There’s a Reason Pop’s Three Biggest Stars Are All Duetting With the Same Person

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There’s a moment in an article I wrote for this No. 1 hits series a little over a year ago that today seems unwittingly funny. Explaining the appeal, or at least the wild popularity, of Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night”—which turned out to be Billboard’s top song of 2023—I keyed into the country singer’s raplike flow. No one has ever called the Tennessean a rapper, but he sings with syncopation as if he’s dropping bars. The now-amusing line in my piece: “By the time Wallen gets to the first verse after the opening chorus, he’s singing in a double-time cadence that would be called ‘rap’ if Post Malone did it.”

In retrospect, an actual duet between Wallen and the tattooed-and-grilled Texan-born Austin Post was inevitable. But my 2023 assessment of Wallen’s flow is nonetheless ironic, not because Post Malone did team up with Wallen—that was fairly predictable—but rather because Malone wound up moving more in the sonic direction of Wallen rather than the other way around. The result, a barroom rave-up by Malone with Wallen that’s more honky-tonk than hip-hop, gives Post his first lead-artist No. 1 on the Hot 100 in nearly five years and his second chart-topping duet in under a month. No wonder Post titled his newest hit “I Had Some Help.” Dude—did you ever!

Whatever we wind up remembering most from the music of 2024—epic rap beefs, a succession of superstar LP releases, Tracy Chapman crushing it on the Grammys, whatever the hell that Apple Music album ranking was—it will also go down as the year of the Post Malone glom-on. He has been a promiscuous A-list collaborator, duetting with arguably our three biggest current chart superstars. (Sorry, Drake—this isn’t your year.) Less than two months ago, Post popped up in the middle of Beyoncé’s smash Cowboy Carter LP, on the folksy “Levii’s Jeans,” an unpromoted album cut that nonetheless reached No. 16 on the Hot 100 the week the album dropped. Just three weeks later, there was Post again, not only appearing on Taylor Swift’s blockbuster album The Tortured Poets Department but featured on its lead single, the instant No. 1 “Fortnight.” Then, just a fortnight and a half after that, here’s Malone again, bro-ing it up with Wallen, an actual country star (as opposed to country newcomer Beyoncé and country apostate Swift). A stand-alone single that will likely appear on Post’s forthcoming country album, “I Had Some Help” wound up the biggest chart smash of all these duets, even over the Swift single.

On all these pairings, Post Malone is what you might call a Zelig figure. Like the 1983 Woody Allen film character who takes on the appearance, style, and speech of whomever he comes in contact with, the Post of 2024 sublimates his own identity to imitate whatever other cultural figure is ready at hand. On all three duets, he’s easy to miss. His vocals on both the Beyoncé and Swift tracks show up fairly late in the running time and are so mellow they give off feminine energy; Post is not so much a male foil to the two ladies as a sympathetic girlfriend. (His “Levii’s Jeans” centerpiece lyric, “Love it when you tease me in them jeans, girl, you don’t need designer,” comes off less as a come-on than as fashion advice.) And on “I Need Some Help,” Post’s vocals sound as if he’s doing his best Wallen impersonation. When the actual Wallen shows up on the second verse, you belatedly realize you haven’t been hearing him yet, so fully does the song exude the Wallen sound. The only way you can really tell that Post Malone is singing at all on the track is his trademark vibrato.

You remember the Post vibrato. It’s that weird, billy goat–style quavering Malone applies to his vocals, almost as if his voice is being processed through a jiggling Auto-Tune. (By all accounts, Post sings this way naturally.) It’s on his hits as far back as “Rockstar,” 2017’s druggy bummer trap joint and his first No. 1, and there it was again on his longest-running hit, “Circles,” the bubbly synth-pop radio fodder that topped the Hot 100 at the end of 2019 and rode the chart for most of 2020. As I noted when it went to No. 1, “Circles” seemed to indicate that Post was finally fulfilling his desire to move away from hip-hop, or whatever you call the singsongy pseudo-rap that regularly got him on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart. So he kept the vibrato but lost the trap beats. For most of the early ’20s, Post was in something of a wilderness period, a regular-ass pop star seemingly past his prime. Two consecutive albums fell short of the No. 1 spot, sold a fraction of his late ’10s LPs, and produced smaller hits. His only Top 10 singles between 2021 and ’23 were duets: the synth-funk bop “One Right Now” with the Weeknd, a No. 6 hit, and the sunny, chipper “I Like You (A Happier Song)” with Doja Cat, which reached No. 3. In each case, Malone brought the vibrato but otherwise leaned in the direction of his collaborator—the Weeknd track sounded like a “Blinding Lights” sequel, and the Doja bop fell toward the poppy side of her lite R&B. To keep scoring hits, Post quite literally needed help.

Which brings us to 2024, when Post has seemed determined to duet his way back to the top of the charts. Dude is nothing if not adaptable. For all his techno-pop experiments, Malone seems to have decided that country is his future, something he was hinting back near the beginning of his career. And by the evidence, it’s a natural fit for a guy whose styling is similar to Nashville rapper-singer Jelly Roll’s. He started edging his way onto the Country charts last fall after a performance at the Country Music Association Awards, with Wallen and country singer-songwriter Hardy, of the ’90s Joe Diffie hit “Pickup Man.” A studio version of the track, featuring Malone duetting with a recording of the late Diffie, briefly made the top 40 on Hot Country Songs. Then, in April, after Beyoncé’s album dropped, because of the way Billboard tallies its Hot Country Songs chart, her country-adjacent duet with Malone also made the Top Five on the Country chart.

But no setup was more carefully coordinated than the drop of “I Had Some Help.” In March, Malone shared a 30-second Instagram teaser of a catchy but still unreleased collaboration with Wallen, which they would sneak-preview a few weeks later, during Wallen’s headlining set at the Stagecoach festival. The Instagram clip shows that Post knew he was sitting on dynamite—wearing a green “Dallas” ball cap and listening to the song’s hook on his phone, he was chair-dancing and fairly bursting with joy. He knew he was about to release a massive banger of a hit, which he and Wallen finally did in early May. As the ebullient Malone predicted, “Help” not only returns him to the top of the Hot 100 for the first time since “Circles” in 2019; thanks to his Morgan Wallen cheat code, Post instantly scores his first Country No. 1.

Given all the shade I’ve thrown at Post Malone and Morgan Wallen in this series over the years, I have to sheepishly acknowledge that “I Had Some Help” is a one-listen smash, an expert piece of assembly-line craftsmanship that absolutely delivers the goods. Even for Wallen, it’s fairly traditional country pop-rock, the sort of hit Eddie Rabbitt, Garth Brooks, or Brad Paisley could’ve convincingly deployed in decades past, with none of the trap synths or tongue-twisty verses either Wallen or Malone has delivered before. The most syncopated thing about it is the chorus, an infectious declaration that the singer wasn’t the only person at fault for the end of the relationship: “I had some help/ It ain’t like I can make this kinda mess all by myself/ Don’t act like you ain’t help me pull that bottle off the shelf/ Been deep in every weekend, if you couldn’t tell/ They say teamwork makes the dream work/ Hell, I had some help.” I’d love to know who among the single’s eight songwriters came up with that deft series of internal rhymes and near-rhymes; it feints at rap without sounding at all like rap. Cobbled together by a team that includes longtime Wallen associates Ashley Gorley and Ernest Keith Smith and stalwart Malone collaborators Louis Bell and Ryan “Charlie Handsome” Vojtesak, “Help” is convincingly country and totally pop at the same time.

The song also badly wants to be summer music, which you can tell by the music video’s sweaty country karaoke-bar setting and the bursts of fireworks over the heads of Post and Wallen as they mug for the camera from the back of a pickup truck. I’d feel less salty about the video if it weren’t also plastered with more American flags than the next Republican National Convention, a dog whistle to Wallen’s MAGAfied fan base. But the song is so mass-appeal I read the “America, Fuck Yeah” vibe mostly as anticipatory marketing, an attempt to lay claim to the Fourth of July nearly two months early. In other words, Post and Wallen seem confident they’ve got 2024’s Song of the Summer race in the bag.

To which I say: good. Maybe it will actually feel like a competition this year. To date, the 2020s have not been a good decade for the Song of the Summer. This media-hyped competition, the closest equivalent America has to the United Kingdom’s Christmas No. 1 sweepstakes, is supposed to produce a consensus bop between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But I’d argue—with the caveat that I am a little biased—that 2019’s “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X was our last truly culturally omnipresent source of summer joy.

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic and an array of bummer hits have made this a lousy decade for hot-weather inescapables. You’d be forgiven for forgetting 2020’s peak-pandemic winner “Rockstar” by DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch, a pretty but ephemeral trap joint that served as a soundtrack for social distance. As earworming as 2021’s “Butter” by BTS was—it had the right tempo for SotS—the song was bullied into a 10-week run at No. 1 by the K-pop boy band’s loyal A.R.M.Y. fan base buying (and rebuying) multiple copies; many Americans barely heard it, as it never caught on at radio. “As It Was” by Harry Styles, a legitimately memorable hit in 2022, had entirely too much airplay; for most of the year, it felt as if it were radio’s only consensus hit, and with its chilly indie-pop keyboards, I will never get past the idea that it’s really a scarf-weather song. And 2023’s 16-week No. 1 rampage by Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” was the ultimate drag, as a perfectly cromulent country bop with trap overtones kept returning to No. 1 mostly because his anti-woke fan base refused to stream music by anyone but their mulleted god.

We are long past the days of unanimously acclaimed summer crushers like “Umbrella,” “California Gurls,” “Party Rock Anthem,” and “Call Me Maybe.” The core problem with Song of the Summer is one of supply, not demand: It’s only as good as the songs the Zeitgeist serves up to us. Fortunately, 2024 has generated a bounteous harvest. The Top 10 is packed with legit contenders, including newcomers Tommy Richman, with the falsetto trap&B synth jam “Million Dollar Baby”; Shaboozey, who mashes up country guitars and fiddles with classic rap lyrics on “A Bar Song (Tipsy)”; and rising starlet Sabrina Carpenter, with her nouveau-disco bop that out-Duas the new Dua Lipa, “Espresso.”

But the biggest challenger in the race is the song that didn’t even exist a month ago and was No. 1 just last week: Kendrick Lamar’s beef-winning Drake diss record “Not Like Us.” As I was saying when Lamar kicked off this epic tête-à-tête with Drizzy two months ago on the Future–Metro Boomin cut “Like That,” generally rap beef records detonate, then clear off. They’re not normally long-lasting radio rotators. But both “Like”s are fiendishly enduring. “Like That” held at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for three weeks and is still in the Top 10. And “Not Like Us,” built from a synth-strings beat by veteran producer DJ Mustard and sporting some of Kendrick’s fiercest bars, is already being called the club jam of the summer. After debuting on top last week, Lamar’s game-ending dunk actually grew in streams in Week 2—and yet “I Had Some Help” debuts on top of it. If the Song of Summer turns into a Verzuz battle between a rap readymade and a country-rock laboratory creation, that alone will be fun to watch.

Between these contenders and the flood of superstar albums by our Main Pop Girls—Ariana! Queen Bey! Taylor! Billie!—2024 is shaping up to be the most exciting, or at least the most hotly contested, pop year of the decade. You can see the evidence in the music consumption stats Luminate, Billboard’s data provider, is reporting. In its debut week, Post and Wallen’s “Help” set a 2020s streaming record of 76.4 million streams (the highest total since Billboard changed its YouTube-tallying formula in September 2020). By the way, that .4 in the number matters: “Help” just barely edged out two previous streaming record-holders, Swift’s “Fortnight,” which recently rang up 76.2 million in its April debut, and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” which was streamed 76.1 million times in its January 2021 debut. What makes Malone and Wallen’s debut even more remarkable is that it also squeaked by Lamar’s “Not Like Us”—after K-Dot’s diss record debuted with a mind-blowing 70.9 million streams, “Not Like Us” grew to 72 million in Week 2—which still wasn’t enough to hold off “I Had Some Help.” Billboard reports that this is the first time two songs have racked up more than 70 million streams in a single week.

To be sure, this mounting battle could turn into a fizzle if “I Had Some Help” does what “Last Night” did last summer, riding the bottomless streaming activity of Morgan Wallen’s flag-waving fan base to months of numbing domination. But if Kendrick’s latest is actually growing in its second week, his Drake knockout could take down Wallen and Post Malone too. And there’s still room for the Richman, Shaboozey, and Carpenter hits to grow. It’s just nice to head into Memorial Day weekend with a real horse race on our hands. And if the latest addition to the bro-country pantheon ekes out a win, at least “I Had Some Help” is a more deserving, more universally relatable Song of Summer than “Last Night” was. And it’s all thanks to Post Malone’s careerist, social-climbing campaign to collaborate his way into a new genre. I guess teamwork really does make the dream work.