Post Malone is doing his best to stay on script. He's downstairs at the House of Blues in Dallas, where dozens of his fans have gathered one afternoon in late September. They've paid $150 to attend a VIP meet-and-greet with the Grapevine singer and rapper, who's in town one week into his Monster Energy Outbreak Tour.
Malone stands in front of the wall near the back bar of the venue, dressed in a long-sleeve shirt with tight, cut-off jean shorts and a pair of moccasins. His hair is braided in tight, skinny pigtails and pulled into a bun, his face fuzzy with a patchy beard. Tattoos peak out from beneath his clothes, including one of Kurt Cobain's face on his finger and another of an Uzi on his thigh.
One after the other, Malone's fans walk up to have their pictures taken or record a Snapchat. He flashes a toothy grin to each and sticks out his tongue as he poses for the camera. "How you doing? Let's turn up," he says, his voice a high, lolling drawl that's raspy from chain-smoking. He repeats the same lines over and over, but delivers those lines to each fan as though they're old friends. "Let's go crazy," he says in a reassuring tone.
Some of those fans are old acquaintances, others have siblings or mutual friends who grew up with Malone and went to school with him in Grapevine. (He even addresses one fan's parents directly for a snap.) His old acquaintances are not that old; Malone just turned 21, after all. But these people knew him before his breakout year in 2015, when he became an internet sensation with his song "White Iverson," signed a record contract, jumped on a track with Kanye West and toured North America with Justin Bieber.
"It's super, super, super surreal. It's something I never thought would happen this fast," Malone says of his newfound fame. Barely 18 months ago, he was an unknown musician uploading his own songs to Soundcloud. Today, fans showed up two hours before the meet-and-greet started, a line stretching in front of the venue and wrapping around the corner. "You just got to get lucky. And I'm lucky," he says.
One girl, visibly flustered, attempts to compose herself as her turn comes up. She pauses mid-stride, fanning her hands in front of her face and on the brink of hyperventilating. Malone gives his typical greeting and his assistant Alec Strasmore, who's taking photos with his iPhone, mocks his emoji-speak. "Fuck off," Malone shoots back playfully, but suddenly freezes. "If you take away my material, I can't think of what to say," he says, his facing turning red.
The girl walks away slowly after taking her selfie, pausing to double check the photo, then quickly turns around to take another. When she's done, she walks unsteadily toward the stage in the front of the room, where her fellow fans have gathered to wait for the show. There's no re-entry to the venue, and Malone won't perform for nearly four more hours.
When he's done with the meet-and-greet, Malone and his entourage quickly make their way backstage, then back into the bright daylight where his tour bus awaits. Another group of fans, all teenage girls, spot him from the other side of the gate erected on the sidewalk. They scream and bolt across the street to meet him, and he delivers his lines to each of them before climbing on the bus.
The bus, which has snakeskin trim around the windows, is Malone's refuge, and he prefers to stay on it until the moment he hits stage, rather than ever setting foot in the green room. Awaiting him there are his DJ and producer, FKi 1st of FKi, local hip-hop legend Big Tuck and friend Bric Mason. Friends from Grapevine and his father and stepmother will soon join them.
"After everything is said and done, I'm going to be on the road nine months this year," Malone says, wearily, flicking the first of many cigarettes into an ashtray. "I'm tired, but it's still a lot of fun."
This is a far cry from the party boy image that he's often identified with, an image that has helped make him a lightning rod of criticism. A white guy from the Texas suburbs, Malone — who loves to wear bling, including grills and expensive watches (he's rocking a brand-new, diamond-encrusted silver timepiece tonight) — has been called a lot of things by reporters, musicians and online commenters: a one-hit wonder, an appropriator of culture, even a fraud. But those who know him, those who call him by his real name, Austin Post, see things differently.
"I'm telling you, Austin liked all that stuff before," says Brendan Clevenger, a friend from high school. "In high school, this man had $1,000 Versace shoes. He would spend his whole paycheck on foreign clothes and designer clothes."
One thing that comes up in talking to Malone, his family and his friends is that he has always done things his way. The problem is that now he must do something that runs counter to that spirit: wait. Wait to release his debut album, wait to prove his critics wrong, wait to prove that he's more than just one viral song. Wait to prove that he can do it all again.
"It's the worst feeling ever," Malone says of the repeated delays on his album, Stoney, which presently has no definite release date. "It's the same shit from whenever I had so much music up front, before everything happened and I wanted to put it out because I wanted people to hear it. And I didn't, because people told me not to, until finally I was like, 'Fuck it.'"
Malone first started playing music in his bedroom when he was in middle school, but it wasn't his own music. He wasn't really even playing it. In his room, with only one window and barely enough room to walk around the perimeter of the bed, Malone became obsessed with playing Guitar Hero.
Today, that room in the back of his father's house in Grapevine has been converted into a guest room, but it maintains many of the items that made it his: the Dallas Cowboys figures along the shelves, the medium blue walls that are a shade or two lighter than his favorite team's colors and the guitars hanging on them — one Fender, one Gibson — that his grandfather left him.
"I'd sit and play Guitar Hero for hours. I'd go in there and play in his room," recalls Malone's father, Rich Post. Rich bears a striking resemblance to his son, except he's more muscular and has a dark, filled-in beard with the chin shaved out, but he speaks in the same high voice. "I would get the callouses on my fingers and everything. It's addicting."
Rich helped form Malone's early listening habits, influences that have carried over to the eclectic tastes he brings to his music today. Rich grew up in upstate New York. While his only experience as a musician was in high school band — "Nothing Austin would know anything about" — he worked as a DJ when Malone was little, playing weddings and other events. "You had to know all kinds of music," Rich says.
Malone remembers his dad exposing him to metal bands like Metallica and Megadeath, rappers like Ice-T, Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. "When I was up in New York, the first record my parents bought me was the Terror Squad record with 'Lean Back,'" Malone says.
Malone didn't move to Texas until he was almost 10 years old. His mother, Nicole, was also from New York and Malone was born in Syracuse on the 4th of July, 1995. Nicole had an older son, Jordan, from a previous marriage, but Malone isn't sure how his parents met, nor is he sure of Jordan's age. (He's 10 years older.) "He was my football coach," says Jordan, who joins Malone on tour these days, of Rich.
This information delights Malone, who breaks into a broad smile. "That's crazy. I didn't know that story," he says, and starts laughing.
Rich and Nicole divorced before Malone turned 3 years old. Rich would soon marry Jodie Hollister, who had a son named Mitchell who's four months younger than Malone. Eventually his father got a job working concessions with the Dallas Cowboys and moved the family to Texas. "I used to tell him he could be anything he wants in life, but he couldn't not be a Cowboys fan," Rich says. He has a star tattoo on his left bicep.
Today, Malone identifies himself as a Texan, but he wasn't pleased about the move when it happened. "He was the maddest of everybody when we said we were moving," says Rich. "Mitchell was packing his bags an hour later. Austin was just mad as could be." Nicole followed and moved into a house in the same neighborhood — "I'm so cute everybody wanted to hang out with me," Malone says — but Jordan didn't join them, as he was in the military.
The neighborhood where the Posts relocated — a subdivision in Grapevine nestled behind Baylor Hospital, just off Highway 114 — features lookalike houses with green lawns that are a stone's throw from strip malls. "Someone told me the first place you did drugs is where you're from," says Malone. Rich looks at things more pragmatically: "I think he grew the identity here of who he is now," he says.
From a young age, that identity was an eccentric one. In middle school, for instance, high school friend Clevenger remembers, "He would bring his guitar to school and walk around the hallways playing. He'd wear suits to school." Jodie Post remembers having to iron his clothes, as he insisted on wearing a pressed shirt and pants. Both his friends and parents remember him being popular. "He's always been who he is. It didn't matter if he was neat or sloppy," says Jodie. "He's always been original."
Still, when Malone, having mastered Guitar Hero, decided that he wanted a real guitar, his parents figured it was just another phase — like his obsessions with drawing and skateboarding before that. "I didn't have nothing to do, I didn't have no friends or nothing; I was a nerdy kid," Malone says, a characterization that may be a half truth, given others' recollections. Nicole bought him his first guitar, a Washburn, from Wal-Mart. "I said, you know what, I wonder how hard it is to really do it? And it was hard as shit, but I kept on going," he says.
Malone's parents offered to get him music lessons if he stuck with it, but by the time he'd earned the opportunity he'd already taught himself how to play. "He had his own style. He didn't want someone to tell him to do it their way," Jodie says. Clevenger, who met Malone at a battle of the bands, remembers him as someone who could absorb new music quickly. "I've seen him be like, 'Yo, let's learn this song,' look at the tabs one minute, and the next minute he's playing the song," he says. "It's nothing."
Malone jumped among different bands through his middle school and high school years, from hardcore to metal to indie to folk music. "I had like 4,000,000 bands. Maybe six," he says. He would play hours-long solo acoustic sets at Napoli's Italian Kitchen, and his bands appeared at events like Main Street Days and Grape Fest. Nicole's boyfriend at the time had a studio in downtown Grapevine, and Malone would spend hours there working on his music.
"In order to find yourself, who you really are, you got to be with yourself, you got to hang out with yourself," he says. "I like to be quiet and play guitar and just chill."
It was rare that his friends could coax Malone out of his house, and he says he didn't start drinking until later in high school. "At the end of our junior year, we finally got Austin to drink with us," Clevenger says. "We rapped one time and Austin killed it. It was like, 'What?' ... I shit you not, a week later he came to us with a song he'd mixed and wrote himself, and it was good."
Malone had learned to make beats from his friend Jason Stokes, who according to Clevenger was "making more money than his parents when he was in high school" thanks to the Minecraft videos he posted on YouTube. "I did a couple shows here [in Dallas]," Malone remembers of that time, "but nobody came."
For those around him, Malone's transition to hip-hop came with consequences. He wouldn't allow his parents to attend his rap shows, even though they'd always gone to see him play before. They didn't even get to hear his new music until Rich found a mixtape he'd made with his and Stokes' hip-hop duo, Younguns After Them Riches. "I don't want to say I was mad, but I was mad. All the things you think of with a kid like Austin, with his demographic, those things go through a dad's head with the challenges he's going to face," says Rich. "And he sees them, terms like 'culture vulture.'"
But there was an even bigger surprise in store for Malone's family when, shortly before Christmas 2013, having failed to complete his first semester of college, he informed them he was moving to Los Angeles with Stokes. "I was like, 'OK, when?' And he says, 'Next week,'" says Rich. Jodie tears up at the mention of it, wiping her eyes with a tissue. "It was awful," she says.
Neither one expected he would follow though on the plan, but he did.
When "White Iverson" hit the public and changed his life, Malone was living in a mansion, but his life wasn't nearly as glamorous as that sounds. In fact, he was sleeping in a closet.
Stokes invited Malone to live in a huge, gated house in San Fernando — on the outskirts of L.A. in Los Angeles County — that they dubbed "The White House," because it looks like the actual one in Washington. Malone gave up his room to make space for a recording studio, and moved into the closet.
"At the time, I was making beats and just turning up and going crazy," Malone says. He would sell his beats for $50 apiece, and got by making money off his cameos in Stokes' videos, such as with his character Leon DeChino, a sunglasses and short-shorts wearing singer who parodied '80s synth pop. Essentially, he admits, he was "completely freeloading."
But to him, Los Angeles was the key to his future. "I said if there's any way I'm going to
make it, I got to go where there's people," he says. "Everybody you know knows somebody that has a studio."
Malone may not have been playing many shows at the time — only two in L.A., by his count — but he was certainly meeting people, including producers like Billie Gvtes and Stevie B., who introduced him to Atlanta producer FKi 1st one night in the studio. His production duo, FKi, had already produced tracks for some of hip-hop's biggest names, including Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla Sign. They'd also worked with Iggy Azalea. "I said, 'Let me see what you got going on,'" says 1st. "And he actually just started rapping over his own beat. I was like, 'Oh shit, this is fire.'"
Meeting 1st was a game-changer. Malone persuaded 1st to move to L.A. full-time and live at The White House. "That's where I felt like I could take things seriously; I wasn't just making music and going nowhere," he says. Working with a hungry, unknown musician like Malone was refreshing for 1st, too. "We can tell each other anything," 1st says. "With established artists, you can't just go in and make something because they have to stand for something, their fans think of them a certain way. When they're new, it's an open canvas. That's the relationship we had."
In October 2014, Rich visited his son in L.A. for the first time, having largely been kept out of the loop since Malone had left Texas. "We scoured the internet, we scoured YouTube, we scoured everything from every corner just to get a glimpse of him," says Jodie. He was dismayed to find Malone living in a closet, but received some good news. "1st said to me, 'I can't tell you what a raw talent that kid is,'" Rich says. "I think they thought I was there to fix something at first."
But for all that hard work, "White Iverson" came about almost by accident. "Truthfully? Shout out to the girl who braided his hair," says 1st.
One night in February 2015, Malone was getting his hair braided when he joked that he looked like former NBA player Allen Iverson. Inspired by the idea, he rushed back home and, at 7 a.m., recorded a song about it on his laptop.
A vibey, four-minute song laid over a moody trap beat, 1st admits he didn't think much more of "White Iverson" at first than he did of their other work. But it had a lingering ear worm quality. "I'm all about the replay value, bro," he says. "For some reason, this beat did not annoy anybody, nobody was like, 'Change this shit,' or anything. It was just so smooth, just the flow of it."
And it grabs listeners from the opening bars: "You got to catch a feeling ... within the first one to three seconds, which is all you got these days with people's short attention spans," 1st says.
What really made "White Iverson" a hit was Malone's off-the-cuff vocal performance, his dewy voice casually bragging about "spending all my fucking pay," a play on Iverson's real-life reputation for spending as much as $40,000 a night at strip clubs. It made the perfect calling card for Post Malone's swaggering, Champagne-and-bling persona, a moniker which conjured memories of another NBA legend, Karl Malone. "I went to bed and they were like, 'Don't put that shit out, don't put it out, you got to save it,'" he says, referring to the friends who were with him in the studio. "I was just like fuck it and did it myself."
He posted it to the online streaming site Soundcloud and went to sleep. By the time Malone woke up, the song had already gone viral. Atlanta rapper Fat Man Key tweeted it, then Wiz Khalifa did, then Mac Miller. "I can't even remember how long it took to get a million plays on Soundcloud. Six days?" he says. "I was like holy shit, this is cool dude. I'm not a lame-o."
"You had to take notice," says Big Tuck. "'White Iverson' was on the radio every five minutes."
From there, life became a whirlwind for Malone, still only 19. "It was surreal. I just woke up and everything was different," he says. "I went to South By [Southwest] and did fucking 14 shows. It was crazy." He soon signed a recording contract with Republic Records, whose roster includes pop stars like the Weeknd and Ariana Grande.
A few months later, he headlined a show in Dallas at Trees, where he played "White Iverson" twice, and a few months after that played Kylie Jenner's birthday party, where he met Kanye West. The song has since sold more than 3,000,000 copies worldwide and is certified double platinum in the United States. Malone became a classic overnight success story.
But what the internet had given, it also threatened to take away.
"I always tried to remain positive," Malone says. He's sitting on his tour bus outside the House of Blues, his legs crossed with a can of Bud Light and a bottle of Pedialyte in front of him on the table. He takes a drag from his cigarette. "My dad taught me that you're never going to make everybody happy. So, like, if someone don't fuck with you, fuck them. Keep on going. Stay positive. [And] one day, it'll pay off."
In the 20 months since "White Iverson" made Post Malone a name, he's had to draw on that positive outlook repeatedly. Almost as quickly as the internet made him famous, it began to pull skeletons out of his closet and put them in the public domain. There were the Leon DeChino videos that he'd made with Stokes, videos of his high school bands and other recordings that he'd made before "White Iverson," like an earnest cover of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" played on acoustic guitar.
Such would seem to be a pitfall for any young artist reared by the internet, where recording a song and posting it for the world to see is just a click away. Each of those videos, however, was used as fodder to prove Malone's inauthenticity. The most damning was a Vine of him that surfaced from high school, watching Animal Planet on his parents' couch and saying, "We watch Too Cute, nigga." The Vine, like most of the other videos, disappeared from online, a common occurrence for artists after they've gotten famous or signed to major labels. But the damage was done.
In an appearance on Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning, Malone was grilled on his perceived appropriation and insensitivity, but it was rapper Charlamagne Tha God of The Breakfast Club who laid into him the most. "I think all white people with corn rows look stupid," Charlamagne said, before asking Malone what he's done for the Black Lives Matter movement. Malone mentioned that a black teenager, Christian Taylor, had tweeted about one of his songs the week before being killed by an Arlington police officer. "What does that have to do with Black Lives Matter?" Charlamagne shot back. "I would've just said, 'Nothing.'"
Big Tuck, a member of early 2000s hip-hop crew Dirty South Rydaz and the author of one of Dallas' most influential rap songs, "South Side Da Realist," doesn't see the issue. "It's not fair because hip-hop is hip-hop and you are the artist. You draw what you want to draw and that's it," he says. "Nobody can tell you what you can or can't do in the industry. It's not right. It's not him."
Malone chooses his words carefully in addressing the matter. "You don't need to be labeled as something. You can just be an artist in this age," he says, shrugging. "I think people try too hard to put something in a box because they're not comfortable with it. But I mean, shit's changing."
He says that the internet made it easy for him to immerse himself in all kinds of different genres, including country music. "They had swag," he says, of his country music idols. "Hip-hop and country aren't too far different: They got shiny suits and the boots and the guitars with their names on it. I was infatuated with that type of stuff." The box of records sitting a few feet away attests to his varied tastes: Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Green Day and Daft Punk are all in there.
"I don't think," he begins, then pauses, looking down at his crossed legs. Then he looks back up. "I'm not a rapper. It's something that's just musical, it's music instead of just a genre, you know what I mean?"
Throughout this year, Malone has worked to distance himself from being labeled a rapper. He turned down a spot on XXL magazine's prestigious Freshman Class list last spring, which highlights 10 up-and-coming rappers each year and has included artists like Drake, Nicki Minaj and Earl Sweatshirt. "We declined," a source within Malone's camp told the Dallas Observer in March. "We've got a lot of good stuff coming with him and we don't want to pigeonhole him into just being a rapper."
In April, he released a new single, his third, "Go Flex," that relied on Malone singing rather than rapping, and he played an acoustic guitar as well. The following month, he dropped his first mixtape, August 26, so named for the expected release date of his full-length album. While there weren't any hits near the level of "White Iverson," the mixtape came with endorsements from the right people, including features by 2 Chainz, Jeremih and Lil Yatchy.
"Since I met him, his music is genuine. I actually hear him in his music. It's different," says Tuck. While he'd been a fan of Malone's since first hearing "White Iverson," the pair didn't meet until Malone's manager, Dre London, called and invited him to join Malone onstage for a show at the House of Blues, back in March. Tuck says he's drawn both to Malone's wordplay as a lyricist and the melodicism of his music. "He's basing the whole sound off of that melodic sound, which definitely makes him more than a hip-hop artist to me," Tuck says.
Malone has been so busy in 2016 that he doesn't really have the time to be slowed down by critics. At the same time he passed on XXL, he hit the road with New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap, who faced his own one-hit-wonder talk after rising to fame in 2014 with the song "Trap Queen."
His part in that tour had to be cut short, though, when an even bigger opportunity came his way: opening for Justin Bieber on the Purpose Tour. They'd hit it off from the first time they met each other, when Bieber showed up to one of his recording sessions last winter. "I offered him a beer, we took a knee and just hit it up. I beat him in the beer challenge, which is where you take a knee and chug a whole beer. You can't get up till you finish the beer," Malone recalls. "Then he beat me. I love that kid."
Touring with Bieber was a can't-miss opportunity, but also an intimidating one. "Opening up for Justin Bieber was the scariest shit in the world, but he taught me so much," says Malone. The Purpose Tour visited Dallas in April, where Malone got to play in front of 20,000 people at American Airlines Center. "I was up on stage for 30 minutes, on this tour I'm up on stage for an hour. He's up on stage for two hours for like 100-and-something dates. Like, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard. He's a cyborg. He's fucking awesome."
Being on tour with Bieber exposed Malone to a whole new level of media scrutiny. In the days after the tour's Dallas stop, video emerged of Bieber putting out his cigarette on Malone's arm while Malone performed an after-party set in a Houston night club. Later, there was a photo of Malone appearing to choke Bieber, and speculation quickly mounted of trouble between the two.
The pair responded by posting a photo to social media of Bieber jokingly choking Malone. "Bieber's like my brother at this point," Malone says. "We've been through a lot of stuff together already."
Malone is now headlining his own tour, but last month he and Bieber released their first collaboration, Malone's latest single, "Deja Vu." It's not his only collaboration with a mega star, either, as late last year he was featured on Kanye West's "Fade," which later went on West's The Life of Pablo. He recorded his vocals at West's L.A. compound, where he says they drank Fireball together. "He's just super cool. He's just like a mentor," Malone says. "You got to show him what you're made of. You get one shot."
Working with Bieber and West has opened Malone's eyes to a whole other level of making music. "You learn so much shit. They've been in the game so long, it's incredible to see the way they work. You really do pick up a lot of recording habits, a lot of etiquette," Malone says. Then he flashes another grin, and adds, "We got more shit coming."
Malone is due to go on any minute at the House of Blues, and he's busy trying on outfits on the tour bus. He disappears into the sleeping area in the rear and emerges wearing a paisley pearl snap cowboy shirt with red leather boots. Looking into the mirror hanging on the wall, he fits his grill onto his front teeth. "This is my first time rocking the silver," he says, excitedly, and dances in place.
The bus is full of people now, mostly old friends from Grapevine, including Clevenger and his roommate, Rusty Hart, who went to school with both him and Malone. It's so full that everyone is standing. "I haven't seen him in years, and he's famous now. I was kind of a little nervous," Hart admits. "But he's the same Austin I met back in high school. He's cool. ... He didn't try to act like anything was different."
Malone's manager bursts onto the bus and starts playing Stoney, the as-yet-unreleased album that was originally supposed to be released in August, over the sound system. At the time, Malone took to Twitter to apologize for the delay. "I'm disappointed in myself and my team. ... There's no excuse," he wrote. His regret is still palpable. "I don't want to say it was a lot of pressure, but it was a lot of pressure to finish it and get that shit out. But that hasn't happened, so I'm still feeling it," Malone says, heaving a deep sigh. "It kept getting pushed back and back and back, then I realized it wasn't really done and I could do so much more with this body of music."
Here in the presence of trusted company, Malone is free to be himself and to lose himself in his music. Taking a swig from a handle of Tito's vodka, he sings to his own lyrics and laughs gleefully when he realizes his friends already know the words. "I go out to clubs when they pay me," he says. "I could do that shit at home" — he extends his arm out to sweep the room — "do it on the bus and kick it with some close friends and shit."
At the last minute, Malone makes another costume change, switching into a black NRA T-shirt, then hurries inside the venue with his entourage in tow. Up in the front row of the audience is the girl from the meet-and-greet, leaning against the barricade, and as Malone hits the stage tears roll down her cheeks. Off to the side of the stage stand Rich and Jodie, who's recording on her phone.
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After an hour onstage, in which Big Tuck joins him for "South Side Da Realist," Malone, winded and sweaty, finishes the show with "White Iverson," and climbs down into the crowd. Then he beelines once more for the bus.
"Austin always said he's just trying to do him. That's just what Austin does," says Hart, marveling at his friend. "He doesn't do anything that he doesn't want to do." In the immediate term, that means releasing Stoney, but down the road it could mean any number of things — like putting out his backlog of acoustic music, singing country songs or wearing "rhinestone shirts with diamond-encrusted lapels."
"I got to have fun. People mistake having fun for being ignorant," Malone says, leaning back with another cigarette. "I have fun and I take shit seriously. I think people just misunderstand. It's so easy to judge nowadays. How are you going to say some shit about me but you've never met me in your life?"