Several days back, 21 Savage posted an open letter on Twitter rebutting the criticism he and other young rappers have faced from older generations of fans and musicians for making “drug user music.” In the same bleak, plainspoken tone that has come to characterize his music, he found himself making the argument hip-hop has always had to make— “Our music is a reflection of what’s going on in our community.” From musical form, to content, to the way it bends grammar, hip-hop refuses to play by the rules— even the ones it has helped build up and enforce over time. As a result, it will always be challenged. For not being musical enough. For not being unique. For not being beautiful…

How fateful that at the exact moment 21 Savage finds himself playing the role of hip-hop apologist, he also finds himself paired with Post Malone, hip-hop’s latest detractor, the two of them approaching a month at Billboard’s number-one spot for making, yes, a hip-hop song (despite it's rock aspirations title).

In a recent interview with Polish media outlet NewOnce, Post Malone was recorded saying, “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” He has since posted a video elaborating on his position, apologizing to anyone who may have been offended. He’d had a few beers, after all. He meant, for him, personally, music like Bob Dylan is more moving than any hip-hop album. And in that same interview he did acknowledge that some rappers are speaking “real shit.” So, all good, right?

Well, no. Post Malone may have jumbled the words, but he betrayed a problematic (though unsurprising) stance on the genre that has brought him so much fame. He revealed exactly what a close reading of his music has always told us, that for him hip-hop isn’t a serious musical form. Post Malone treats it as an opportunity to indulge in celebrity dreams and empty reveries. This isn’t new. Artists like Rick Ross and, most recently, Playboi Carti, have used the medium as a way to bring listeners style rather than narrative, lifestyle rap as opposed to life rap. Except, even for them there is still the pretense of authenticity, of their music reflecting or becoming reality, and the results are pretty damn good (not only because they avoid insulting the genre).

If we take a look at some of Post Malone’s biggest songs to date, like “Rockstar” and “White Iverson,” the opinions he expressed in that interview really don’t seem that shocking. He’s been engaging with hip-hop like it’s cheap and empty from the beginning; grazing past topics at a surface-level while ensuring the background sounds are palatable for all, never getting too deep or too close to any particular subject matter, whether it be controversial or common. It seems he wasn’t wrong about what he said, then, because that’s actually how he perceives it. 

The really nauseating thing about Post Malone’s number-one hit, “Rockstar,” is just how superficially imitative it is. “I’ve been fuckin’ hoes and poppin pillies/ Man, I feel just like a rockstar” presents a caricature of said rockstar with lyricism that is beyond derivative. At least someone like Lil Pump is considerate enough to tell us what kind of pills he’s taking, or a more skilled misogynist might detail some of the activities he and that hoe got up to (as 21 Savage does on his verse). It’s a ripoff of every trope in trap music. ‘Impressionistic’ comes to mind, but Post Malone’s bars lack any of the vibrancy and movement that that word suggests. “Cocaine on the table” and “liquor pourin’” are static, stock images. 

“You don’t really need to talk about nothing,” Malone said in his broad description of the genre. Rather, it's just Malone who doesn’t need to talk about anything; his judgement is simply an acknowledgement of that. Watch the interview and you’ll see he doesn’t insult anyone in particular, or denigrate hip-hop to elevate his own music. Instead, he’s knowingly implicating himself in that blanket judgement. What’s scarier, though, is to ask what else might be implicated.

If we consider that someone like Post Malone, who feels hip-hop is just about fun, managed to score a number-one single off of the year’s stupidest song, then something is seriously fucked. I’d like to say it’s about melody, that his dorky vibrato burrows into your head. Except the singing isn’t that great. Is it the chance to play pretend? The way “White Iverson” was basically a ten-year-old’s dream of superstardom put to music— “I’m ballin, I’m ballin,” Post Malone rapped, and suddenly it felt like you, too, could be ballin’. If rap is about bringing you the immediacy of a narrator’s experience, maybe it has always been vulnerable to Post Malone-types. With “Rockstar” and “White Iverson,” the daydreaming and empathy are already broken down and prepackaged as easily digestible tropes and popular beats, a kind of one size fits all approach to hip-hop.

Post Malone-types always rise to the top. And now I look at 21 Savage, considering whether he is implicated as well. Is he an accomplice or a final line of defense? “Rockstar” pairs one of the realest voices in the game with its biggest pretender. It’s tempting to say that he legitimized Post Malone’s lyrics by accepting that feature, but Savage offers a refreshing (and necessary) counterpoint. Just as Post Malone plays the rockstar, 21 Savage plays the “popstar,” and I’m glad for it. Because it says I can stay optimistic. That through all the rockstars who will step in and out of hip-hop for the fun of it, there are voices that will never leave— voices to deliver meaning and real shit.