A deep thought from inside the mind of Post Malone: “It seem like dying young is an honor / But who’d be at my funeral, I wonder?”
That the question comes a mere 90 seconds into his new album tells you quite a bit about this dirtbag philosopher — and about the gloomy pop-music ecosystem in which he’s flourished.
A former heavy-metal guitarist from Dallas whose switch to hip-hop was as strategic as it was inevitable, Malone racked up more than 7.5 billion streams in 2018, according to Billboard. He sold out the Hollywood Bowl and headlined his own festival in Texas.
He even earned four Grammy nominations, though he walked away from this year’s ceremony without a single award — one sign that record-industry old-timers still view the extravagantly scraggly Malone with suspicion.
You’d think all that success would’ve brought some satisfaction to the guy who’s done as much as anyone to steer the Top 40 away from smiley concision and toward depressive sprawl.
On “Hollywood’s Bleeding,” which came out Friday and is likely to end up 2019’s most-streamed title (unless Drake decides to put out a real album), Malone worries at length about the motives of the people surrounding him. He criticizes women who “never took the time to get to know me,” as he puts it in the opening title track just after he imagines his funeral.
And though he’s meticulous in describing material comforts — “On a yacht, 50 meters insuffish,” he raps in “Saint-Tropez” — none of them appear to be providing anything like joy.
In short, celebrity has turned out crummy enough for Malone that he goes ahead and compares himself in “Goodbyes” to Kurt Cobain, the late Nirvana frontman who committed suicide a year before Post was born.
“Me and Kurt feel the same,” he moans of the grunge icon whose songs he’s covered in concert, “Too much pleasure is pain.” It’s an outrageous claim made only more so by the fact that he surely believes it.
For all it does to solidify Malone’s reputation as the sad king of streaming, what’s interesting about “Hollywood’s Bleeding” is that it actually moves beyond the bleary, decentered sound he perfected on his first two albums, both of which remain in the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 even as this one enters the world.
Sure, the new record is long, with 17 tracks including “Sunflower,” his and Swae Lee’s hit holdover from last year’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” soundtrack.
But unlike “Stoney” and “Beerbongs & Bentleys,” this album feels composed of discrete stylistic exercises; no longer is he boiling down rap and rock and a little bit of country into a kind of smearable paste.
“Die for Me,” with Future and Halsey, rides a standard-issue trap beat. The driving “Circles” summons thoughts of lightly bionic guitar bands like Foster the People and Portugal. The Man.
“A Thousand Bad Times,” about a woman who tried to burn his house down — don’t worry, he owns more than one — is bouncy pop-punk, almost as crisp as “Paper Rings” from Taylor Swift’s latest album. (Louis Bell and Frank Dukes, who also worked with Swift on “Lover,” are the primary producers here.)
It’s not just that Malone is separating out his various influences; he also seems determined to make each song a complete emotional experience, with higher highs and lower lows — a definite shift from his early days, when he built albums with a Spotify-geared set-it-and-forget-it quality.
Now, instead of letting everything bleed together, he’s designing show-stopping moments such as “Take What You Want,” a tortured power ballad complete with Ozzy Osbourne in sensitive-brute mode, and the almost comically overblown “Internet,” in which Malone swears off Instagram as a string section saws away behind him.
For “Myself,” which he co-wrote with Father John Misty — credit that alt-folk prankster for rhyming “sick of believing” and “American dreaming” — Malone goes full-on ’70s-soul crooner; it’s one of several deeply committed vocal performances from a natural mumbler who’s discovered fresh ways to express familiar feelings.
A few times on “Hollywood’s Bleeding” you can hear Malone straining against the gloom that defines him, as though he knows he should grow up and be a real pop star already. “Staring at the Sun,” featuring SZA, has a sleek and uplifting groove that sets you up for a message of self-reliance.
“What I can promise you,” he ends up singing, “is I’ll let you down.” Maybe another billion streams will change his tune.