"I'm only 20, but I'm an old soul," DJ Xslapz informed the gathered masses, an undulating pond of gender-inclusive tank tops, tropical vape smoke and max-brightness mobile screens. "So I'm gonna take it back."
Xslapz, DJ for the rising Cali foursome SOB X RBE, then dropped the chorus to "Get Low," by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, which was a chart-topper in 2003.
It's not like I was expecting the kid to play Billie Holiday, but for rap fans of a certain age, moments like these are stultifying reminders of our mortality. When that song came out, I was the same age as most of the crowd in attendance at Post Malone and 21 Savage's Wednesday night tour stop at Festival Pier, a bleary-eyed reminder of what multiplatinum hip-hop looks and sounds like in 2018, for better or worse.
Kicking off his set with a short and sincerely scary slasher film, 21 Savage meandered through a number of hits off his 2017 debut Issa Album, backed by slick horrorcore visuals rich with the satanic imagery so key to his nihilistic persona. While the radio smash "Bank Account" earned a hearty reaction, it was an enervated showing for the Atlanta rapper. His drawling underwater flow is a big part of his recorded appeal, but in this case it didn't necessarily translate to a live setting, and the crowd responded with the polite but unenthusiastic energy to match.
Of course, it could also be that the ticket holders — hugely youthful and mostly Caucasian — were really there to freak out over Post Malone, one of the most successful, and most maligned, acts in pop music today.
Melding universal rap tropes — boasting about money, jewelry, women, and very hard partying — with seductive alt-folk, emo, and grunge elements, Austin Richard Post is frequently chided by hip-hop purists for what's perceived as his circumvention of the genre's chain of command. The Dallas native, all of 22, taught himself how to play guitar via YouTube and blasted out his earliest work via SoundCloud, facts he proudly raised on the mike to screams of approval.
For Post, employing the same talking points as bootstrapping entrepreneurs is a strategy to prove to doubters that he's done things the right way, graduating from self-distributed mixtapes to dropping this year's Beerbongs & Bentleys, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in April. His detractors, however, feel his journey was aided by the music-industry equivalent of an E-ZPass — paying the proper dues is one thing, but he's also a white American man, born with the privileges other artists who exploit the same subject matter were never granted.
Fans didn't seem to be taking much of this lingering culture-vulture debate into consideration once the long-haired, face-tatted neo-rapper hit the stage, bathed in ketchup-and-mustard lighting while he ran through "Too Young," an eerie, codeine-soaked offering off 2016's Stoney.
Post distances himself from other emcees altogether when he stops rapping and picks up a six-string. After tracks like "Psycho," the singsongy "Candy Paint," and the heartbreak anthem "I Fall Apart" — "This next song is dedicated to the stupid b— that broke my heart," he bellowed, earning surprisingly raucous roars from the men and women around me — he took a seat stage right, armed with a guitar.
"You guys sound f— beautiful," he offered with a grin. "But then again, I may be drunk."
While the rest of the set was aided by a significant backing track, this brief, stripped-down portion of the performance showcased Post's undeniable appeal as a singer and songwriter. "Stay," for my money the strongest song off Beerbongs & Bentleys, is a stark departure from the rest of his oeuvre, a lovelorn acoustic ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on a golden-era Oasis album.
It's very easy to roll your eyes at the cornier aspects of Post's persona. But once you're struck by his natural command of melody, delivered with raw vocal cracks that channel a peak-power Kurt Cobain, you understand why he's been able to break through.
Post closed out the evening with a trio of his biggest songs — the Savage-aided "Rockstar," the aspirational, slam-my-critics "Congratulations," and, of course, "White Iverson," the inescapable 2015 single that introduced him to the world. Yes, there were more than a few Number 3 jerseys in this Philly crowd, and yes, the vast majority of the young people wearing them were white.