Well, I tried.
Like every other music critic in America, I recoiled instinctively from Post Malone—the shamelessly maudlin groan, the shamelessly cliché lyrics, the shamelessly appropriated trap beats. But the charming use of his Swae Lee collaboration “Sunflower” in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse softened me up. And Hollywood’s Bleeding, the follow-up to Post’s disproportionately successful Beerbongs & Bentleys, crisscrosses genres imaginatively and coughs up several sing-song hooks I didn’t mind recollecting afterward at all. Listening to it, I experienced something not entirely unlike enjoyment.
And so, in the spirit of “I get why this guy is popular, but why is he so popular?” I navigated my way around the longer than usual beer lines at the first of the white Dallas-born rap-I-guess? superstar’s two sold-out Xcel Energy Center shows to see if I could hear what the paying customers were hearing.
Now, I’ve long since gotten used to being in a room where thousands of people think music is good and I think it’s bad. It’s instructive—helps you better understand both your own tastes and other peoples’ perspectives. Try it sometime. But what I’ll never acclimate to is being in a room of people who think music is fun when I’m sure it’s a bummer. And though Post Malone may be an adequate moaner of memorable pop-emo remorse, as a party animal he never comes unleashed.
Malone opened with the title track of Hollywood’s Bleeding, bemoaning the false promises of fame and success (“Vampires feedin'/Darkness turns to dust”—spooooooky) over a moody arrangement of ticking trap beats and cement-rattling bass. On his monster 2018 hit “Better Now,” he vented his heartbreak to an ex (“I seen you with your other dude/He seemed like he was pretty cool”) over a moody arrangement of ticking trap beats and cement-rattling bass. Soon it was on to “Saint-Tropez,” celebrating the pleasurable excesses of fame and fortune (“Versace boxers on my dick”—well, that’s one way to wear ’em) over... a moody arrangement of ticking trap beats and cement-rattling bass. Since Post has just one vocal setting—weary self-pity—I challenge a non-English speaker to listen to these three songs and guess which is the happy one.
The overall feel of a Post Malone concert is as if you dozed off on the train that left the 808s & Heartbreak station a decade ago, missed your stop, and woke up at the end of the line to find that now everyone was dancing to the same music instead of moping. The morose party jam is hardly the unique property of Mr. Malone—it permeates contemporary pop, though Posty probably swiped the idea from Drake. While he was rifling through Drizzy’s stuff he should have also pocketed the idea of using arena production design to compensate for a less-than-magnetic onstage presence: The stage was a spare black runway with an equally sized black block of lighting above it (creating a claustrophobic feel), some under-used screens, and some old-school pyro.
If Malone is an unchallenging star in person, he’s not an unlikable one. Genial but not goofy, fuzzy and face-tatted, in snug red track pants and a patterned shirt covered in celebrity mugshots, he moved with an endearingly unmacho flounce. He was self-aware and self-deprecating. “My name is Austin Richard Post and I’ve come to play some shitty music for y’all,” he joshed early on, apologetically noting at another point that his music was too sad. He said, “Thank you so fucking much” and “This next song is ...” too often. He played “Stay” on acoustic guitar. (The rest of the night he relied on pre-recorded tracks.) He kept a blue Solo cup onstage. We’ve survived worse.
A few songs, like “Goodbyes,” were moving. “Allergic,” a light-footed track so perky Post even wiggled his butt a little, was, yes, fun. “Take What You Want,” with its Ozzy Osbourne co-vocal and some generic guitar shredding, suggested broader inspiration than modern rap. But the funny thing about Malone’s songs is that the style of music itself feels arbitrary. Twenty years ago, he might have peddled his mid-range brooding via nu-metal or pop-punk. In fact, I can easily imagine most of his songs recast in those settings, or even as bro-country. Romantic disappointment, the perils of stardom, stubborn low-level anhedonia—his topics are ordinary pop perennials. He’s just fitted them to contemporary sonic fashion.
That sense of bald opportunism, that Malone has slipped into rap like “a Halloween rental” (to borrow one of the many memorable phrases from Jeff Weiss’ brutal takedown in the Washington Post last year) is what justifiably chafes critics. And what’s notable about Malone’s particular looting of African-American style is that he’s barely interested in flash or sexuality or cool, which is what white minstrels traditionally abscond with. He strips all that away till all that’s left is a hollow groan, and it makes a grand heist feel like a petty crime.
The concert’s peak for Post’s fans was its trough for me: the climactic home stretch of older hits. I reject the concept of “White Iverson” on principle, “Rockstar” still sounds like a drunk trying to tell you he’s having the time of his life between blasts of projectile vomiting, and “Congratulations” is the most tepid “suck it, haters” dirge imaginable. Post introduced it by urging us to follow our dreams, and who am I to sidetrack you from such a worthy goal? But I still say “Worked so hard forgot how to vacation” is the saddest pop lyric in years, and not just because of how Post sings it.
Die for Me
I Fall Apart
Take What You Want
Sunflower (with Swae Lee)