Post Malone: Will he save hip hop or destroy it?

As the chart-topping Dallas rhymer comes to Dublin we look at his rise to stardom

Post Malone at the 61st Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.  Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Post Malone at the 61st Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

 

Has Post Malone come to save hip hop or destroy it? Such is the debate raging within rap as the chart-topping Dallas rhymer makes his way to Dublin’s 3Arena for the opening date of a sellout European tour.

 White rappers have historically been problematic to the genre in all sorts of ways. When does homage tip into pastiche? How wide is the chasm that divides Eminem from Vanilla Ice – and on which side does the latest blue-eyed contender stand? “Cultural appropriation” may be a relatively newfangled coinage – but it’s an issue with which hip hop has wrestled since the first middle class kid from the suburbs twisted his baseball cap backwards and dropped the “n” word as if to the ghetto born.

 Post Malone, who returns for an ever bigger Irish show this summer at the RDS (tickets go on sale Friday morning), is above all else a phenomenon. As recently as February 2015 he was broke and living in an overcrowded LA apartment with an assortment of video gamers and would-be YouTube stars (he would pass the time playing guitar to live streams of friends’ Minecraft sessions).

 His ticket to the top table was the single White Iverson, which he quietly uploaded to Soundcloud four years ago this month. The track is a tribute to a famous (black) basketball player, whose travails – Iverson was a bit of a Roy Keane figure – Malone shamelessly compared to the issues he was going through while sitting on his couch strumming along to Minecraft.   

 One billion streams later and Malone is among the biggest forces in rap. Tellingly, when the now 23-year-old performed with Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 2019 Grammys, the sequence kicked off with a mash-up of his hits Stay and Rockstar. It was they who basked in his reflected glory, not the other way around.

Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Post Malone perform a medley at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Sunday. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP.
Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Post Malone perform a medley at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Sunday. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP.

Yet nobody could deny that his story has a Hollywood arc, his music is divisive. Malone – born Austin Malone he acquired his stage tag using an online rap name generation – has a woozy flow but also a serviceable campfire falsetto.

 He twangs a six-string with gusto, too. Consequently there are moments on his 2016 debut Stoney and 2018 follow-up Beer Bongs & Bentleys where he reminds you of Ed Sheeran when Ed Sheeran thinks he can rap (one of the most terrifying sounds known to 21st century audiences).

 But rather than drawing the whole world into one big group hug, his easy going, we’re-just-jamming-here sensibility has gone down like radioactive marmite. Critics have scorned Malone as the perfect rapper for the Donald Trump era – taking care to point out this is not an endorsement.

 “Post Malone’s music is dead-eyed and ignorant, astonishingly dull in its materialism,” began a hammer-slamming takedown in the Washington Post. “The most popular young artist in the most unpopular young nation is a rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese.”

 Critiques such as this paint Post Malone as, like Trump, embodying the worst of white America – glib, entitled, derivative of minority culture while tin-eared to its nuances and popular despite his ridiculous hair.

He croons, he emotes, he waxes folksy. Before us stands the first pop star who has plausibly been compared to the unshackled Donald Trump and also described as a chart-friendly version of avant-garde troubadour Bon Iver.

 But even as purists hold their noses – and reach for the sick bucket – there is also an argument that Post Malone represents the evolutionary next step in hip hop. As the weightless sing-along lilt of Rockstar and White Iverson proclaim, he’s a rapper but also more than that.

 He croons, he emotes, he waxes folksy. Before us stands the first pop star who has plausibly been compared to the unshackled Donald Trump and also described as a chart-friendly version of avant-garde troubadour Bon Iver.

 Malone’s own take is that genres are ridiculous and that we shouldn’t become entangled in a pointless debate. “It should just be music, you know?” he told GQ last year. “Because I’ve met so many people that’ll say, ‘I listen to everything except for this, or this,’ you know? And I think that’s stupid. If you like it, you should listen to it.”

 Sharing his listening habits in the same interview, he revealed a fondness for Nirvana, Fleet Foxes, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hank Williams Snr – artists whiter than six milk bottles left out in a snow-storm.

 And yet he is embedded in hip hop too. Rockstar stereotypically listed the ways stardom can singe the soul (watch out for those drugs and groupies). Yet the highlight is a cameo by 21 Savage – the Atlanta rapper currently detained at the pleasure of America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement on charges of being in the United States illegally (it is asserted he moved to Atlanta from Britain aged 12 and lacks the correct documentation).

 There is a possibility that Malone will address 21 Savage’s predicament at 3Arena, his first performance (excluding the Grammys) since his collaborator’s arrest. But regardless of whether he takes a stand in a mid-size venue thousands of miles from home, the gig will surely be a slam-dunking celebration of an unlikely ascent from Minecraft soundtracker to Grammy-feted hip hop god. All of which raises the question:  is Post Malone a chancer or a rapper? The debate looks set to rumble onwards – of interest to everyone apart from Malone and his millions of fans.

Post Malone is playing a sold-out 3Arena gig in Dublin on February 14th, while tickets for a second concert at the RDS Arena on Thursday, 22nd August, go on sale on Friday.

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