"Stoney" is the world-weary, long-awaited debut album from the guy who brought us "White Iverson." Is he still balling hard, or does he stumble on his rush to score big?
To summarize the career of Post Malone rather lazily, it goes a little something like this; a young man, Austin Richard Post spends his teen years in an area outside of Dallas, learning Fruity Loops and guitar, infatuated with rap, rock, country and other forms of music. He eventually comes to the attention of the FKi production team and releases “White Iverson” to rapturous response. He collaborates with Kanye West, opens for Justin Bieber, drops a mixtape while his management makes claims that he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a rapper, and now, releases his debut album Stoney.
This is a career arc that on record has a lot of people suspicious, in a day and age where words like “Industry Plant” get thrown around any time success comes so readily. Leaked footage of a younger Post in his early attempts at being a traditional singer-songwriter earnestly doing Dylan covers in his garage, or playing around doing Minecraft parody songs didn't necessarily help matters. So at the end of the day, with all this hype and noise surrounding it, is Stoney going to be the album that silences the hate, or is it strong enough to hold up against the criticism?
Stoney isn't an easy ride by any stretch of the imagination. Doubters or haters will be thrown by the fact that a guy like Post Malone has little or nothing to do with so-called white rappers from days before, and represents a real potential shift for rap in general. For rappers like Yelawolf or Eminem, so much of their career was (and remains) built on the notion of constantly proving skill. Their obsession with technique can be so extreme, that their virtuosity could occasionally be held against them as overcompensation due to their "outsider" status. You don’t hear a lot of strain for rapping skill or technique here, as Post Malone is not ‘nice with the bars’ or ‘flow’ in any overt or dashing way. Beyond his melodic instincts, his vocal skills are pretty laconic, and in that way he echoes fellow Texan Paul Wall in making such a casual air essential to what makes him attractive to listeners. There’s a casual southern comfort in the way that Malone works, where he soothes and glides more than he bombards and races.
The most challenging aspect here is that there really is no easy connectivity between rapping and what goes on on this album. While it makes sense that a Texas-born artist who's gone out of his way to profess an invested interest and fandom of folk and country, would try to make his album reflect it, there are way too many signifiers to Arena Rock over common rap ones, or even Texas-centric ones (ya couldn't shoehorn a bad chopped & screwed section in here my guy? Even my fellow New Yorkers do that nowadays), at least on a sonic level. Yes, rappers of all genres and boundaries have taken to sampling booming rock drums and guitars for decades now, but only a handful have seemingly written songs that are clearly designed as lighter-waving anthems. Let's be frank; if you didn't hear any of the digital snare rolls or allusions to shining on a song like “Go Flex,” you'd assume it was the new Lumineers single; which is both a compliment and a slight. And it's places like here that only help stoke the critics who are cynical in gauging the authenticity of somebody like Post Malone.
To say that this is altogether uncharted territory would be an exaggeration; Kid Rock and Everlast were artists who also recognized the difficulties in trying to play with rock structures and rap elements in a way that defies characterization (heck, “Whitey Ford Sings The Blues” IS in many ways the proto-type of a record like Stoney). Perhaps, however, if Malone's growth and participation in rap was much more traceable over a period longer than the last two years, the anxieties of those who considered him inauthentic would have something to console themselves with. After all, your Kid Rock and Everlast types usually had a few years of fairly typical rap efforts before taking these hard lefts.
The place where that mixture of genres is handled the most successfully is on the album's production, which is frankly wonderful. As rap's evolution in the past few years has seen it move far away from sampling into a pure programmed/sequenced style of beatmaking, a lot of other genres have toyed with these innovations to greater or lesser results. By working with experts such as Illangelo, DJ Mustard, Fki, Pharrell Williams and others, Post Malone manages to straddle genre lines with ease. The album opener “Broken Whiskey Glass” has a Lil Wayne gone spaghetti western feel, while the Gigi Masin-sampling “Big Lie” feels like a throwback to vintage post-hyphy/'cloud rap'. Meanwhile, the Justin Bieber-supported “Deja Vu” starts off like a kitschy attempt at echoing “Hotline Bling”, before hijacking Drake's Caribbean cruise soundtrack to crash-strand itself on the shores of “Margaritaville” territory, and despite all odds, remain enjoyable. However, that sea saw is a delicate balance to stay atop of, and right now Post Malone has yet to perfect the craft. On certain songs like “Patient” and “No Option,” you could easily slot them next to any soundcloud rapper whose bio lists "For fans of: Drake, The Weeknd, Partynextdoor, Tory Lanez." But easily the other opposite extreme is the magnanimous “I Fall Apart,” which, for its pronounced guitar rock feel and backing choirs are dangerously close to just going full “November Rain”-pomposity.
If there's any definitive flaw in the album, it's the fact that there's little to nothing except angst all over it. The explorations of relationships are simplistic at best, and Post Malone isn't really interested in providing anyone with details in the middle of his songs. As much as he's a songwriter-driven rapper, Post's biggest crutch might actually be rap cliches. Lean, weed, pills, chains, ex-girls, new girls... Their invocations are run through with little to no emphasis. The guy doesn't even have the decency to give them similes and be the world's first guitar-playing punchline rapper (which, as far as I'm aware, would actually be a unique lane to carve out at the moment). In a way, the problem is for how simple the sentiments Malone ever manages to actually express, those lush sonics provide a depth he himself isn't capable of expressing. Were you to pare away the theatrical enhancement of the studio and strip down Post Malone to simply Austin Post, and his songs at the barest bones, I can't see much of this being nearly as effective. Though certainly a clever chameleon, the underdeveloped parts of his songwriting suggest that, were he to not able to use hip-hop and all its potential to dress himself, the real songs would be rather underwhelming.
At the end of the day, Stoney is a beguiling way to close out 2016; one of our most anticipated rap albums feels less like a rap album and more like if a modern day Don Henley was really into If You're Reading This It's Too Late. To say the album wasn't without its merits or some kind of massive aberration in the world of hip-hop would be an absolute lie; especially in an age where hip-hop has more of a pop-minded ambition than most other genres of music these days. But given the restlessness and the trepidation to fully commit to rap in a way that could vanquish all doubters, Post Malone is going to need even more than what he brings to the table on Stoney to secure his place. He has the talent, and the platform. Whether or not he'll do so with time is up in the air.