Unpacking the Delusional Pop Music of Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys
It’s impossible to look away: Post Malone is one of the most commercially consequential stars in pop music. His new album, Beerbongs and Bentleys, imbues most of the tropes in contemporary swaggy rap music with an omnipresent breeziness that feels endemic to a luxurious West Coast life. There are also a few empty gestures at being a post-grunge troubadour. Somehow, this album is on course to have the biggest streaming week of ever, leaving Drake in the dust (at least until he inevitably returns the favor). The question of “why” Post Malone is so popular is perhaps too elaborate to penetrate here, but we can interrogate some details of the music that might carry some appeal. Let’s get on our hoverboards, crack some Bud Lights, gnaw on a spicy Popeye’s wing, and unpack what will somehow stand as a landmark album of 2018.
Post Malone was born Austin Post in Syracuse, and raised in the modest city of Grapevine, Texas. Today, he is the ultimate post-ironic pop artist of his time and place–a hero so grotesque and unlikely that he has become all the more beloved for it. Post, 22 years old, toys with all the touchstones of bro and rap-adjacent cool. A monstrous looking young man in the vein of an extra in the Lost Boys scenes from Hook, he wants you to believe he is popping the best bottles and sleeping with supermodels every night of the week. On the other side of the equation, he also has a lot of guns in his house, likes Bobs Dylan and Marley, and is rarely photographed without a Bud Light in hand. At some point, Post decided he was going to be a rapper, and at that he has succeeded. He sings but in the mode of a sleaze&B balladeer, but, refusing to abandon his roots, he also picks up a guitar from time to time, in the mode of an overearnest pop-country strummer at a restaurant in the Nashville airport. The recipe is similar to the origin story of one of Post’s best friends, occasional acoustic guitar enthusiast Justin Bieber, now approaching Post’s level of physical and metaphysical rattiness. Once, Bieber supposedly put a cigarette out on Post Malone’s arm, inspiring Post to joke-choke Bieber, resulting in a fairly astute TMZ headline likening Post Malone to an ashtray. Now they are each both the cigarettes and the ashtrays, as well as veritable pop stars.
Post Malone has been surprisingly successful since his debut single “White Iverson” became ubiquitous in 2015, eventually cracking the Top 20 almost a year after its release. The fact that his debut full-length, which dropped a full year and a half after the song’s initial arrival, managed to chart in the Top 10 suggested there was more afoot that one might have initially imagined. Just when it seemed the ceiling had definitively been hit, Post scored an even bigger hit with the Metro Boomin and Quavo lifeline “Congratulations,” and then jumped to a higher echelon of stardom thanks to a collaboration with another rising trap star. Post and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” was a flamboyantly irritating, consummately tasteless piece of music, with a hook droning but somehow implacable. Whether through some degree of YouTube gaming or not, it became the biggest single in the country for nearly two months. Along with its follow-up, the Ty Dolla $ign co-engineered “Psycho,” it turned Beerbongs & Bentleys into a veritable victory lap—his true statement of complete and total arrival, a gross and decadent celebration of him having done things his own sordid way and won.
More so than “Rockstar,” “Psycho” points to the predominant stylistic thrust of the music on Beerbongs & Bentleys. The 18-song release consists mostly of mid-tempo, gently forlorn R&B, padded out with New Agey gauze. The music is pervaded by too much sonic fog, but there’s still far better visibility than 2017’s oppressively hazy Stoney, in which Post scratched his grunge-hop itches more earnestly with weaker hooks and even more slumped tempos. Especially in the first act of Beerbongs & Bentleys, Post sounds sunnier and has a little more fun. Most importantly, he clarifies his production and songwriting arcs. Post is best when he is pitted against or being written for by obsessive melodic craftsmen, and on this album, Swae Lee, Partynextdoor and, particularly, Ty Dolla $ign are natural, decadent accomplices. Malone’s style feels, as much as anyone else, Dolla $ign-patented nowadays: Both Los Angeles residents have made their careers based on juxtaposing lewd metaphors, treacle-brained club boasts, and descriptions of creative drug and drink cocktails in ecstatic, gently fibrillating tones. The difference between Post and Ty, of course, is that Ty is an ambidextrous musician and producer who basically carved out an entirely singular musical lane for himself through years of songwriting and experimentation. What, then, is Post Malone? What lane has he carved for himself?
Ideally, a good Post Malone song makes you wonder how on Earth this man is famous, while at the same time completely justifying it in its indelible, icily satisfying musical particulars. There are a good swath of those on this album, along with too-inoffensive, almost indistinguishable downtempo murmurings. The strong first act of the album delivers the Austin Post dichotomy immediately, with a strangely catchy song about his constant fear of death and apocalyptic conspiracy that Tom DeLonge might appreciate. “Helicopters in the sky / No, he can’t escape the eyes / Politicians and the lies / Tell me, what’s the point in pickin’ sides?” Take also “Same Bitches,” a collaboration with Ty Dolla $ign’s formative partner in crime YG and G-Eazy, another Cali-based white rapper who is just an unfortunate fact of life these days. Post quotes the Zombies (”What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?”) against noir post-hyphy production. The song’s recipe for success is guaranteed by one crucial gesture: the “100 bands in one night,” a melodic exaltation with the same triumphant charge as “White Iverson”’s “when I started balling I was young.” Momentary flashes of inspiration like this elevate the most appealing Post Malone songs out of their default realm of amniotic mediocrity.
By point of contrast, perhaps the worst moments of Post’s music–outside of imagining a man who looks like him making it–come when the audience is expected to sympathize with some apparent plight he’s having. Indeed, we’re frequently expected to connect with Post Malone emotionally, on some level. After listening to this album featuring a song called “Rich & Sad,” one wonders if Post is in on the absurdity of the ruse. See also “Otherside,” which is sadly not the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover it easily could have been; instead, it’s a clumsily organized sadboy pop track and BB&B’s central, bathetic emotional outpouring. A flickering synth the Chainsmokers would marry if they could backs Post’s pitiful Sinatra-esque musings: “One hundred bottles of the good shit couldn’t even bring you back / What am I to do?” Eventually, some pseudo-reggaeton drums kick in to underscore Post’s despondent, ulutatory reflections on the “one hundred models I could follow all the way to hell and back.” One truly wonders how embodied all of this is–how serious anyone who disports like Post Malone and made his reputation off of a gently nostalgic ballad about being the white version of a basketball player can possibly be about the emotional charge of his music.
On BB&B, Post Malone only barely alludes to the other alleged side of his musical equation: the part of him that vaguely channels Whitey Ford Sings the Blues-era Everlast. In truth, it was the Lil Peep-adjacent explosion that burgeoned on Soundcloud after Post Malone outgrew the platform that has channeled the energy of nu-metal balladeers more earnestly. Nowadays, Post rarely actually indulges his post-grunge and C&W tendencies outside of covering Nirvana songs in concerts. On BB&B, there is none of the strummy Lumineers-hop of his aberrant Stoney single “Go Flex.” Still, he has his moments of rock posture. Most striking on Bentleys is “Jonestown (Interlude),” a rumination on lethal groupthink which sounds like the exposition section of a Hoobastank backtrack. Prior to that, there is “Stay,” a *listens to Channel Orange once* acoustic ballad that is encroached upon by Post’s assaultive, artificially emulated vibrato. One wonders here if he should get together with Yodeling Boy in earnest and make something happen.
In its final moments, Beerbongs and Bentleys pulls things together in another attempt to remind us how this silly young man with a crown of thorns tattoo on his head has managed to thrive commercially for two albums running. “Candy Paint” is the kind of sugary glaze whose appeal is hard to repress once you’ve heard it. Post spools out a simple melodic lick with increasingly distasteful rhymes, set over gossamer synth crochets that belong on a Muzak track at some Asian fusion restaurant. “God I love paper like I’m Michael Scott,” he reflects at one point. It’s lines like this—and, say, “I ain’t even see the face, but she got beautiful boobies”—that remind us that the main thing Post Malone doesn’t seem to care what anyone with capital-T taste (read: the haters) thinks.
Does Post Malone even know if he’s posturing anymore? Maybe not. Would I rather listen to this Cheshire Cat-like con artist turn trap and drill music tropes into a Xanned-out operatic pop nightmare version of itself or the sanctimonious, “I’m the coolest guy in Odyssey of the Mind” pariah Lil Dicky mock that music? In that, Post wins out. By no stretch of the imagination is Beerbongs & Bentleys a good album, but it’s admirable in its commitment to its strangely singular dirtbag vision of L.A. luxury. It isn’t consistent enough to mold Post Malone fully into the Soundcloud rap version of Ed Sheeran, but it will certainly allow him to stick around for at least a few more years. May God have mercy on us all.