Fame and fortune are frequently synonymised with happiness – and when singer/rapper Post Malone started ascending the charts with the boastful “Congratulations”, from his 2017 debut album we could definitely believe it. Initially, his music seemed undifferentiated from the many flex anthems also dominating the scene, yet his plaintive heartbreaker of a track “I Fall Apart” hinted at a more emotionally substantial side to him.
With each progressive album, Post seemed to drift further away from his catchy paper-chasing anthems and situate himself within a more introspective and troubled state of mind. His last album, 2019’s Hollywood’s Bleeding, had some of his most hard-hitting tracks yet; “Cause I can take anything that you give me / It’s gonna take a lot more to kill me bitch,” he sang, for example, on the cynical “A Thousand Bad Times”.
Now, after a considerable hiatus by his standards, Post has returned with his fourth studio album Twelve Carat Toothache, which proves his most morose and personal project yet, for the most part. Working with his longtime collaborator Louis Bell, across 14 tracks, Post shows himself caught between the worlds of emotional turmoil and undeniable celebrity which makes the album an uneven yet explorative project for him.
Conceptually, the transparency and introspection on these tracks is striking, yet the execution sometimes warrants a raised eyebrow. Even the title Twelve Carat Toothache seems a self-aware wink, as if Post knows his lamentations frequently overlap with unrelatable upper class problems (not many of us have had cause to apologise for throwing up in someone’s Birkin).
Opener “Reputation” is proof enough that the album is diving into newer depths with its sparse piano and Post’s plaintive autotuned vocals lamenting the obligations of celebrity. While this is an unexpected, stripped-down direction for Post, the song takes a tumble with lyrics that jarringly veer between the personal and the parodical (“I was born to fuck hoes / I was born to fuck up”). Similarly introspective is “Lemon Tree”, a countrified, ruminative track that has Post self-consciously reflecting on others’ resilience while being determined to find his: “Some people got an apple / Some people got a tangerine / Look around and all I see is people happy with what they’re given”. Post amplifies his drawl to caricature as he sings: “I’m gonna burn it all down / And grow me something betterrrr.” It’s difficult to know whether he’s playing into country conventions or poking a bit of fun, yet these vocal antics arguably take the listener slightly out of the message of overcoming difficulties.
Post’s transparency is better appreciated on tracks such as “Euthanasia” and the highlight “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol” which is a surprising collaboration with Robin Peckinfold of Fleet Foxes. Both tracks create a very upfront portrait about alcohol dependence and its powers in numbing emotions we’d rather not confront. The former is minimalist and dark, detailing the cycle of addiction (“Behold a sober moment / Too short and far between / I should crack one open / To celebrate being clean”) and the precariousness of his psyche during such a period (“When I / Go out / Ain’t gonna hurt at all”). Alongside this track, “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol” provides a dramatic and sonically thunderous narrative that finds Post in the aftermath of an alcohol-influenced fight. The storytelling here is raw (“You’re the reason why I got my ass kicked / But you’re the only way to drown out my sadness”) and displays lyrical progression for the singer, who manages to capture a person on the precipice of realisation that there’s a deeper problem at hand.
Among these jaggedly personal tunes, Twelve Carat Toothache still contains the expected Post-Malonial bops that he’s known for. For example, allusions to COVID and lockdowns are present in the party anthem “Cooped Up”, which features a woozy verse from Roddy Ricch. There’s also “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, which feels like an unofficial sequel to his massive hit “Circles” and finds the singer analysing his relationship with a woman who is not impressed by his fame and fortune.
Then there’s the eerie “Insane” which amps up the darker downtempo tendencies combined with the boastful lyrics of his earlier work (“Bring that ass / Meet me backstage / A million racks, I need it cash, cake”). Although most of this album is a bit less commercial than his usual fare, these tracks prove that Post has a loyalty to the sound and style that made him a huge name.
However, when Post fully embraces the pop sound it yields the potential for some massive hits. A standout on this project is “I Like You (A Happier Song)” which features Doja Cat – a sugary pop-rap collaboration destined for greatness on the charts. Easily the album’s most wholesome and vibrant moment, the duo create a chemistry-laden bop that has them living it up and enjoying it all the more in each other’s company (“Oh girl, I like you / I do / I wanna be your friend / Go shopping in a Benz”). Then there is the 80s-influenced lead single “One Right Now” with The Weeknd that, while not necessarily receiving the appreciation it deserved upon release, succeeds in being a bright spot in the context of this album.
The song that most perfectly strikes a balance between the personal tendencies and catchy accessibility is the pop-punk influenced “When I’m Alone”. A euphoric and anthemic break-up track, the song combines excellent melodies with a fast tempo and explosive synth-lines. Sure, it’s still mired in a certain type of misery but there’s something satisfying about singing along to the lyrics “When waking up / Feels like a punch in the gut / Just tell me who’s to blame for this?”
Twelve Carat Toothache is a rocky road of an album that, in almost a meta sense, details Post Malone’s rocky road in confronting his demons. It is arguably his most sonically interesting and personal project so far, but its inconsistency punches a few pot-holes in the listening journey. The experimentation here doesn’t always work, but when it does, it shows that Post is heading in some exciting directions for future albums. Ultimately, despite the collaborations aplenty, this project seems less intent on chasing hits and more intent on giving the audience a raw glimpse behind the singer’s diamond teeth. Don’t let the sparkly façade fool you – Post isn’t afraid to let you know he’s just as much a human being, with all its accompanying messes and drama, as the rest of us.