At some point between the August 2015 release of his debut single, “White Iverson,” and the fall 2017 reign of his ubiquitous no. 1 song “Rockstar,” the 22-year-old musician Post Malone got Bob Dylan’s face tattooed on his left bicep.
One by-product of overnight success in the age of the SoundCloud rapper is that we can sometimes watch their face tattoos accumulate in real time, like a fast-motion video of a wall being graffitied. Over the past couple of years, Post Malone (born Austin Post) has crowned his forehead with barbed wire, inked the words “stay away” above one of his eyebrows, and adorned his arm and fingers with a dorm-room Mount Rushmore of musical heroes: Johnny Cash, Elvis, Kurt Cobain, and, of course, the reluctant Nobel Prize winner Dylan. “‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was the first rap song,” Post said last year in an interview with Paper, explaining the connection he feels to Dylan. “Everybody was pissed off when he put down the acoustic and picked up the electric, but he just pioneered a lot of different shit.”
Post was justifying his own move in the opposite direction: He had been hinting that the follow-up to his hit 2016 debut, Stoney, would focus less on the hazy glitch of trap-pop and more on acoustic instrumentation and outlaw country flair. (When he turned down a coveted spot on XXL’s Freshman Class, there was initially some talk that he did so because he wanted to move his music in more of a “country direction”; when he faced blowback for this, he claimed he was just too tired to fly to New York for the photo shoot.) For all his talk of changing lanes, though, Beerbongs & Bentleys doesn’t stray far from the formula he established on Stoney: candy-coated hooks, an amiably singsongy flow, and gently melancholy musings on fame, drugs, and—to use a kinder word than he tends to—“girls.”
Beerbongs & Bentleys is a hit. It is currently the no. 1 album in the country for a second week in a row, and it has been shattering streaming records left and right. According to Spotify, Beerbongs & Bentleys broke the record for most first-day streams in the U.S. and internationally. In a remarkably short span of time, and at a time when streaming platforms make it possible to access nearly any song or album imaginable, Post Malone has become the de facto name to type into the search bar—one of the most popular musicians in the world. Wrote the critic Tom Breihan of Stereogum, “Somehow, in the streaming era, this guy is what people want.”
Post has, over his short career, seen his share of controversy, but if anything it’s only authenticated his “outsider” status and made him more popular. “Post is like the Donald Trump of hip-hop,” an executive at Republic Records told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “Things that should’ve killed his career have only made him bigger.” Post’s admiration for Bob Dylan was, oddly enough, at the center of one of these controversies. In a video interview with a Polish beer website while on his 2017 European tour, Post mused, “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. Whenever I want to sit down and have a nice cry, I’ll listen to some Bob Dylan. But whenever I’m trying to have a good time and stay in a positive mood, I listen to hip-hop because it’s fun. I think hip-hop is important because it brings people together in a beautiful, happy way. Everybody’s happy.”
Unsurprisingly, these comments later required clarification. In a video shot on his phone and posted to Twitter, Post first claimed that part of the problem was that it was a “beer-tasting interview … so they put a lot of beer in my face,” which, to be fair, doesn’t seem terribly different from nearly every other interview Post Malone has given. Still: “What I was trying to say is that a lot of people, except for a handful of artists, are saying the same shit,” he said. “They’re not saying anything super meaningful. I’m 22 years old. I have not had all the life experience in the world to talk about the most meaningful shit. I just sing about what I’ve gone through, what’s going on in my life, and what I wanna sing about.”
He took a drag from his cigarette. “A lot of people are saying that I don’t appreciate hip-hop or I’m taking advantage of hip-hop,” he said. “My last hip-hop album was fuckin’ hip-hop. My next hip-hop album is fuckin’ hip-hop. I love hip-hop. I make hip-hop. I wanna take this genre and stretch it so far that people who may not listen to it, listen to it.” That last statement was prophecy. This video has been viewed 7 million times.
In 1995, Austin Post was born on the Fourth of July. He grew up in Syracuse and later Grapevine, Texas; his father is now the head of concessions for the Dallas Cowboys. Post’s father also used to be a wedding deejay, and early on he instilled in his son an appreciation for music of all genres, from country to hip-hop to metal. In what is probably not an uncommon occurrence for musicians of his generation, Post played Guitar Hero before he ever played an actual guitar, but his love for the video game prompted him to eventually level up to the analog version.
Post dabbled in different musical styles as a teen: He played in a metal band and developed a synth-pop alter ego. Then, when he was 16, he started rapping and making beats in the digital recording program Audacity. He made a mixtape, Young and After Them Riches, that he distributed around his high school. Post is a savvy producer with a kind of shrugging, personable charm that goes a long way in the age of the viral superstar. His overall vibe evokes a friendly grizzly bear who accidentally wandered onto the grounds of Burning Man and decided to just go with it.
There’s no denying his innate talent for pop songwriting; Post is a savant when it comes to hooks, and his music, at its best, sounds like Migos might if they were better friends with Justin Bieber. “Congratulations,” his 2017 hit with Quavo, and “Psycho,” his latest, Ty Dolla $ign–featuring single, are the kinds of songs you feel compelled to sing along with the second time you hear them. Dotted as his work is with references to codeine and pills, Post Malone puts the listener in a trance. It seems likely that this breezy, undemanding quality to his music has also contributed to his success on streaming platforms: Spotify and its ilk have turned music listening into more of a passive, background activity. (The writer Liz Pelly, a sharp and vocal critic of Spotify’s effects on the music industry, has likened streaming music to “algorithmically preordained Muzak.”) Light on the ears, genre agnostic, and obligingly catchy, Beerbongs & Bentleys is as fizzy as an American-brewed lager. It is music for numbing, blurring, and forgetting—which is not necessarily a knock against it. As the old man on Post Malone’s bicep once said, everybody must get stoned. And especially in these all-caps times of sensory overload, divisiveness, and complexity, there is an obvious appeal to an album that leads you to believe, at least for an hour, that the world actually is flat.
But really: Post Malone’s world is flat. It is a place where “rock star” rhymes with “rasta” in every sense, because they’re equally empty signifiers. For all Post’s nostalgia for “meaningful” lyrics, Beerbongs & Bentleys doesn’t stray far, thematically speaking, from what the writer Bijan Stephen characterized as “The Loathing Stunt”: “You’re stunting very hard,” Post told Stephen for GQ, “but at the end of the day it isn’t going to make [you] happy.” There are songs about how money has made him paranoid (“Paranoid”) as well as sad (“Rich & Sad”). Women want him (“Spoil My Night”); women betray him (most of these songs). It is unsurprising but still disappointing that yet another male artist being pegged as a harbinger of something new cannot imagine something more alternative than the lazy misogyny of a song like “Same Bitches” (“I know you wanna live this life / But I can’t make a ho a housewife”).
According to Post, Bob Dylan’s grandson is a fan, and he played Stoney for the reluctant Nobel Prize winner. “He liked the music,” Post said, “but he said I need help with the lyrics.”
“How did you get the name for ‘White Iverson’?” Post Malone was asked on an exceptionally awkward appearance on The Breakfast Club in August 2015.
“Well it was, like, a year and a half ago when I got my first braids—” he began.
Charlamagne interrupted him: “FYI, I think all white people with cornrows look stupid.” Somehow, this is only about the seventh-most cringeworthy moment in this interview.
Post is an easy target, and plenty of hip-hop’s gatekeepers have relished in grilling him like this, waiting for him to step out of line and say something off-color. He has and will likely continue to, and it probably won’t matter—at least not to the faction of people who for some mysterious reason like Post Malone but not necessarily rap music (hmm … wonder what that could be), and whose allegiance has allowed him to outsell similar or superior artists like Rae Sremmurd, Migos, and Kendrick Lamar.
I am certainly not going to criticize Post Malone for not being Bob Dylan. But I will criticize him for holding his peers to a standard he cannot himself exceed or even meet. Post Malone’s music and his viewpoint are not nearly as revolutionary or as “outsider” as he purports them to be; I don’t need him to do time in Folsom Prison, but maybe just to get through the day I need to believe that Johnny Cash would have turned down an offer to play at Kendall Jenner’s birthday party. It takes a healthy dose of self-delusion to say that “most artists aren’t saying anything meaningful” and to remedy this by including, on the second song of your album, a lyric like “I can’t even see her face, but she got beautiful boobies.”
Post Malone seems like a good hang. Maybe in the social age that means a little more than it used to, or should. But regardless of what he intends, and no matter how earnestly White Iverson smiles when he says it—“I wanna take this genre and stretch it so far that people who may not listen to it, listen to it”—we know exactly what that means in light of his sudden, somewhat troublesome crossover success. Don’t think twice—or, you know, at all. It’s all right.