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Two hours before he’s set to perform at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Post Malone is finishing supper at a T.G.I.Fridays in Manhattan. There’s no scheduled sound check for Post to miss, but the tour bus is parked in New Jersey and so his crew is frantically piling into Ubers to make it to the venue in something resembling a timely fashion. In one car, there’s Kerwin Frost—part of the Spaghetti Boys collective—who recently went viral after dab-bombing Kylie Jenner; Alec, Post’s 25-year-old assistant; and Jordon, Post’s 30-year-old brother. A second car holds Post and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ashlen. The third is packed with Post’s management. In three hours, Justin Bieber will take the stage to perform chart-breaking pop hits from his latest album, Purpose, to the first of two sold out shows in Brooklyn.
After commandeering the Uber’s radio, Kerwin toggles between Nash 94.7, Power 105, and his “favorite artist,” Taylor Swift. Listening to today’s chart-topping country and hip-hop hits on the way to a Post Malone show makes sense. His sound is an unlikely mix of folk, country, and trap ballads. It’s internet-era genre curation, and Post has mastered his particular take on it—so far. His music has been referred to as ‘trap folk,’ which makes Post smile and strikes him as a “cool term.”
On the strength of three songs, he landed a feature on Kanye West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, and got the invite to tour with Bieber. Combine those important co-signs with Post’s peculiar sound and biography—relatively normal white kid, half raised in the tundra that is Syracuse, NY, half in a suburb outside Dallas—and you have a recipe for massive, demo-transcendent appeal. Young white female tween Beliebers lining up outside of Barclays know and like Post’s music; so do the Kardashians, who booked him to perform at Kylie’s birthday last year.
"I do get sick of singing ['White Iverson'] but I’m not tired of it."
A not insignificant part of his success—the part that irks his biggest critics—is the spectacle of a white man with a Texas drawl wearing gold fronts, his hair in braids, dubbing himself the white Allen Iverson, which is exactly what he does on his most successful song, the spacey double platinum anthem “White Iverson.” Unfortunately for those critics, he’s somehow entirely authentic to himself and the post-regional musical hodgepodge made possible by the web. Post is a kid who grew up listening to a variety of musical genres his parents liked, loved playing the deeply nerdy computer game Minecraft, and got way too into Guitar Hero. He grew up on the Internet, where he saw how cool hip-hop looked, and he’s a pleasant and positive enough person that people—artists, writers, fans—enjoy his company. This is how, in about an hour, he’ll be singing “I got me some braids and I got me some hoes” to almost 20,000 screaming Beliebers.
It’s a lot easier for this crowd—like the kids of Calabasas—to feel edgy and cool for liking a white guy whose music and look seems edgy and cool, as compared to, say, A$AP Rocky.
Looking for precedent to Post’s sound, you’d have to go back to G. Love & the Special Sauce, Everlast, Citizen Cope—the white guys who melted blues and funk with hip-hop melodies to find a cult audience of mostly white kids. Two of the three never achieved lasting mainstream success but like Everlast, Post’s ability to take the beats and tone from hip-hop and fuse it with melodies derived from country music might make him more of a mainstay. Like Everlast, he’s trying his hardest to overcome the boundaries of genres—specifically hip-hop, one that’s most difficult to infiltrate inauthentically. But none of those guys toured with one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
Austin Post, as his birth certificate reads, was born in Syracuse, New York on July 4, 1995, and the only story he’s willing to share about his time there involves going to the Sterling Renaissance Festival and trying out archery. The experience inspired him to get a crossbow while on tour. You can see it on the artwork for his mixtape, August 26, and see the damage it’s causing the cellphones of his friends on Instagram.
When Post was 10, he and his family moved down to Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Post tried drugs for the first time there, went to shows, drank his first beer, and got really, really serious about Guitar Hero, the video game that approximates playing real music with plastic approximations of real instruments. This inspired his professional musical career.
His dad put him onto a lot of music growing up—hard rock, country, and rap (Ice-T and Tupac)—but oldies spoke to him the loudest. He did time in a hardcore band during high school and around his 16th birthday, he made his first solo rap mixtape on Audacity. After graduating high school, he did a semester at TCC, then moved to Los Angeles with some friends from home, including Jason Stokes; he wasn’t getting anywhere in Texas, he says.
Stokes, a Minecraft genius and musician, formed BLKCVRD with Post, Los Angeles-based artist Billie Gvtes, and a few other producers. All of their music has since been removed from the internet, as is customary with rising artists looking to break fresh.
A handful of these artists moved into a San Fernando mansion known as the White House, which is where Post linked with the producer FKi 1st Down, one half of Atlanta production duo FKi and the mastermind behind Post’s sound. The story behind his biggest hit is that, while getting his hair braided by FKi’s hairstylist, he suddenly felt “like White Iverson.” At 7 a.m., Post’s frequent collaborator Rex Kudo taught him how to use Logic and together they recorded a take of his now double platinum single. They finalized the song that day, uploaded it to SoundCloud, and soon it went viral. That was in February, 2015.
Two months after the release of “White Iverson,” his second single “Too Young” dropped and in August he signed a deal with Republic Records and performed at Kylie Jenner’s birthday. At the epicenter of American fame—Calabasas—he made his presence in the industry known. Only at the 18th birthday party of the youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner clan could Post meet stars like Kanye West and Jaden Smith, perform alongside Fetty Wap, and get into the good graces of today’s Brat Pack (more Botox, less basic).
As his star was rising, the internet that reared Post double-crossed him. Numerous videos from his past crept online. Some were benign, like acoustic covers with his Minecraft friends and the now-infamous video of his alter ego, Leon DeChino, wearing cut-off denim shorts and singing a song called "Why Don't You Love Me?” But one video confirmed the suspicions of those who claimed he was grossly appropriating black culture. The hip-hop forum KanyeToThe unearthed a since-deleted Vine from Post in which he’s watching Animal Planet and says, "We watch Too Cute, nigga." It was immediately removed, just like those Leon DeChino videos, but this one reverberated farther. He apologized for using the slur on DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz radio show, saying, "It's unacceptable, you know. And I made a mistake...and I wanna apologize…. And I guess that's really it. I can't really say nothin,' you know. It was wrong of me."
The background of “White Iverson,” the story of FKi 1st convincing him to get braids, and the damning Vine provide reason enough to question Post's motives. Of course, as is the case with Bieber’s indiscretions, you can explain it away as young and dumb behavior—but unlike Bieber, Post isn't planning an apology tour just yet. He spent the next ten months laying low; for what it’s worth he was too busy performing across the world and planning the big follow-up—the song and mixtape and debut album that might make people forget about “White Iverson.” And that Vine.
"honestly, if you don’t fuck with me then I don’t care."
There are almost a dozen of Post’s crew and friends gathered in the green room at Barclays before the show. Getting to know Post means getting to know this gang, and they aren’t just star-studded robot squad of well-groomed celebs—it’s a bunch of kids who are hanging out in a green room the size of a unisex bathroom, spilling Skittles into the carpet that’s also serving as an ashtray for Post’s Marlboro Black Menthols. He chain smokes.
Life on the road is taking a toll. FKi is eating from a fruit bowl, trying to determine what Starfruit taste like. It’s comforting for Post to have FKi by his side. “He schooled me to a lot of stuff about the game when I was young,” he says. “Labels and stuff. He taught me about producing tricks and how the industry is.”
Death Grips alternates with She & Him as musical accompaniment to the antics. The chain smoking continues apace and Kerwin makes up songs about dancing in France. This is humor fueled by punchy exhaustion. The jokes wouldn’t be funny outside of a green room that wasn’t choked with cigarette smoke and devoid of natural light.
Post’s 20-minute opening set is the same every night. As the DJ, FKi hypes the crowd with Rihanna and Drake’s “Work” before playing “Fade,” the Kanye West song Post appears on. The stage set-up is simple: FKi mans the turntables at stage center and Post works each side ramp, barely missing a note, all the while smiling and flailing his arms like a crashing plane. He pays tribute to Prince, Bankroll, Yams, and Bowie, before going into “Too Young.”
Ashlen sways in the VIP bleachers to the song “What’s Up,” a catchy SoundCloud loosie with a goofy hook. But it means something dear to her, and she wipes away tears as Post sings.
He dances every so often but it’s clear that just pacing the stage is enough to move the crowd. “I do get sick of singing it but I’m not tired of it,” Post says of “White Iverson.” “You know, I’ll sing it every night as long as people sing along with me.” Later, fans will spend more time screeching and yelling Bieber’s name than singing along to every word of the star’s catalog. Bieber won’t be singing very much, either. His headlining performance will bring in reviews from critics who are clearly more concerned with Bieber’s mental state than how many Believe deep cuts made the set list. Later that same week, Bieber will be spotted barefoot and feeding nuts to squirrels at the Boston Commons. He’ll cry on stage during a stop in Philadelphia.
“I like to think of everybody as my friend and [on stage] that makes me as comfortable as I am with the people in this room,” Post says backstage after his set, gesturing to his crew, his face flushed and top bun dripping with sweat.
The next night in the green room, there’s chatter about the negative reviews of Bieber’s performance from the night before. “I get it,” Post says, after someone mentions how exhausted Bieber seemed. Tour life takes away your time—there’s waiting before and after the shows, before the late-night appearances and promo events—but there’s no time for yourself. Even though this is exhausted, apologetic Bieber, he’s still developed a bond with Post. “He’s one of my best friends,” Post says. “We party and have fun and mess with each other. He’s taught me so much.”
In early April, a photo of Post choking Bieber landed on TMZ and went viral. “He burned me,” Post says, searching for the mark from the cigarette on his skin. “I had to get him back and he just happened to get me back, so he got something coming to him,” he says, laughing. “We try to troll the internet.” But Post has tried to stay off the internet since “White Iverson” took off, bringing his indiscretions with it. “I try to stay away from it cause it’s like I said, positivity,” he says. “If you’re negative, you know, that’s good for one type of song but that’s not really what I’m trying to do right now.”
Tonight’s VIP guests are Rosie O’Donnell and family, Jaden Smith, and Sarah Snyder, and the crowd is even more enthusiastic. The screams are a little louder, Post is a little more exuberant, and even though the set is the same, he has something to prove. Despite some zipper problems with this pants, his second night is even more exhilarating than the first. Meanwhile, Ashlen is telling me about their home in North Hollywood and how this is only her second stop on the tour. Maybe Post started to feel lonely on the road. Or the monotonous routine of playing the same set, night after night, got to him. Either way, something made him call her to join him for the next few stops.
With so many rumors swirling about Bieber’s precarious state, how is Post doing, really? Is he okay? “I think so,” he says. When asked about self-care, Post says everyone sleeps. A lot. The night before, Bieber asked the crowd, “You guys ever feel like sleeping all day? That’s me all the time. This morning, I hit my snooze button seven times, like, ‘Don’t wake me up.’” Post says Bieber’s nutritional doctor keeps them flush with supplements but that sleep is most important on their off days. As for his voice—surely a concern for someone who chain smokes Marlboro Black Menthols—he claims he’s keeping it in shape by constantly singing throughout the day. Whether or not that’s a good long-term remedy remains to be seen. While on tour, he’s been trying to finish up his mixtape, August 26, named after the official release date for his forthcoming debut album, on Republic Records. “Making the mixtape was a lot more difficult because I’m on tour,” he admits. “It’s hard to do both things. You do a show, and then you do an after party, and then you’re tired, but you have to go to the studio.”
There are a few collaborations on August 26 that might result in another hit: "40 Funk,” produced by Makonnen and FKi 1st, and “Money Made Me Do It,” with 2 Chainz. There’s a song similar in concept to “White Iverson,” too. On “Monte,” oddball Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty joins Post to croons about veteran NBA point guard Monta Ellis. Nestled alongside the expected warbling and eerie trap production is a sort of cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” What’s surprising about the release is how cohesive it sounds, despite the number of genres juggled. Post can move from an anthem with 2 Chainz about getting money to freak folk on “Hollywood Dreams/Come Down,” without any of it sounding forced or contrived.
For his debut, he’s been working with FKi and trying to incorporate live instrumentation. There’s a feature planned with Justin Bieber and production from DJ Mustard, among others. “It’s very vibey,” he says. His alter ego, Leon De Chino, will make an appearance, but Post says there aren’t too many other features lined up yet. The only other teased collaboration is with Bieber’s alter ego, Branson. Post played it during his listening party at Up & Down earlier in the month, where he could be seen chugging Budweiser 40 ounces while every internet tastemaker tweeted about how the one-hit wonder had another one.
His favorite track on the album, so far, features production from Illangelo and describes how his girlfriend can be “a turd.” During Post’s first press run, he and Ashlen made a rather awkward appearance on The Breakfast Club and since then, have been in and out of the spotlight. They’re together for the moment. She’s with him on tour and “he’s very happy.”
But do they think they’re soulmates? “Yeah, I do,” he says, grabbing for her hand. In 10 years, Post wants to be in a rhinestone suit somewhere making music—preferably country—playing a guitar emblazoned with his name. He’s not interested in dwelling on misconceptions about him or his artistic project. “I don’t know what people think of me, he says, “and honestly, if you don’t fuck with me then I don’t care. I’m just a fun guy. I’m young. I’m 20 years old.”
“[Justin Bieber's] one of my best friends. We party and have fun and mess with each other. He’s taught me so much.”
And maybe that’s really it; Post is just a 20-year-old guy who has cultivated a persona that, gold teeth and braids aside, isn't so different from the kid who made acoustic covers of Bob Dylan songs and played Minecraft with his older brother in the basement of his parents’ house. He’s goofy, he’s convinced that his first love is the perfect person for him, and he plays with a crossbow during his downtime. Maybe he hasn't maxed out those 15 minutes of fame yet, but celebrity hasn't seemed to change him. And that may be the reason why it’s refreshing for artists like Bieber and Kanye to work with him and why his day ones haven’t departed. “I’ve worked at [music] since I was really young and I’ve just always focused on bringing positivity to everyone around me—besides when I have my little bitch fits,” he says.
So, just before 9 p.m. on that balmy Thursday evening in May, 19,000 people are filing into their seats before Bieber takes the stage to go through the motions with his entire new album and a slew of old hits. Post Malone is belting out “White Iverson” and the crowd knows every word.