Post Malone and Pop’s Single Sound
For a stretch in the mid-to-late 2010s, Post Malone found a way to make every kind of music, all at once. His songs were rooted in the attitude of hip-hop while helping underscore the genre’s sing-rap evolution. He had a penchant for lightly plangent country, and lived in the long shadow of what was once called alternative rock. Every now and then, he dialed up his tempo ever so slightly, turning his wails into bright pop. And his voice, a heavily processed sweet gargle, sounded completely modern, yet also like a deeply imprinted memory.
On his fourth album, “Twelve Carat Toothache,” the 26-year-old musician returns with more sorrowful yodels from the basement of the gilded mansion. Success hasn’t sated him, nor has it challenged him. He remains a calm synthesizer of styles for an era in which old borders matter less than ever. At times, he is relentlessly effective, but just as often, his music has an air of indifferent inevitability — it sounds both like the template for what’s still to come and also the logical endpoint of pop specificity as we once knew it.
What makes Post Malone particular are songs in which ecstasy and misery are indistinguishable: antagonists are saviors, surrender is freedom. “I was born to raise hell/I was born to take pills/I was born to chase mills,” he moans on “Reputation,” never shifting his tone. On “Euthanasia,” he can’t decide what form celebration should take: “Behold! A sober moment/Too short, and far between/I should crack one open to celebrate being clean.”
The real narcotic is Post Malone’s voice, though — it contains unanimity. Whether boasting about stealing someone’s girlfriend (“Insane”), excavating the anxiety associated with hyperfame (“Wasting Angels”) or delivering the odd deeply moving koan (“Everything done for the dead after they’re dead is for the living”), he sounds the same: bereft, lonely, removed.
That consistency goes a long way in the streaming ecosystem, when songs have no incentive to ever come to a conclusion, or resolution. TikTok may reward the choppy and the bristling, but Spotify privileges the tuneful and the atmospheric.
This album’s production leans in to that, even as it includes some of Post Malone’s brightest sounds to date: “Wrapped Around Your Finger” has 1950s sweetness and 1980s syntheticness, and “I Cannot Be (a Sadder Song)” has a bubbly undertow that recalls some of the squeakiest K-pop. “One Right Now,” with the Weeknd, is more zippy dyspepsia.
But even the chirpy moments don’t detract from the album’s tonal consistency — Louis Bell, a longtime collaborator and architect of Post Malone’s sound, is an executive producer on “Twelve Carat Toothache,” and has a production credit on each track. Mostly, he’s conducting a gloomy mood that’s tactile — “Insane” is ominous, “Cooped Up” is lavishly empty, and the production on “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol” sounds like Foley artists recreating storm sounds for a disaster film. It’s ignorable but inescapable music that operates at gut level, not ear level — call it “Ambient 2: Music for AirPods.”
The album’s guest roster captures the potency of this approach as well: Mostly, Post Malone seeks out like-voiced performers who blend singing and rapping — Gunna, the Kid Laroi, Doja Cat, Roddy Ricch. He even recruits Fleet Foxes, who more than a decade ago brought a keening shimmer to roots-friendly indie rock, making music that was epiphanic and smudgy, and a little grating. This gathering of performers feels pointed: a seamless bridge between generations of stars in Post Malone’s image, even as the man himself remains blurry.
Strikingly, though, this tactic is even spilling over to more straightforward pop singer-songwriters, who are finding the audience for crispness narrower than it might once have been.
It’s hovering over “I Used to Think I Could Fly,” the astute and piercing debut album from the 18-year-old Canadian Tate McRae. McRae has found some success on TikTok, mostly as a lightly puckish (or even punky) pop singer in the Olivia Rodrigo vein. Her recent hit “She’s All I Wanna Be” is a taut mix of self-laceration and eye-rolling. And some of the finest moments on this album follow a similar pattern, like “What Would You Do?,” with its sock-hop sass, or the exceptional “What’s Your Problem?,” which renders romantic gut punch with curiously ecstatic production.
But more often, McRae’s sharp vocals are coated in layers of production — the melancholy “Hate Myself” is thick with theatrical reverb, and “Go Away” pulses with a muscular throb. There’s the faintest hint of R&B on “I’m So Gone” and “Don’t Come Back.” And the smeared production and vocal effects on “Chaotic” start somewhere near Billie Eilish but then become something more synthetic, touching on the anodyne joy of Christian pop and Post Malone’s aquatic pain. For good measure, Bell produced a track on McRae’s album, “You’re So Cool,” which echoes some of the more optimistic moments on “Twelve Carat Toothache.”
It is a savvy decision, but also something of a hedge — in an era in which styles are all melting into one, it can seem like the way to stand out is to fit in. But maybe not forever.
“Twelve Carat Toothache”
“I Used to Think I Could Fly”