Post Malone’s first three albums were a careful juggling act. 2016’s Stoney, 2018’s Beerbongs and Bentleys, and 2019’s Hollywood’s Bleeding brought catchy melodies and a country-rock wail to production that gave the first album’s “Congratulations” and the second album’s “Psycho” legs on hip-hop radio while appealing to enough pop and rock fans to coast on Top 40 stations. This worked better than anyone could’ve imagined. Our patron saint of pilsners blessed us with paeans to partying through our sadness (and our happiness), serving the kind of relatable drinking anthems that get Bud Light to sponsor a dive-bar tour where you could catch Posty cracking a bottle in the middle of an emotive guitar solo and crooning through the next chorus with a beer in the air like a mirror image of his audience. He’s successful not because we have any illusions about him being just like us; his father worked for the Dallas Cowboys. There are people who think Post Malone is a rich kid doing hip-hop cosplay. His meteoric rise sparked accusations that he was using rap as a stepping-stone to mainstream notoriety. Showing up to the video for his 2015 breakout hit “White Iverson” with gold teeth and cornrows didn’t help. But the voice — the way mainstream musical genres collapse into a median sound as notes fall from Post’s mouth — is undeniable. The yearning, bleating tone in the Stoney highlight “I Fall Apart,” the disaffected delivery in the gilded Beerbongs hit “Rockstar,” and the patient ascent from tired low notes to lilting and lovely ones in the reassuring Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack gem “Sunflower” are the keys to the kingdom.
Post’s fourth album, Twelve Carat Toothache, tries to escape the formulas undergirding his earlier works and the pressures of being the life of the party. Like Stoney and Hollywood’s Bleeding before it, Toothache opens with a dark acoustic tune about the pitfalls of drinking. “Reputation” bristles at the singer’s public image as it worries about the long-term effects of nights whiled away on blunts and beer pong: “Take my own life just to save yours / I got a reputation that I can’t deny / You’re the superstar, entertain us.” After that, Toothache deploys most of its radio fare in a six-song stretch that feels like Post is settling up business. “Cooped Up,” with Compton star Roddy Ricch, toasts to reconnecting with friends over cold ones. In “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Post ponders drunk-dialing an ex over a pop-rock track that recalls the prior album’s “Staring at the Sun.” “I Like You (A Happier Song)” is a bubbly Doja Cat collab destined to dominate rhythmic-radio playlists; “I Cannot Be (A Sadder Song)” brings Gunna along for a breakup song that bookends the joy of the Doja collab with a wounded ex-boyfriend energy that bleeds into the next track, the snide “Insane.” Post makes this kind of music feel effortless. The smirking, slurring “Insane” is spontaneous and giddy, a reminder that the genesis of this batch of songs was a series of psilocybin trips taken during a Malibu retreat. The video, in which the singer trots around a pool with a cigarette, feels like a rejection of the elaborate wardrobe, set, and shot design of his other recent clips.
There’s a tension between this album’s overt pop moves and the songs where the artist pokes at the constraints of the music and antics he’s known for; after “Insane,” Toothache runs as far from a conventional hit as it can get, dropping the massive Weeknd collaboration “One Right Now” near the end but foregrounding ambitious folk, rock, and choral songs in lieu of easily digestible rap and pop fan service along the way. Was there tension on the business end? In January, Post’s manager blamed Republic for delaying new music. Talking to Billboard, the star seemed uninterested in the math: “I’ve made a lot of compromises, especially musically, but now I don’t feel like I want to anymore. I don’t need a No. 1.” Toothache won’t see the tremendous first-week sales the previous two albums did; there’s not as much promotion happening. Is Post keeping a lower profile, or is he rewiring his creative processes? The gear shift is abrupt. Like losing the signal of a local metropolitan Top 40 radio station on a trip out of the city, the vocals get gruff, and the feels get sadder, and the beats drop out, and the rappers disappear.
Halfway through the album, “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol” picks up where “Reputation” and the downcast folk-pop song “Lemon Tree” left off, as he laments feeling pigeonholed by the success of songs about pain and coping by using alcohol. As Post questions his commitment to an image it hurts to uphold, Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold fills out the stormy track with harmonies that cascade through the mix like showers accompanying a thunderstorm. (Pecknold met Post some years ago and tucked away a melody with his new friend’s name on it in the event the superstar should ever ask for a feature. Post Malone gets along with a bigger crowd of musicians than we think.) “Wasting Angels” luxuriates over fluttering keys, choir vocals, and a euphoric spot from the Kid Laroi, the Australian Lil Bibby and Juice WRLD associate, synthesizing pop, rock, and hip-hop so neatly that Justin Bieber, weather vane of next big things, made sure to be riding shotgun on his next No. 1 hit. (The clean voice in “Wrapped Around Your Finger” seems indebted to Bieber; one wonders if working on Stoney and having Post open the North American leg of the Purpose tour inspired the R&B-trap pivot of Justin’s Changes.) Suddenly, Toothache stops pitching prospective hits and starts building showcases for Post’s instrument, songs where the voice carries most of the melody. They aren’t all winners — “Euthanasia” feels slight, not minimal — but whenever Post Malone gets ahold of your heartstrings, you’re finished. From “Wasting Angels” to “Waiting for a Miracle,” you begin to see how the kid with the mean Bob Dylan impression and the cloud-rap sensation of his August 26th mixtape and the pop maximalist of “Sunflower” can be the same guy. The through-line is the raw, gorgeous chorus.
Stripping the songs down reveals an impressive range in Post Malone’s voice. The singer who can affect a flawless Fetty Wap warble in “Cooped Up,” and whose strained rock shouts in “Reputation” relay a love of ’90s grunge that also shows face in his note-perfect covers of Nirvana classics, seems to want to be a rocker, a country crooner, and a rapper as a song demands — to pass freely between these genres instead of always trying to be a point where they converge. On the surface, that may make Toothache a less immediate pleasure than Hollywood’s Bleeding, but you could already tell the guy was getting restless on that one. Post spoke about Los Angeles the way Mac Miller did after Faces, the way the Weeknd did on After Hours, highlighting the grit beneath the Hollywood glamour. He’s been living on a compound in Utah ever since. (The Malibu retreat is something of a tacit acknowledgment that Post’s quiet place may be a little too quiet, or at least not as conducive to the business of making diamond-selling warm-weather bops as balmy beachside Zip Codes have been for him.) He’s had some time to step back and rethink the way he presents himself. Toothache is an album half full of songs where Post Malone meets the biggest pop and rap stars on their level — playing the sturdy hook man anchoring Doja Cat’s lyrical gymnastics and making a convincing argument for himself as an antecedent to the Kid Laroi’s punk-pop vocal style — and half full of thoughtful deconstructions of the artist’s own trademark sound and image. Moody, meta moments and admissions of feeling trapped in his public persona mean less space for Post and co-producer Louis Bell to serve infectious trap bangers in the spirit of Beerbongs’s “Candy Paint” or Hollywood’s Bleeding’s “Saint-Tropez.” Toothache would rather try out the minimalism and asceticism of Ye’s Donda (on which Bell was a vocal editor).
Amid the hospital-room tranquility of “Euthanasia” and “Waiting for a Miracle,” Post ponders physical death while carrying out the figurative death of the old reckless version of himself. Post Malone sings about paradoxes and contradictions — about how easy it is to get your feelings hurt when you really care about someone and how coming into a lot of money doesn’t solve all of your problems — but the greatest of these is his own career. He’s about to have his first child. He’s doing Disney theme songs and collaborating with Wizards of the Coast and the Pokémon Company. He wants to settle down, to make more challenging art. Twelve Carat Toothache dreams of a future where Post Malone writes fewer songs like “Taking Shots” and “Zack and Codeine” and more like “Stay” and “I Fall Apart,” where he can discuss what’s on his mind instead of what may be coursing through his bloodstream and make a noble go of redrawing his boundaries. Will it cost him fans? Does he care?
Correction: A previous version of this review noted that “White Iverson” came out in 2014. It was actually 2015.