Music

Post Malone Transcends The Algorithm On ‘Twelve Carat Toothache’

Once a pop artist becomes successful — like, Grammy-nominated, Hot 100-dominating big — it’s reasonable to assume that they’ll hit a wall. That crash could look like anything: burnout, writer’s block, depression. Think of it this way: If you’re a high-achieving artist with towering dreams, you’re basically on the roller coaster’s lift hill before the kinetic-energy drop. Lots of creators never make it to the downhill part. But for those that do make it to the free fall, there comes an onslaught of new obligations. You have to do press, perform for all the label heads and fans, tourtourtour, become a fashion icon on the side, firm up a social-media presence if you don’t already have one, talk to random radio DJs in towns you’ ve never heard of. It’s a lot! No wonder after three albums, Post Malone had nothing left to give.

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In 2018, the rapper/singer/songwriter left Los Angeles — where he’d moved at 18 after dropping out of college in Texas — and bought a $3M home in Salt Lake City, Utah. “People wanted me to stay in LA — that’s where the work gets done — but I was fed up,” he told Billboard in early 2022. “There’s always something to do, and someone always wants something from ya — and I didn’t want to go crazy.”

Ironically, Posty hadn’t even hit his career apex yet. That would come with 2019’s Hollywood’s Bleedingwhich housed a chart-topping collab with Swae Lee, “Sunflower” — made ubiquitous thanks to a little movie called Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse — plus further smash hits “Wow,” “Goodbyes,” and “Circles,” a song that became as inescapable as “Sunflower” even without the benefit of a movie soundtrack. Then “Sunflower” was nominated for Record Of The Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2020 Grammys, followed by an Album Of The Year nod for Hollywood’s Bleeding the next year. (Malone has been nominated nine times at the Grammys; he has yet to win any, but it’s still not a bad run for someone less than a decade into their career.)

Even after decamping to the Beehive State, Post Malone remained as prolific as ever, reportedly writing around 50 songs for Hollywood’s Bleedingwhich was siphoned down to a mere 17. The preceding albums, 2018’s beerbongs & bentleys and 2016’s Stoney, each had 18 tracks apiece. Between Post Malone’s glut of material and his promotional engagements (and a global pandemic!), no wonder he didn’t do anything music-wise for two years. The words tattooed under his eyes — “always tired” — became a self-fulfilled prophecy. That’s made even more surprising given Posty’s low-key reputation for being a total workhorse.

To that end, Post Malone’s just-released fourth studio album, Twelve Carat Toothache marks a subtle but vital vibe shift. Sonically, Post sounds as genre-fluid as ever, looping in Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, Gunna, the Kid LAROI, Doja Cat, Roddy Ricch, and the Weeknd for guest spots. There are a handful of Post Malone-core pop-rap cuts like the hazy “Cooped Up” featuring Ricch, “I Like You (“Happier Song)” featuring Doja, and “I Cannot Be” featuring Gunna. But he leans harder into the “diverse” part of “genre-diverse,” flooding Twelve Carat Toothache with energetic dance-pop, moody R&B, and soulful piano ballads. While Post Malone has always led with genre experimentation, he has historically rooted his records in hip-hop beats and aesthetics. Here, the formula has been flipped.

Thematically, Twelve Carat Heartbreak is the most focused Post Malone has ever offered. In the past, he’s either been criticized for not having enough ideas or having too many. His previous albums are overstuffed with filler. Not so here, and that’s by design. In addition to being the shortest album he’s ever done at just 45 minutes, as he told Billboardthe new songs “speak more to how I’m feeling at the moment: the ups and downs and the disarray and the bipolar aspect of being an artist in the mainstream.”

Additionally, for someone frequently accused of being too algorithmic in his genre-shifting, Post Malone all-out rebels against the AI ​​overlords, prioritizing artistry over potential streaming stats. Again, as he tells it to Billboard: “Trying to shove 20 to 25 songs, it doesn’t work. Talking to the label [it’s like]’Oh, if you have less songs, you’re not going to stream as much,’ but the whole thing is that you don’t want to compromise your art and your gut vibe on anything.”

A leaner, more intentional direction sounds great on Post Malone: ​​as promised, he grapples with drinking and celebrity on the vocally ambitious opener “Reputation,” which examines the duality of his wealth and status (while perhaps recalling a classic Nirvana lyric):

Take my own life just to save yours
Drink it all down just to throw it up
Take my own life just to save yours (Just to save yours)
Take my own life just to save yours
I got a reputation that I can’t deny
You’re the superstar, entertain us (Entertain us)

The lightly thudding “Cooped Up” rolls in with an effortless transition and chronicles Posty’s start-and-stop relationship with sobriety and self-betterment: “Yeah, I’m off the Bud Light not the bourbon/ I might chop the roof off the Suburban/ Tried to Bia Nice Guy, John Terzian/ Till I started throwin’ up in your Birkin.” Later, the acoustic-strummed “Lemon” has Posty admitting, “In every film I watch, I’m on the side of the bad guy/ So turn around and show me that I’m better.”

Again and again, in one way or another, Post Malone wonders if he’s really the villain in his own story. If he is the monster, he’s at least a self-aware one. On the mid-tempo synth number “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” he considers the power of a woman who holds him accountable: “Why do I tell myself that I’ll do the best I can?/ I know damn well that you couldn’t ‘t give a damn/ Ten billion cuties that think I’m the man/ But if you come around, I’ll be eating out your hand.”

Later, on the dramatic, cinematic “Love/Hate Letter To Alcohol,” which gets a moving assist from Posty’s favorite singer Robin Pecknold, he confronts the ways booze has enhanced and taken away from his quality of life. “You’re the reason why I got my ass kicked/ But you’re the only way to drown my sadness/ This is my love/hate letter out to alcohol.” Fame gets a similar deconstruction on “Wasting Angels,” which, lyrically, is a mix of clever and cliche — compare “Devil on my back, so I sleep on my chest/ Waitin’ at the gate, how’d they get my address ?” to “This is like a summer flame/ that got away” and “Uh-oh, uh-oh, this life is crazy.”

Despite a smattering of meh lyrical platitudes (“Waiting For A Miracle” is another offender), Twelve Carat Toothache contains the most genuine insight I think we’ve heard from Post Malone. It’s also the most sonically audacious: “When I’m Alone” is a dusky, melancholic dance bop that sounds tailor-made for a Weeknd record (except Post Malone holds his own; it’s not After Hours cutting-room floor material). And speaking of Abel Tesfaye, “One Right Now” sounds perfectly synched next to club-ready tracks like “I Like You (A Happier Song)” featuring Doja Cat and the aforementioned “When I’m Alone.”

Since the beginning of his time in the spotlight, it would not be a stretch to say that despite his mass appeal, Post Malone has had an uphill climb to be taken seriously, between the face tats, rapping as a white guy, liking country AND rap AND emo AND Nirvana (etc), crushing Bud Lights, and the way he came to signify the big, bad algorithm. Whatever your early feelings on Post Malone, you can’t dispute that he’s won — and legitimately grown as an artist. Rap-based amalgamations are par for the course in today’s pop music milieu, and Posty is a huge part of why. Twelve Carat Toothache finds him at a palpable turning point. The human algorithm has officially become self-aware.

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