Monday, September 9, 2019

album review: 'hollywood's bleeding' by post malone

It's weird thinking about how my opinions have evolved on Post Malone over the past four years. Through 2015 and 2016 I couldn't stand him on the back of a badly produced, slapdash debut called Stoney that to this day features some of my least favourite songs of the decade. Then 2017 happened and despite some of the asinine public remarks from him on hip-hop culture, we got 'Candy Paint', which when included onto his sophomore album beerbongs & bentleys wound up being one of my favourite songs of the following year. Then I wound up seeing him live at a festival in 2018... and then seeing him live again in 2019. 

And the strange thing is that many of my lingering issues hadn't faded - I still couldn't stand his warble, his lyrics could stray into ugly or outright stupid territory, his choice in guest stars was questionable - and it was always a crapshoot if they bothered to care - and it was hard to shake the feeling he was leveraging hip-hop culture for crossover success while never quite fitting as well as he should. And yet as the production brought thicker atmosphere to cushion his vocals, as he picked rougher and more organic grooves behind him to lean into a pop-trap sound that increasingly flattered him, and worked to crank up his live presence with surprisingly raw intensity, he stuck around and picked up more fame and hype with every release. And while I'm not going to say he won me over at any point... I was genuinely curious how Hollywood's Bleeding would turn out. The guest stars certainly seemed intriguing and lead-off singles like 'Wow.' and 'Goodbyes' had promise - as well including 'Sunflower' on the project, a song that I've never loved but also have never gotten tired of the entire year - so fine, how is Hollywood's Bleeding?

So I'm going to say something that might seem contradictory: Hollywood's Bleeding is Post Malone's best album to date... but it's also by far his safest and it's going to get dinged by a lot of folks in that regard, especially given that it doesn't have the most stark emotional high points that captivated audiences from his last few albums, quality notwithstanding. What I can say definitively is that if Post Malone doesn't vary or shake up the formula on later projects, he could be in real trouble, but for the first time in his career, I actually can see where he might be able to stick the landing if he pivots well.

And the strange thing is that Post Malone seems to have dialed into a formula that feels significantly more consistent than on his first two projects, and the majority of that comes through on production. Going back to Stoney and even some of the worst moments on beerbongs & bentleys, Post Malone has a powerful and distinctive voice - for better or worse, as that warble he does still hasn't grown on me - but when the rawness from live performances doesn't translate on record, you ideally want to cushion his tones, especially his upper register crooning and falsetto in enough reverb, autotune and a cavernous mix to give him presence. On previous albums when he didn't get that production, the trap grooves sounded really cheap and underproduced, and while there's a part of me that still thinks organic percussion would be a more natural fit against the guitar tones Post Malone likes, electric and acoustic, if you throw in more of that humid, sweltering mix, it can blend together the roughness while still working to prioritize a melody or groove. That's not saying that's the only formula that works here - 'Wow.' has a spare rumbling clatter against its bassy knock that's not quite as swampy and I still like that - and I'd be remiss to mention that this isn't that far removed from what Travis Scott has been doing since Astroworld, but Post Malone is pulling from a different subset of melodic influences that does set him apart. This is also, by the way, one of the biggest factors that sets Post Malone apart from imitators like Juice WRLD, as despite a fondness for similar eras of rock, Post Malone eschews the more embarrassing mid-2000s pop-emo caterwauling for a slightly older and heavier tradition of rock. Hell, parts of the melody line from 'Allergic' aren't far removed from vintage 50s and 60s rock, as are the oddly retro-sounding grooves of 'A Thousand Bad Times' and 'Myself', and that's not to touch on the heavier Ozzy Osborne collaboration on 'Take What You Want', which at first made about as much sense as when Ozzy did that Peter Gabriel cover with Coal Chamber, but with slightly more organic percussion and that guitar solo somehow managed to stick the landing! Hell, at its best, while Post Malone seemed to have pretensions of being a 'rockstar' before, this is the first album where he's trying to write the tuneful but huge hooks to get there, muscle himself into that pantheon...

Which might work better if he actually chose to work with more rock acts instead of hip-hop artists who sound increasingly out of place on this album. Yeah, let's not mince words, with the exception of SZA on 'Staring At The Sun' - a song that feels like a better produced copy of 'Sunflower', which directly follows this song and prompts a questionable comparison - most of the guest stars can't make Post Malone's sound work for them at all, or they show a compromise that flatters nobody. 'Enemies' is the first example with the more spare watery plucks to support the spare trap beat for DaBaby - where nobody really impresses, let's be honest - but the real faceplant comes with Meek Mill with 'On The Road', who just can't ride the groove whatsoever and sounds flat out embarrassing with that flow. Then there's Future on 'Die For Me', a miserable slice of self-loathing he should be able to easily nail if he didn't make the asinine decision to hop into his weedy upper register again; I'm a little surprised to say it, but Halsey's verse effectively steals the entire song - she proved with Juice WRLD on the 'Without Me' remix she can handle this material, and with this she confirmed it! And while I'm more underwhelmed by both Young Thug and Travis Scott - the former because his verse on 'Goodbyes' features tonal whiplash that borders on comic, even if the song has grown on me, the latter just feeling disposable - I think the larger problem is that Post Malone can't find many people who are produced to match his presence or level of intensity, only amplified by his embrace of stronger melodies. Now I could say that's revealing - how Post Malone's set of influences in trap aren't really tied to pure hip-hop, and thus rappers sound jarring and out of place in his monogenre world - and while that might be true for some of the most melodic songs, I get the feeling many of the rap features could have stuck the landing if they cared as much as he did, and like with previous Post Malone guest appearances, I'm not sure they did.

Which takes us to the content and songwriting, normally the place where I've torn Post Malone to shreds time and time again - and make no mistake, he's not getting out of this scot-free, but that's more because some of his lines are more embarrassing than outright atrocious or questionable. 'Saint-Tropez' is a prime example with the 'Bradley Pitt' and how he's doing what he wants since 'fetus', and whenever he references a pop rock band like the Jonas Brothers on 'I Know' and Fall Out Boy on 'Wow.' I can't help but roll my eyes. And that's before we get 'On The Road' where he's looking at his plaques while he's taking a shit - congratulations, you all now have the image of Post Malone on the toilet! And for as opulent as 'Internet' is - produced by Kanye West because of course it was - I always find songs bitching about social media to be incredibly underwhelming, and this is no exception. But to Post Malone's credit, while I've always found it a little difficult to fully buy into his angst, I can't deny he's gotten better at expressing it, and it's almost entirely coming through his framing and a little self-awareness. For one, he doesn't nearly come across as bitter as he used to - take the lead-off title track, for as much as there is flexing here in his chase of fame and castigation of Los Angeles' phoniness, he admits he's bought into it, a similar balance that actually makes 'A Thousand Bad Times' kind of click for me, where he almost seems like he's along for the tumult, it's just that disposable. And that embrace of the toxic cycle also clicks on 'Allergic' - where it's clear the drug addiction is getting him more pleasure than anything else here - and to a lesser extent on 'Circles'. Yeah, 'Die For Me' is oversold and honestly reminds me a little too much of the same petulance behind Bruno Mars' 'Grenade', but having Future and Halsey also play roles does dilute the self-absorption, and dialing into the hyperbole of the melodrama on 'Take What You Want' is exactly how to make a song like that work. And these songs are balanced out with tracks that do seem a little more intentionally upbeat and self-assured, from the back-and-forth questions of ego on 'Staring At The Sun' to how he's just trying to catch a vibe amidst his success on 'I'm Gonna Be' and the Josh Tillman-cowritten 'Myself' - yeah, both songs are indulgent and awash in ego, but minus the small-minded pettiness of previous projects, they balance out a bit better.

As such... look, I can't call this deep by any stretch, and Post Malone may have hit the ceiling of how far he can push this specific sound without expanding into more organic production - Louis Bell and Frank Dukes arguably put in some quality work here, but imagine how much more sizzle and promise you could get from Post Malone if, say, he picked up work from rock-leaning producers like Rick Rubin or Jay Joyce, or worked with the more textured trap producers like Zaytoven or reunited with Metro Boomin who kicked off a lot of his sound thanks to 'Congratulations'. And it would be a struggle for me to call this more mature, per se, but it does feel more measured and a shade more wise, with Post Malone dialing into tunes that work for him and a distinctive sound. Again, it is safe, and there's nothing close to a 'Candy Paint' here... but I did wind up liking this, netting a 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you've found Post Malone's worse tendencies before kind of insufferable as I did. Maybe it was just a process of wearing me down, but I would argue he's gotten better too, and when you consider this is a more streamlined package... yeah, what the hell, check it out.

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