By Eóin Donnelly
Sometimes I’m a pretentious asshole. As much as I like to claim neutrality of judgment, I inevitably listen to albums with my own preconceptions and biases in mind. I wasn’t even halfway through Post Malone’s sophomore album, beerbongs & bentleys, and I was already writing it off. My friends are bigger fans of his than I am. “He makes it sound so easy to make music. Just a king beat and a drop of decent speak”, one said in the unique way an Irish country boy does. “He does”, I replied, “too easy though. Same formula every time. Album gonna be huge though.” Like Ernest Hemingway said about the world being a fine place worth fighting for, I was only right about the second part.
Breaking streaming records across the board, however, is not what the cultural legacy of beerbongs & bentleys will depend on. It’s too commonplace to be truly significant. Just over a week ago J. Cole’s KOD broke the first-day streaming record, and a few weeks from now Kanye West- truth be told, though alienating his core fanbase his support of President Trump will probably result in even more album streams- and then Drake’s upcoming Scorpion will almost certainly topple Malone as the new king of the opening-day leaderboard. It’s an inevitable result of the music industry becoming more and more intertwined with streaming platforms. In a short space of time, Post Malone has established himself as an industry heavyweight, an undoubted beneficiary of being able to reach a predominantly white- and therefore much bigger- audience while embracing black pop culture at a time when it’s more en vogue than ever. Most of all, I was reminded of Eminem. By far the most interesting thing to me about his success is that Eminem exposed society’s moral hypocrisies by becoming the world’s biggest popstar in a maligned genre even while trouncing his black competitors in the violence, homophobia and profanity stakes. Although undeniably talented, part of Eminem’s success was due to his whiteness being more marketable. By looking his ugly persona in the mirror, then holding up that mirror to a mob of baying American consumers who were all too willing to disparage hip-hop’s rough edges until they were aligned with a white face, Eminem was able to communicate the invisible nuance of white privilege. The bank notes proved the jotter notes, and he himself was disgusted by his profiteering off the same hypocrisy he devoted himself to attacking, presciently rhyming on ‘White America’:
“Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself
If they were brown, Shady’d lose, Shady sits on the shelf
But Shady’s cute, Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help
Make ladies swoon, baby (ooh, baby!) — look at my sales!
Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half
I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that”
Fast forward to 2018, and Eminem’s diagnosis of race-indoctrinated double standards in art assessment and consumption is as true as ever. Back to me being a pretentious asshole though. I’m greatly invested in how popular culture intersects with everyday life, particularly politics and social progression. God, I felt like a pretentious asshole just writing that, and I’m sure you thought so reading it. Cultural appropriation debates aside, what really matters is the music; and the more I listened to beerbongs & bentleys, the more I was able to retreat from the racial politics surrounding Post Malone and enjoy it for the excellent pop album that it is.
I should’ve expected as much. The three singles that I heard prior to release- ‘rockstar’, ‘Candy Paint’ and ‘Psycho’- were all notable improvements on much of Stoney, but Post Malone is no stranger to a red herring. Though loaded with enjoyable hit singles including ‘White Iverson’ and ‘Go Flex’, the deep cuts on Malone’s debut album Stoney had nowhere near enough style or substance, ending up in a one-note, redundant debut effort that fell greatly short of its hype. On Stoney, Malone appeared as an artist unsure of which version of himself or which musical influences to draw from, amounting to awkward amalgamations of white and black aesthetics that sounded like bootleg remixes of two equally bad songs (‘Broken Whiskey Glass’ and ‘I Fall Apart’). Mixing genres can result in some of the best music out there, but unlike, say, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, Malone’s Stoney didn’t combine rock and hip-hop with any sense of originality, personality or thematic direction. It was auto-tuned trap with guitars on top. Yeah, as you can tell, I wasn’t as excited about beerbongs & bentleys as everyone else.
With my pretentious asshole goggles firmly in place, on my first listen I was looking only for the faults, refusing to see and appreciate the catchy hooks, inventive melodies and fantastic vocal performances that comprise Malone’s new album. My intransigence wasn’t conscious, but in hindsight it definitely coloured my perspective. And then it clicked. The third listen is always the most important. It’s the number that deduces whether albums are sent to the trashcan are hoisted to the on-repeat pedestal. I’m now on my fifteenth listen, so you know what a difference it made.
The album begins with ‘Paranoid’, an airy, woozy and primarily-sung dose of famous person angst. “Tell me why I can’t get no relief/Wondering when they’ll come for me.” Something tells me Post Malone isn’t high on the FBI’s wanted list, but hearing him express his genuine fears of being rich and famous in a violence-ridden, politically polarised America is a welcome shift of tone from his usual subject matter. Is it as good as Kanye’s ‘Paranoid’? Hell no, but it’s catchy and gets stuck in your head quicker than bad news. If I was Post Malone, apparently my album would be called dance moves & ferraris. Check out yours. Speaking of dance moves, the following track, ‘Spoil My Night’ is a guaranteed smash-hit tailor-made for whiskey-soaked midnight singalongs. It’s the most joyful Malone track to date. I’ve seen plenty of hate for Malone’s line, “I ain’t even seen her face but she got beautiful boobies”, and those people really need to lighten up. I laughed out loud when I heard it, and not in the way I do when Big Sean tries to rap. Atop such sweet production, complimented by Swae Lee’s infectiously doe-eyed falsetto, Malone’s boisterous, give-no-fucks verse is a thrilling jolt from the blue on this vibrant, tropical ear candy. ‘Spoil My Night’ treats Malone’s infidelity with a shrug, grinning through his gold grills and asking for “more shots please!” but I’m not about to play the righteous indignation card against a song this fun. Besides, since when were rappers our moral compass?
If lyrical substance is what you’re looking for, beerbongs & bentleys is going to annoy you. For the most part, it’s exactly what it says on the Yeezus-inspired album cover, and it’s almost as morally bankrupt. Some heart does shine through in unexpected places, however. Although ‘Rich & Sad’ is a cringeworthy song title teetering on the brink of parody of this decade in RnB, Malone’s on-off girlfriend adds some real-world context to an overly familiar narrative that Malone’s ruffian vocals can convey the tenuous emotional burden of more acutely than most. Similarly, ‘Stay’ does what XXXTentacion thinks he can do, or maybe even Ed Sheeran when he tries to rap. Oh my God, I shudder just thinking about ‘Eraser’. One thousand boke emojis wouldn’t suffice. Placing the spotlight on Malone’s self-professed rockstar image, it’s a shame ‘Stay’ wasn’t the prototype song beerbongs & bentleys was built around. “Fuck off and pour another drink/And tell me what you think” is straight from the Oasis songsheet, the half-rapped, half-sung delivery over acoustic guitar is Malone’s own, but it’s by far the best execution of this sound Malone has done, and the lyrics pack his hardest emotional punch to date. “It’s like we only play to lose”, he wails, “chasing pain with an excuse/I love that shit and so do you.” ‘Stay’, unfortunately, is the one instance where Malone’s linguistic framing of melancholy is as memorable as the melody he employs to trick us into sympathising with the trials and tribulations of his multi-millionaire lifestyle. He did, after all, say that hip-hop isn’t music to get emotional to, a statement that Donald Trump would be lambasting as fake news if he was as big a 2Pac fan as I am. Plenty of “real shit” in hip-hop right here Post.
Speaking of 2Pac, ‘Same Bitches’ is an obvious homage to Shakur’s West Coast classic ‘All About U.’ Dipping his toes into G-funk, Malone’s flow is surprisingly polished and charismatic, incorporating his distinctive ear for melody and a clever nod to Dr. Dre’s legendary 2001. Predictably, G-Eazy’s typically obnoxious contribution ruins the finished product and it is one of a handful- along with ‘Jonestown (Interlude)’, ‘Ball For Me’ and ‘Otherside’- of songs that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Sixty-four minutes of Post Malone is way too much. Still, in an era where superfluous albums are more the norm than the exception, four filler tracks from eighteen is worth commending.
Granted, beerbongs & bentleys is nothing original, offering a familiar collection of trendy trap 808s, moody synths, warbling autotune and self-indulgent songwriting that has been the mainstream rap and R&B status quo as far back as The Weeknd’s 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, or even further back 2008’s game-changing 808s & Heartbreak from Kanye West. Originality, however, can sometimes be overrated. In years to come, when auto-crooning trap music dies like every other trend and nostalgia beguiles the reality of our past, beerbongs & bentleys will be one of the first albums we turn to for comfort. It improves on Stoney in every dimension, with choruses as irresistible as the drugs Malone sings about that will dominate radio airwaves and house parties throughout the year. Less reliance on Travis Scott-style effects allows the passion and power of Malone’s natural vocal range to finally shine through, and the subtle elements of rock that creep into the tracklist (‘Over Now’) add to rather than distract from Malone’s sporadically bombastic take on hip-hop. Generally however, beerbongs & bentleys’ core demographics are those whose lives revolve mostly around partying, and contrary to consensus there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the songs fit the aesthetic. They do. Beyond the ubiquitous party anthem ‘rockstar’ and the exuberant, dreamlike ‘Candy Paint’, there are future hits all over Malone’s new release, from the wonderfully catchy ‘Better Now’ to the Suite Life of Zack & Cody-referencing ‘Zack & Codeine’ to ‘Takin’ Shots’, the simplistic yet amusing new theme music to frat boy binge-drinking.
Like most pop music we don’t seem nearly as eager to critique, beerbongs & bentleys is an escapist’s fantasy of luxury and libido to be vicariously lived through rather than a vapid lifestyle to be pointed at and judged. As I alluded to earlier, Post Malone is not the kind of impeccably astute, analytical and thought-provoking wordsmith that can garner universal acclaim and respect across racial divides the way Eminem did. He is a familiar kind of artist with a fresh and admittedly quite problematic image, one that appropriates all of the ‘cool’ aspects of black culture- the cornrows, the gold grills and the hedonistic rapper lifestyle- without assuming any of its burdens. The newfound prevalence of white artists that can make zeitgeist-defining hip-hop on his own terms- without Eminem’s reverence for hip-hop culture or pandering to its black forefathers à la Macklemore– will likely echo through generations in ways we can’t possibly imagine. For millennials not privy to the immeasurable social and cultural value of hip-hop to black youths in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination and its immense ability to speak truth to power and elevate black mass consciousness in the post-civil rights era of political activism, maybe Malone’s asinine interview that recently caused such outrage held one salient truth. Hip-hop, Malone claims, “brings people together in a beautiful, happy way.” Amen to that. Just a thought: maybe cultural appropriation is an obsolete mechanism that keeps us divided, and maybe this is the new reality we will one day adapt to. Since the turn of the century, a generation of white teenagers grew up wishing they were Kanye, and maybe another generation of black teenagers will grow up wishing they were Post Malone. That is the transcendent unifying force of hip-hop. It crosses cultural barriers like nothing else.
As Drake once famously said, jealousy is just love and hate at the same time. By the time the credits roll on beerbongs & bentleys you’ll be left feeling envious of Post Malone, though entertained, frantically adding your favourite songs to your beer emoji playlist in advance of your next big night out. By that token, I have to say it’s a job well done.