On ‘Twelve Carat Toothache,’ Malone continues to conflate a superficial darkness with depth.
One of Sports Illustrated’s most memorable covers, at least from this century, is from the April 23, 2001 edition. That’s the one where Allen Iverson, who was about to win league MVP and drag the otherwise middling Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA finals, poses shirtless with his arms crossed in front of him, holding bouquets of wilting flowers and baring most of his 21 tattoos. I know he has 21 tattoos because the cover story, by the reclusive writer Gary Smith, takes great pains to get an accurate count. Those tattoos, which are referenced four times, join his hair and his rap music, “his untied boots, his floor-sweeping jeans, his untucked T-shirt and double-sized leather jacket” in painting a portrait of a man who, the magazine seems to believe, can only be made relatable through painful and painstaking backstory. You can practically hear “cornrows” (‘That’s one word’) being added to the SI style guide.
A decade and a half later, in 2015, Austin Post, who was born in Syracuse but grew up in a Dallas suburb, bubbled up online with “White Iverson,” a song of weightless synthetic air in step with what was dominating Soundcloud at the time, and would soon osmose its way into all of pop music. It felt briefly like a curiosity, but soon graduated to obvious star presagement. See its video, where Post, nearly alone in the desert with a rented Rolls Royce that’s white like him, bares his removable gold teeth and runs his hands over the cornrows that he says inspired him to write the song in the first place.
At the risk of making too much of a basically de rigueur simile—rappers likening themselves to ballplayers is nothing new—there is something sort of asinine about a white artist comparing himself to Allen Iverson. “White Iverson” is, after all, a contradiction in terms: the real Iverson’s public life has been defined by white America’s scoffing at and pathologizing his demeanor, his family, his skin and what he does with it. Blackness is inextricable from Iverson’s public persona; there is no equal opposite, merely the absence of that scrutiny. This was put in sharper relief two years later when Post, by that point one of the biggest recording artists in the world, said, “If you're looking for lyrics—if you're looking to cry, if you're looking to think about life—don't listen to hip-hop.” Instead, Malone recommended Bob Dylan.
His crime was not duplicity, but shallowness.
The comments were understandably controversial, though what was overstated at the time was the degree to which Post had used hip-hop as a Trojan horse, slipping into the mainstream in a popular vehicle only to deploy his truer, whiter tastes from the inside. The truth is that he had long bounced between genres and styles, engaging each on a surface level before skipping to the next. He’d been a hardcore kid, he’d made odd parody songs, he’d covered Dylan. Shortly after “Iverson” took off, he told the Fader, “I'm an American badass. At 40 years old, I'm gonna be a country singer.” His crime was not duplicity, but shallowness. This failing has never been so clear as on his new album, Twelve Carat Toothache, whose songs are nominally soul-baring but in fact play like little formal exercises, their supposed sadness so transparently cultivated as to be nearly unbelievable.
It didn’t have to be this way. Though he’s never been a consistently engaging writer or a particularly interesting stylist (the three albums that precede this one are, a sharp single here and there aside, the ground pulp of whatever was happening on pop radio at the time of their release), he has occasionally been funny in a self-effacing way. His second album opens with a song where Post says he “can’t trust a soul like I’m Snowden,” the implication being that the NDAs you have to sign to fuck him in his Coachella trailer are as crucial as sensitive NSA data. That’s funny! It’s important to note that this album was called beerbongs & bentleys, and that its cover is crisscrossed by barbed wire, as if the CD itself is the bicep of a particularly unimaginative man from the early 2000s. It was easy to read this as a conscious lowering of stakes, a reappropriation of low-culture favorites from the turn of the century for whom questions of good taste and authenticity were not only beside the point, but antithetical to the whole project. But this, too, was abandoned by Post. The song with the Snowden line is followed shortly by one called “Rich & Sad,” which is more or less the entire emotional spectrum he has to work with.
Twelve Carat Toothache is so self-consciously mopey a record that even the exceptions to this rule are flagged as such: “I Like You,” its perfectly enjoyable Doja Cat duet, is subtitled “(A Happier Song)” and qualified by the Gunna-assisted “I Cannot Be (A Sadder Song).” The dirgelike “Euthanasia” has all the parodic self-seriousness of those ridiculously downbeat covers of pop songs used in movie trailers. And “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol,” which pairs Post with Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes, is so obvious, musically and emotionally, that it’s insulting to hear delivered in such a prestige-baiting, “dark” manner. Whether this is the long hangover from Drake’s early work or something else, Post continues to conflate a superficial darkness with depth, to the point where a song like the B-side’s astonishingly treacly “Waiting For A Miracle” — better suited to a humane society PSA than a blockbuster record — is treated as an honest-to-god spiritual climax.
A brief note on taxonomy: It’s strange that Post has so often been referred to as a rapper. It’s true that there are plenty of times when his verses skew close to the more melodic strains of contemporary rap, but even at his most percussive, there is more loft in his voice than in Future’s, or Juice WRLD’s, or Roddy Ricch’s. His songs are shot through with melody — he’s a singer and always has been. And still, Twelve Carat Toothache is unique in his catalog for the way it stakes itself on Post’s voice. It opens with “Reputation,” one of the many songs to deploy a warbly vibrato. Post’s singing is neither good nor idiosyncratic enough to carry a song in this way; it becomes, like so much of his work, simply passable, an acceptable pattern of wallpaper, the suggestion of mood without the genuine article.