On Monday, rap magazine XXL released its latest “Freshman” cover—a controversial, annual themed issue that promises to highlight the most important emerging talent in hip-hop—and some wondered, “Where is Post Malone?”
XXL’s editor-in-chief Vanessa Satten appeared on Power 105.1’s the Breakfast Club to discuss the artists who earned one of the coveted slots this year, and joined the ranks of Kid Cudi, Wale, and other notable rappers to grace the cover since it debuted nine years ago. Satten addressed Post’s omission, saying, “We were told by his camp that he wasn’t paying attention to hip-hop so much. He was going in more of a rock/pop/country direction…. Once we heard that he wasn’t really acknowledging hip-hop...that’s a message that you don’t really wanna be in the hip-hop world. So we’re just gonna let it go.”
Satten continued: “It’s very easy when you’re an artist these days to dabble in hip-hop and then pull back.” She’s right, and could’ve taken the thought a step further. It’s very easy for white artists to dabble in hip-hop (or some other kinds of black music, like R&B, too) and then cast off the genre when it’s commercially convenient, as it was for Justin Bieber, or when being a white artist in a black space becomes especially complicated or fraught, like it did for the Beastie Boys.
The Beastie Boys began musical life as a punk band before adopting a tongue-in-cheek (and excellent) take on hip-hop in the mid-'80s. In the early ‘90s, though, when the dominant subject matter of rap moved from party rocking to the explicitly pro-black and political, the Beasties began incorporating rock back into their music, to the point where they could exist in both spaces. In 1994, Ill Communication reached No. 2 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop album chart on the strength of a single, “Sabotage” (again, excellent), that charted as a rock song. Of course, there’s no indication that the move was a deliberate attempt to distance themselves from hip-hop; the Beasties never tried to distance themselves from hip-hop. Still, the group’s whiteness afforded them flexibility.
Similarly, Justin Bieber embraced R&B wholeheartedly just as his public image bottomed out in 2013, resulting in the biggest commercial failure of his career, Journals. It remains, to many (this writer included), his best album, but when he plotted his commercial comeback, he traded in producers and songwriters like Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and T-Minus for Skrillex and Ed Sheeran. His latest album, Purpose, despite appearances from Big Sean and Travi$ Scott, is not driven by the sounds of hip-hop or R&B. It’s a tropical house, EDM, arena pop record. But Bieber didn’t have to fight for airplay on non-urban stations coming off of Journals; the gates of entry to mainstream radio never closed for him.
IF POST MALONE WANTS TO TAKE A PAGE FROM THE KID ROCK PLAYBOOK AND MAKE COUNTRY MUSIC, MORE POWER TO HIM; NOTHING WILL STAND IN HIS WAY.
When Bieber took Purpose on the road, he brought Post Malone with him. Post has admittedly always expressed a love for rock and country, but his biggest single, “White Iverson,” is a dreamy hip-hop song about mimicking black culture. Post wears his hair in messy braids. He wears gold fronts. His entire persona has asked listeners to think about race, and what it means to be a white artist appropriating black culture. (Profiling Post for Complex, Lauren Nostro engaged him on this subject, but Post was reluctant to do much more than describe his diverse taste.) Now, it seems, his answer to that question is to cut and run. (Post Malone’s publicist could not be reached for comment on this story.)
Artists should have the freedom to play with genre, the freedom to be curious and creative without kowtowing to draconian limitations based entirely on the boundaries of genre or race. If Post Malone wants to take a page from the Kid Rock playbook and make country music, more power to him; nothing will stand in his way. His whiteness will make this a clean break. If he starts strumming a guitar on stage during his time with Bieber, major media outlets will label him a singer with an ease that they likely wouldn’t afford a black artist moving out of rap to, say, rock.
Pigeonholing black musicians has a long history that shows no signs of stopping (just as race continues to be used for restrictive purposes for people of color within the context of white supremacy). When Nelly makes country music, he is still described as “the rapper,” like in this CMT news item. E! Online called PARTYNEXTDOOR a rapper when introducing him to its readers—he’s not a rapper. He’s never been a rapper. Chris Brown becomes a rapper when it’s convenient for publications looking to malign him (justly, or otherwise).
Contrast that with white artists whose genre-hopping is applauded, if it’s even mentioned at all. Very few remember to call Pink a former R&B singer, even though Tricky Stewart and Babyface worked on her first album, Can’t Take Me Home, and her early videos and marketing clearly painted her as an “urban” artist. Black artists are often slotted in a genre—whether that be hip-hop or R&B or the more pernicious term, “urban”—by virtue of race alone. One privilege of whiteness, on the other hand, is a passport to wherever the artist wants to steer their career—just as white listeners have always been able to dabble in the music of a culture they don’t live on a day-to-day basis.
Satten is justified in dismissing Post. If he doesn’t want to claim the culture that enabled his success and physical appearance, XXL doesn’t really need him. Maybe the rest of hip-hop—if this white observer may say so—doesn’t either.