center of the universe. But the tides changed in the late ’90s as their popularity softened. Listeners demanded more authenticity in their white angst flow, so Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine introduced frat rap’s Optimus Prime, Eminem—or, as critic Greg Tate would call him, “the only free man in commercial hip-hop.” While he didn’t attend college—not a requirement for frat rap, I might add—Em amplified the Beasties’ dark comedy and tapped into the proclivities of irresponsible boys from silly body humor to abhorrent violent acts. On his debut single, “My Name Is,” he shoves a plastic butt in the face of an ’NSync stand-in and plays out fantasies of killing his own mother like Michael Myers doing his best “parents just don’t understand” impression. He mocked Michael Jackson twice over and offered only a tepid apology when BET took him off the air. He’d do more groveling to black folks on 2004’s Encore, but it was unnecessary and self-centered. With Dre’s blessing and the Beasties’ blueprint, Eminem was pretty much untouchable.
The formula would survive the internet era, but artists like Machine Gun Kelly, G-Eazy, and the late Mac Miller processed the stigma of the frat rapper and mostly found ways to avoid the trappings. The term is not only limiting in scope, but now a real insult lobbed over lukewarm rap beef. MGK and G-Eazy have been arguing about something for the last few months—is it Halsey? I think it’s Halsey. When MGK visited Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex, he kicked a freestyle over Drake’s “Nonstop” and raised its specter: “Only Eazy I fuck with is E / I seen he dyed his hair and got a hanging earring / I fucked his girl now he look like this shit is overbearing / How dare him / I dare him / Don’t think about comparing / Now turn that frat rap off, I get sick of hearing.”
Early in his career, G-Eazy could’ve easily been categorized as a frat rapper; his hokey ’60s sampling on early tracks like “Runaround Sue” was a textbook example of the form. He switched things up on the swaggering album These Things Happen, but the wound is still fresh. MGK has little room to point tattooed fingers. During a Fort Lauderdale show, he sat on stage in his underwear like an incel man-child threatening not to perform until a girl who “really loves him” stripped for him onstage.
During Mac Miller’s meteoric rise, he started out as the kind of high school student who skipped class to smoke with the homies in Blue Slide Park. And indeed, his debut album, named after that very park, abided by frat rap’s time-tested diet of booze, girls, and directionlessness. But Miller fashioned himself a serious musician by moving physically—from Pittsburgh to L.A.—and sonically closer to some of hip-hop’s young masters like Thundercat, Earl Sweatshirt, and Vince Staples. Miller’s final albums, The Divine Feminine and Swimming, were steeped in a tenderness and musicality that foretold even more growth before his death. The awareness that he existed within hip-hop and the honor he bestowed to that world paid real dividends in his music.
When Run (of Run-DMC fame) first heard the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill bumping in his 1986 3-series BMW, he prophesied that the record would “obviously go gold.” Huh?! Mike D remembers thinking in Beastie Boys Book. “That blew my mind. It hadn’t crossed any of our minds to have actual commercial aspirations for the record.” What Run saw that day is what black industry heads have known since the moment the blues took to the city: White people love a white man’s take on “the black experience.”
In the streaming era, rap’s defining characteristic is the shambolic construction of its albums. The chaos is largely owed to the idea that while the conventions of pop music have never been so evident—an 808 here, an afro beat there, and a triplet flow—there’s also no essential pop sound. Sonically, modern frat rap reflects its beginnings without nearly the business acumen of Russell Simmons or Dr. Dre, or the evolutionary quality of the Beasties. More than anything, frat rap exists as a site for secondhand sounds swiped straight from the adroit producers of our time and repackaged for state college surburnites. It’s a retrofitted process. Just wait till they get around to Latin trap. Yikes.
Frat rap is, perhaps rightfully, under siege—both from its remorseful practitioners and the pernicious audience it represents. In addition to amplifying voices of survivors, the discourse surrounding the #MeToo moment—and more given the cesspool wrought by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment—has reawakened calls to disenfranchise fraternities altogether. Even that seems like a Band-Aid. Maybe real evolution will come with the complete dismantling. But tearing down the walls of an institution will do precious little to change the culture that put it on a pedestal in the first place. Maybe hip-hop got something right when it turned frat rap into a diss. Maybe investigating the culture underneath would do even more.
Post Malone, pop music’s paragon of post-genre, post-racial polemics wants us to consider hip-hop a thing he does and not all that he is. That’s fair. But it’s also shrewd. Post Malone can abide by the conventions of popular songs, which are undoubtedly skewed toward hip-hop, while propping himself up as a serious musician who plays guitar and stuff. If the comments under covers of songs like Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and Sublime’s “Santeria” are any indication, his fans would really like him to chill on all that rappity-rap shit and just make a grunge album. Maybe it’d help his case. But Postie will always be a tender frat rapper, and leaning into it musically hasn’t hurt him so far. In fact, “Better Now,” with its raspy, howling vibrato, is still charting well despite the fact that the verses sound a bit like raps. Malone has the cake and is eating too.
Tirhakah Love is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian.