I can’t tell you for sure who originally said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” but this little epigram has haunted music critics for half a century. There’s a kernel of truth to it. Some music is too exquisite to suffer a critic’s nitpicking; some music is too stupid for words. But we persist in writing about the stuff. We’re generally not trying to prove or disprove the merits of any particular song. We’re certainly not trying to win some sort of argument with the musician. We’re often trying, in a broader sense, to demystify a timeless force in the human experience, one artist at a time. But what do you say about someone like Post Malone? He’s a cool dude making cool tunes when he’s not making TV commercials for Doritos, Bud Light, and Pokémon. He’s not that deep. I’m not that pretentious. How many semicolons and adverbs could I possibly throw at this guy? His latest album, Twelve Carat Toothache, dropped on Friday. Is this thing critic-proof? Am I a fool to think he’s made a pretty good album this time around? Or am I just a fool for the overexplaining?
For the unfamiliar, Post Malone is a rapper with more than a dozen tattoos on his face and three no. 1 records to his credit. We’ve come a long way from Gucci Mane’s face tats—chiefly the ice cream cone with three scoops emblazoned across his right cheek—representing a chasm between hip-hop notoriety and mainstream success. Post Malone is big business. His breakout hit, “White Iverson,” with a music video now nearing a billion views on YouTube, was once the biggest song in the world. Taylor Swift would envy him and then later hug him at the AMAs. Post is a pop rapper in a decade when the distinction between pop rap and proper hip-hop has disintegrated. The chasm has closed.
Critics tend to describe Post Malone as a “post-streaming” artist: a rapper, yes, but rather promiscuous in his styling, as ephemeral as a dynamic playlist. Some days he’s a rap star, some days he’s a rock star, some days he reminds you that he’s from Syracuse via Dallas. In his incessant yodeling, in songs such as “White Iverson” and “Circles,” I swear I hear hints of Drake, Enya, the Eagles, and The Sound of Music all at once. On paper, this sounds insufferable. But strangely enough, Post often sounds smoother than anyone else—well, short of the Weeknd—on the radio these days. Smooth, though not always inspired. At his worst he’s an industry hack warbling his way through plug-’n’-play collaborations with the rest of the Hot 100. At his best, however, he’s a heroic omni-genre redneck belting out agonies and ecstasies on his never-ending joyride through Hollywood. He’s tremendously successful but he’s still relatable enough: a lucky young schlub living the dream, blowing his income on stupid shit.
He’s his better self on Toothache, his fourth studio album. The lead single, “One Right Now,” initially suggested otherwise; that’s a Big Generic Inevitable Collaboration With the Weeknd if I’ve ever heard one. But Post’s other guests on Toothache—Doja Cat, Roddy Ricch, Gunna, Fleet Foxes—each seem a bit more in tune with the host and his vision here. He and Doja Cat sound cute together on “I Like You (A Happier Song).” He and Gunna made some beautiful music together on “I Cannot Be (A Sadder Song).” The Post Malone in magazine profiles and online video game lobbies may be a chill dude. But in his songs he’s a moody underdog. “In every film I watch,” Post sings on the low, slow, and self-pitying “Lemon Tree,” “I’m on the side of the bad guy.” Toothache does contain multitudes: a little Heath Ledger’s Joker, a little Jared Leto’s Joker. On the one hand, there’s “Euthanasia,” a dead-serious song conveying an alcoholic’s stupor and exasperation at the brink of death. On the other hand there’s “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol,” a similarly loaded song title, but then the chorus goes, “You’re the reason why I got my ass kicked!” Two songs, two modes, but no worries: He’s invincible either way.
Toothache is good, sometimes great, and a rejuvenation for Post Malone. These days there’s no shortage of young artists making sad, Joker-fied music in tune with Euphoria. But on balance, Post tends to sound less like a sickly teen drama and more like a cheesy action flick. And that’s a good thing. He’s often day dreaming. He’s in such a loose state when he sings, on the second single, “Cooped Up,” with Roddy Ricch, “I’m off the Bud Light, not the bourbon / I might chop the roof off the Suburban.” This isn’t some unprecedented wordplay in hip-hop by any means. 2 Chainz would say some shit exactly like this in that rapid swaggy staccato of his. Post yawns these lyrics, barely out of bed—but it’s one of those big, powerful, gratifying yawns, you know?
Post Malone then spends the rest of “Cooped Up” shouting out the luxury fashion brands—Gucci, Prada, Louis, Tommy, etc.—that rappers have bragged about copping for the past 30 years. Here he’s made a relatively intimate and passionate album, and yet he’s still more caricature than character. He’s still a big, broad hitmaker trafficking in clichés. But he’s getting somewhere. “Circles” and “Sunflower” notwithstanding, Hollywood’s Bleeding was a bit too relaxed and generic for even his biggest fans with the weakest preference for hip-hop—the listeners who talk, in all seriousness, about Posty “turning pop,” as if his previous albums were goddamn Supreme Clientele and Visions of Gandhi. On Toothache he walks the fine line between “this is everything wrong with popular music” and “this is pretty good for something that represents everything wrong with popular music.” We could sit here for a while longer and argue the finest points of this critical distinction in Post Malone’s singing (for instance), “I took a shot, took a shot, took another shot.” But then we’d be dancing about architecture.