post malone dressed as a clown juggling all his brands

How Post Malone Became Pop's Most Suffocating Presence

The secret to his domination—and, increasingly, the homogenization of pop—is his one-size-fits-all approach to genre.
May 26, 2020, 12:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.

Wherever you are, Post Malone is there. In the recent past, the 25-year-old pop star born Austin Post was in your Uber ride, piping through the speakers at your local pharmacy, oozing into the open air of the next barbecue or pool party you might attend. He was performing on your awards show stages, whether it be by himself or with a growing and increasingly quixotic list of musical compatriots that includes Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Ozzy Osbourne. Even if you’re listening to someone else’s music, he’s more than likely to pop up and contribute a hook or two at some point. You can see him during the Super Bowl, hawking his swill-of-choice Bud Light or a new flavor of Doritos; if catching a flick is more your thing, just head over to Netflix and glimpse him acting tough in the latest Mark Wahlberg actioner.

To paraphrase Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping—the Lonely Island’s 2016 cult-classic mockumentary about the music industry that attains an increasing prescience with every passing year—Malone is everywhere, like oxygen or gravity or clinical depression. Granted, he’s not the biggest superstar in music, and he’s far from the most critically beloved; in 2018, the Washington Post published a review of his Posty Fest concert that referred to his music as “dead-eyed and ignorant,” categorizing Malone’s face-tattooed visage as “a rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese.” (The screed achieved a rare virality for music criticism, less an endorsement of the form itself and more indicating a specific hunger for content excoriating the subject.)

But as we get further from the second half of the 2010s—a period of time in the music industry in which streaming services and myriad chart-rule changes more or less upended pure record sales as the primary measure of success—it’s increasingly apparent that Malone reigned supreme in ubiquitousness. Since February 2017, he’s spent only six weeks without a song in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, often occupying multiple spots, whether it be with his own solo material or with the featured guest appearances he so often contributes to others’ music. Even as the Billboard charts have incidentally taken on a homogeneousness over the years, with just a few artists spreading out multiple songs across the charts’ upper region, Malone has retained an impressive staying power unlike any other pop artist in the last decade.

On the surface, Malone’s earning of the questionable honorific of pop’s most suffocating presence is a shock—especially to those who found themselves scratching their heads at his 2015 debut single "White Iverson," a wavy and airless slice of R&B centered on a protagonist who proclaimed himself the Caucasian equivalent of former professional basketball player Allen Iverson. The song itself represented swagger rap without the swagger, a morose-sounding crawl of an anti-anthem quixotic enough that some critics (myself included) initially dismissed it as pop music’s equivalent of a troll job—a "Party Rock Anthem" for the SoundCloud generation.

Although there are a few underground-lurking precedents for Malone’s sonic approach—specifically, the mischievous Midwestern trio Salem’s appropriation of chopped-and-screwed Houston hip-hop, as well as the dark ambience of the “witch house” subgenre they briefly inspired—West’s 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak all but provided the theoretical raw materials for Malone’s genre-fluid approach. After three albums of increasingly massive-sounding rap music, West took a divisive left turn by embracing pitch-correcting Auto-Tune software as an instrument, stripping his once-lush sound down to sputtering drum machines and languid synth lines ripped from the neon confines of 80s new wave. Underneath the seething, pained self-pity streaked across West’s lyrics was pure, unadulterated nothingness; even the album’s fullest-sounding moments were dotted by pockets of silence and miles of empty, thundering space.

After receiving a mixed critical reception upon release, 808s has since been recognized as an influential work in how it changed the sonic landscape of R&B, rap, and pop in general—but even as it stands as the point of origin with regard to Malone’s style, the sound of 808s was rudimentary and elemental, lacking the aqueous polish that Malone so embodies. The connection between the two, then, was provided by Drake’s arrival onto the pop scene a year later, with his ambitious So Far Gone mixtape. The release revealed the artist born Aubrey Graham—then a former Canadian child actor who had recently fallen in with Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew—as a student of 808s above all else, adding fullness of sound and Drake’s floating sing-rap vocals to drum patterns and melodic motifs practically lifted from its spiritual predecessor (to wit: the track’s midpoint is "Say What's Real," a mixtape-y riff on 808s"Say You Will" that lifts the original’s framework and melodic structure wholesale).

While West never fully returned to the sound of 808s, Drake built his entire career from its parts. From 2010’s proper debut Thank Me Later to Nothing Was the Same in 2013, he continued to polish the rough edges 808s possessed until the sound and approach was so smooth that it was practically his to own. More curiously, he also took cues from much of 808s’ lyrical themes, especially the perils of fame and fortune; if West’s work represented a superstar’s lament, Drake’s downcast vision was all about the falls that come with rising up—a laundry list of complaints concerning near-instant success, peppered with envy and paranoia and the chemical decadence that has marked younger millennials’ worldly experience.

“They said I wouldn’t be nothing / Now they always say congratulations,” Malone croons over "Congratulations," a single from his 2016 debut Stoney that also marked his first top-10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100; a second later, he liltingly sighs, “Worked so hard / Forgot how to vacation.” The sentiments are pure Drake, and so is the track’s screensaver-esque digital yawn of a production (partially made possible, no less, by the producer and frequent Drake collaborator Frank Dukes). Following the taster mixtape August 26th from the same year, Stoney represented an immediate crystallization of Malone’s aesthetic—a literally whitewashed system upgrade of the style Drake had previously established as his own.

Malone was far from the first Drake imitator that emerged around this time (indeed, much of overground hip-hop in the 2010s’ first half was made up of also-rans like Tory Lanez and Bryson Tiller trying to re-create Drake’s rapid rise)—but he was the most successful, and he benefited from excellent timing as well. Stoney arrived eight months after the release of Drake’s Views, an album of largesse that marked his successful breakthrough to the world-conquering global pop position of royalty he currently represents. If Drake’s previous efforts were marked by a laser-focused precision on cultivation of vibe, Views hopped from subgenre to subgenre, dabbling in musical styles from non–North American cultures and dialing back the diaristic lyrical approach that had become easily imitated by successors like Malone.

Views marked two distinct changings of the guard: First, it marked Drake’s heavyweight status as an attention-dominating force in the pop landscape. A whopping 20 songs from Views debuted on the Hot 100, setting a record for the most simultaneous chart positions held by one artist in a single week; he’d go on to break his own record twice with 2017’s More Life and Scorpion the following year. As streams took greater importance in tallying up chart positions at large, Drake’s first record-setting bow also ushered in our current era of chart uniformity, in which some of the most visible and successful pop stars—from Ariana Grande and Halsey to Eminem and Lil Uzi Vert—notch multiple chart slots on the week of release. (Grande set a record of her own last year when three tracks from her Thank U, Next occupied the top three slots of the Hot 100; she was the first artist to do that since the Beatles 55 years prior.)

Although Malone’s albums have been massively successful in their own right (his last two releases, 2018’s Beerbongs & Bentleys and Hollywood’s Bleeding from last year, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200), his own chart triumphs have been marked less by an all-at-once album-cycle swarm and more by a steady, persistent omnipresence. His music is simply in the air at this point, and as pop’s breakout stars skew younger and younger, we’ve already seen and heard artists take direct sonic cues from him: Halsey’s most recent album, Manic, from earlier this year, regularly dipped into the purple sonics and flatlining BPMs that mark Malone’s own work, while SoundCloud rap upstart Lil Xan invoked the man’s name himself on his 2018 Charli XCX collab “Moonlight”: “Ay, on my Post Malone shit.”

Beerbongs’ “Stay,” in which he implores an off-camera subject to “Fuck off / And pour another drink” over acoustic guitars surrounded by the drifting ambience slathered across his catalog. His hip-hop analogues are well-documented, and he slots in just as well guesting on Justin Bieber’s Changes from this year, a dreamy and drifting R&B album bearing Malone’s soporific style on nearly every track.

Malone had Osbourne appear on Hollywood’s Bleeding and returned the favor for the aging metalhead’s comeback album Ordinary Man, neither entity sounding out of place in either instance; he sweetened his sound just a smidge to score a massive hit on the soundtrack to the animated and kid-oriented Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and in the middle of Beerbongs’ “Same Bitches”—a West Coast–y cut featuring regional denizens YG and G-Eazy—he interpolates the second verse of the 60s psych-pop band the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” Through a mix of trend-baiting savvy and sheer dumb luck, Post Malone possesses the ability to be anything to anyone, and he’ll doubtlessly continue his complete overtaking of the pop landscape until someone younger figures out a way to tweak his approach for their own reign.

Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.