Post Malone Is the Voice of Modern Brain Fog

The ubiquitous singer/rapper’s third album, Hollywood’s Bleeding, goes darker but not deeper.

Post Malone performs in 2019.
Depths do not reveal themselves upon close listen; Post Malone is not an oaf with a heart of gold. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)

Among the many foul betrayals committed by beautiful women in the lyrics of Post Malone’s new album, the most relatable crime is not being totally sure who he is. “You see me on TV, you know I’m a star,” the 24-year-old sings over a muted pop-punk thump. “You say you don’t know me, but I know that’s false.” It’s a believable story. Malone’s singles tend to debut near the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and stay put over the course of not just weeks but seasons. His sound is everywhere. Yet his persona—scraggly haired, face-tattooed, beer swilling—is incidental. He himself seems hazy about his own achievements. “I got so many hits, can’t remember them all,” he raps, adding, “While I’m takin’ a shit, look at the plaques on the wall.”

Malone’s music is brain fog. It’s created by and for fatigue and hangovers and modern distraction. It lives in the disorientation that happens when genre rules crumble and when a man who talks incessantly about women’s bodies also gets to swag out about being ugly. Nothing really makes sense in our world, in Post Malone’s world. The music smooths that out. Malone’s sustained vibrato belches do not bother the ear with differentiable lyrics. Hip-hop’s machine rhythm and rock’s tonal smearing combine for hypnosis on two fronts. The music streams into you. Which is another way of saying that it’s good streaming.

In the four years since the Texas-raised Malone uploaded his breakout yoga mantra, “White Iverson,” to SoundCloud, his talent and dullness have proved inarguable. Narcotizing and beautiful melodies bloom for him in the studio as plentifully as fungi on a rotting stump. But he has said offensive and ignorant things about race and rap, and his portentous formula hasn’t served up depth or variety. His third album, Hollywood’s Bleeding, feels like the moment when it’ll be determined whether he’ll be remembered as an interim or as an emperor. But he doesn’t seem very worried about the culture burning out on him. He’s provided much more of the same.

What he is worried about is his health. Hollywood’s Bleeding styles itself as the desperate diary of a bootstrapper who’s being drained by groupies and haters and drugs. He’s talked about this many times before—track No. 3 on 2018’s Beerbongs & Bentleys is titled “Rich & Sad”—but unlike his predecessor Drake, he doesn’t have a knack for saying old things in new ways. So instead, he communicates his rising dread by treating rock-and-roll trappings like haunted-house decorations. Detuned guitars warble from the corners of songs; the visuals go medieval; the dark lord Ozzy Osbourne yowls one chorus. Happier cuts resemble Tame Impala (the refreshing “Circles”) or Imagine Dragons (the awful “I’m Gonna Be”). In precious passages of mild drama, Malone pushes his voice to a ragged, melodic moan of the sort that was common from ’90s bands impersonating Nirvana.

To call the gloom “depressing” wouldn’t be right, though. His bad never feels that bad; his good never feels that good; his brags and complaints are voiced with the same crassness and lack of specificity. With muffled bounce and bleary horns, “Saint-Tropez” conjures a vacation experienced through dirty taxi windows. One charming couplet: “Versace boxers on my dick / Bud Light runnin’ through my piss.” The mention of a piss-water brand at all demonstrates Malone’s bro appeal, as does him referring to the star of Fight Club as “Bradley Pitt.” A newspaper columnist might see his identity shtick—grimy, male, white, angsty without being oppressed—as working-class authenticity. At least that impression is exactly what the social-media managers at Bud Light, a sponsor of Malone’s, are banking on.

Helping to distinguish one song from another are Malone’s guest musicians, many of whom embody the burned-out, genre-agnostic, arrogant-and-pained cultural mood Malone is profiting from—but with more personality. Arguably his best single, “Sunflower” uses the national resource that is Swae Lee’s voice to levitate the listener a few feet off the ground. Over the prickling stringlike sounds of “Enemies,” the irrepressible newcomer DaBaby raps in such a way that reminds the listener what it means to be present. On “Die for Me,” Future gasps like he’s stubbed his toe, and Halsey makes a sad-brag better than any of Malone’s: “I sold 15 million copies of a breakup note.”

On their own albums, each of those featured players has produced songs worth obsessing over, with complications and pathos and narrative detail. Malone doesn’t have those. Depths do not reveal themselves upon close listen; he is not an oaf with a heart of gold. “Internet” uses orchestral bombast to denounce social media without Malone speaking to his own superficiality. “Die for Me” blasts someone who wouldn’t sacrifice herself for him without acknowledging that might have been a screwed-up expectation. Toxic is an overused term lately, but the callousness and neediness underlying these songs really may deserve it. Best to enjoy from a zonked-out distance. Best to regard Malone’s choicest songs with the same attitude he voices about that woman who sorta recognizes him from TV: “I really like you, despite who you are.”