Like a lot of artists, Post Malone hasn’t forgotten those who believed he’d never make it. Wednesday night, he was remembering high-school naysayers who used to “talk s— behind my back and put me down and say we’d never f—ing play the f—ing Hollywood f—ing Bowl!” Coincidentally, perhaps, that happened to be the very venue where he was delivering this aside. He lit up a smoke as he went on about the haters, who also used to “say we’d never have a f—ing sold-out nationwide tour across the country and have the No. 1 f—ing song and the No. 1 f—ing album in the world!” Schoolyard taunts, it seems, can get very, very specific.
Post Malone has accomplished all the things contained in these real or apocryphal prophecies, and then some. If anything, he might have been being modest, neglecting to mention on top of everything else that he might actually be the biggest pop star of 2018. At least there are a few metrics that point that way: the biggest-streaming out-of-the-box album ever, the most songs ever in the top 20 at one time, etc. Naturally, there are scolds to remind him of his bullied days. He’s no favorite of critics, hip-hop elitists or over-30s, many of whom struggle to understand his phenomenal appeal and would consider even his ability to sell out two nights at the Bowl as an affront. That’s something you work up to over years and a hard-fought career, right? Not an instantaneous reward a white rapper with a man-bun and a mere two albums — both trading on an attitude that might be described as aspirational slackerdom.
But anyone grasping to comprehend his charisma, and who still isn’t getting it from becoming the 1.1-billionth person to stream “Rockstar” on Spotify, might have benefited from a trip to the Bowl. “I’m too f—in’ fat for this,” he announced at one point, making sure we don’t think it’s only his head that’s gotten too big. For His exceptionalism is in his regular-guy-ness, which even his detractors might find hard to hate in person. Even though he’s not immune to the braggadocio of his chosen genre, as the aforementioned quotes would indicate, he also has a big-as-his-native-Texan friendliness that offsets any arrogance. For every F-bomb, there was a corresponding “Thank you so much, ladies and gentlemen.” (Well, okay, maybe one of those for every six or seven F-bombs.) He more than meets the presidential standard of the guy most of us would like to have a beer with… or to share a beer bong in a Bentley with, as his latest album title suggests.
There was a lot of intra-celebrity sharing going on on stage Wednesday, as Post Malone welcomed a raft of guest stars to the stage, all from the hip-hop world. One of those pairings has been a nightly custom on this tour, which comes to a close with Thursday’s second night at the Bowl: He is joined for “Rockstar,” of course, by 21 Savage, who was featured on the single and was selected to open the tour. Other pairings were unique to Los Angeles, making the show run about 15 minutes longer than his usual performance (but still well under an hour and a half).
YG reprised his appearance on the studio version of “Same Bitches”; Rae Stremmurd’s Swae Lee did the same with “Spoil My Night,” then performed his own “Powerglide”; Miguel came out to sing “Sky Walker”; Tyga popped up to do “Taste”; and then Quavo joined the host for the concluding “Congratulations.” It was like a mega/rap version of one of Taylor Swift’s “You won’t believe who else we have backstage” nights, but with some interesting additional dynamics. Post Malone interacted with his co-stars like the guy who’s still enormously flattered to be the white dude admitted to the African-American fraternity, but unlike the relatively few other current stars who’ve been afforded that honor — think Justin Bieber — he never seems like he’s trying to carry off any cross-racial affectations. He has a very high comfort level with who he was and is, and that’s as winning to the crowd as it is to his hip-hop star pals.
But does Post Malone really belong to the same genre as the rest of them? The question has to do not with his being white, but the fact that this so-called rapper doesn’t actually rap a lick. Like a lot of current R&B singers — and a lot of modern country singers, come to think of it — he sings, often but not always, in the rhythms and cadences of a rapper, without ever actually going spoken-word on us. Yet the “rap” tag sticks for what Post Malone does, or doesn’t do. In any case, it’s a particularly emo brand of urban balladry he specializes in. Naturally, it only took one smash album for him to write a second smash album about all the pluses and pitfalls that came with having that initial success. It’d be hard to argue that Post Malone is finding any particularly unique insight into these familiar woe-is-me-and-my-riches themes, but there is a nice, sad dreaminess to the material that filters even to the songs that seem like they’re supposed to be strictly celebratory. It’s about as wistful and hummable as this kind of music gets, at least until his far more aggro guest rappers show up.
For all of his fidelity to the hip-hop world right now, it’s easy to imagine him changing lanes at future points in his career, the way that Kid Rock has, to name someone with similar inter-genre inclinations, if a less likeable persona than Post Malone’s. He hasn’t made a secret of the fact that he has an old-school singer/songwriter side, and late in the set, an actual instrument made an appearance on stage for the first time, in the form of an acoustic guitar. Post Malone turned off the tracks and sat down to play it on “Feeling Whitney” and “Stay,” the latter of which indicates that he could develop a pretty good career at being the working man’s John Mayer, if he wanted to go all sensitive someday.
In the penultimate number, “Rockstar,” instruments finally appeared, but for an ill-fated purpose. The song is an ode to conspicuous destruction… or, as he said Wednesday, “about checking into a hotel room and breaking everything in sight.” At the conclusion of the tune, guitars were brought out by roadies and handed to Post Malone and his collaborator, 21 Savage… not to play, of course, but to smash. If only Pete Townshend could have foreseen that there would come a day when guitars are manufactured for the sole purpose of being destroyed by rappers reenacting an ancient trope. Most rockists would cry at the thought, but laughing seems like a better alternative when it involves Post Malone’s fairly genial ethos.
There wasn’t much laughter to be found during 21 Savage’s dour opening set, which focused largely on threats of violence without much redeeming social context or wit or even palpable menace. 21 Savage seems unsure whether to concentrate on hokey stalker-movie shtick or real street and domestic violence, but even as he combined the two, there was a slackness to his performing style that suggested nothing so much as a Jason or Freddie all worn down by the 15th sequel. The repeated references to codeine suggested that maybe the sense of lethargy is part of the act, but it’s still never a good look to have your overtaxed wing-man doing 95 percent of the crowd-rousing work.