Pop-punk is no longer the flavor of the week. Ever since Olivia Rodrigo tweaked a few notes from Paramore’s playbook, snotty hooks and brightly bleached hairdos have been crashing not just TikTok but the very top of the Billboard Hot 100. Heck, WILLOW, Boston Manor and up-and-comers like Alaskaalaska and Meet Me @ The Altar are all still on the release calendar for this year — and yet we’ve already seen everyone from former Disney Channel stars like Tate McRae and Demi Lovato to the scene’s latest sellout Machine Gun Kelly dust off those black leather combat boots and kick their guitars into overdrive. Now, it’s blackbear’s turn.
Genre flipping is nothing new for blackbear. He’s 31 years old, right around the same age as me, but did you know that he wrote “Boyfriend” for Justin Beiber? Well, he did.
After dropping out of high school sometime around 2008, blackbear went to work for seductive hitmaker Ne-Yo. Over the next decade, blackbear quickly amassed a huge following on SoundCloud by pumping out his own snappy, minimalist, trap-infused R&B. That initial run of EPs scored blackbear a deal with Columbia. But his solo career didn’t really achieve lift off until the world shut down in 2020. “hot girl bummer”, the boozy and hypnotic pop-rap anthem about going dumb and stupid and puking in your Birkin bag, fell just shy of the Top 10, but over on Spotify, it’s already eclipsed the coveted 1 billion streams plateau.
Since then, a whole lot of famous people have come knocking on blackbear’s door (cave?). He’s collaborated with Kane Brown and Ellie Goulding, not to mention McRae, Demi and his bro MGK. No matter where you tend to rest the radio dial, it’s safe to say that you’ve probably encountered blackbear. Just last year, he managed to land a song on adult contemporary, country, alternative and pop radio at the same damn time. Heck, he’s already spun pop-punk into chart gold. Twice.
But blackbear isn’t chasing a trend by picking back up the guitar on his new album. He’s reconnecting with his roots.
Nowadays, blackbear calls Los Angeles home. But he grew up in Palm Coast, Florida, where he’s still known as Matthew Musto. If you somehow happen to be from Palm Coast, or, if, like me, you’re just a fan of fast crunchy riffs and sweet, sweet screaming, then you already know that pop-punk is as deeply ingrained in the city’s history as palm trees and pastel strip malls. Palm Coast is the stomping ground of A Day to Remember, whose enduring legacy is taking weird and wonderful new shapes in the hands of fresh-faced young locals like Home is Where. Back when Musto was still in high school, his babysitter got him hooked on TRL barricade-crashers like blink-182, The Used and New Found Glory. He even fronted his very own pop-punk band, who proved catchy enough to sign with a label.
With in loving memory, blackbear isn’t just paying homage to his old favorite records. His new album was co-produced by none other than Travis Barker. Barker has transformed into something like the Saint Peter of pop-punk’s recent revival. In the process, he’s also turned into a soothsaying industry shaman à la Rick Rubin, taking wannabe rock stars like Trippie Redd under his tattooed wings. Watch the video for “the idea” and you could easily mistake blackbear for Barker’s Mini-Me, what with their matching skull caps and Rottweiler chokers.
You don’t have to listen all that closely to figure out why blackbear wanted to team with Barker on in loving memory. Barker is an all-time great behind the drum kit. Stylistically, he’s a cross between Tool’s Danny Carey and Animal from The Muppets. Barker clicks and ticks with the foreboding precision of a doomsday clock during the slow lighter-waving build of the album’s opening track, only to back handspring into his trademark routine of somersaulting fills and cymbals that shimmy like pom-poms during “dead inside”.
Barker is far from the only scene legend to join forces with blackbear on in loving memory. Grizzled veterans Bayside spring to life on the ghostly headbanger “poltergeist”. Bert McCracken lends his bloodcurdling wolf screech to “toxic energy”, which snakes off the rails into a sizzling two-headed heavy metal guitar solo. blackbear has bonafide pipes and flexes plenty of clean sugary falsetto all over this album, but “nothing matters” gets an added boost of oomph thanks to Jordan Pundick’s nasally high-pitched mewl.
in loving memory sticks close to the familiar signposts that pop-punk fans are always looking for. Sure, “broken world” flashes chintzy new wave synths and blackbear still manages to squeeze plenty of springy trap beats into the mix. But in loving memory abides by the wise mantra of all killer, no filler. This album comes tightly packaged, clocking in at 38 minutes. It reminds me of a slip ‘n slide, gushing with spiky hooks, booming bass drops and screamalong choruses. There are songs about bad habits and bad relationships. Most go down like some poisonous confection of the two. Lead single and mandatory MGK collab “gfy” packs an unsurprisingly sour punch. With lyrics like “you cut me up in four-letter lines” and “do you do it for the likes?”, the song reads like a page ripped from Regina George’s burn book.
But in loving memory also forces blackbear to face down his own demons. As his popstar was ascending, he did an awful lot of hard partying, which ended when he crash landed in the emergency room in 2016. He’s cleaned up his act since then but still takes medication for chronic pancreatitis, which can send him into withdrawal. A lot of these songs were written while blackbear was on tour, when the self-destructive itch to flush away 6 years of hard-fought sobriety was always clawing at the backdoor. “And I’m just five minutes away from burning this whole shit down”, he sings right as “back in rehab” abruptly breaks down into a full-blown basement punk freakout.
blackbear doesn’t pretend to uncover any easy answers. The past haunts him now more than ever. His father, who was addicted to heroin, died just last year. “I never really got to say goodbye,” blackbear told Apple Music. Listening back to in loving memory, what initially scanned as jaded love songs deepen into messy eulogies. On the surface, “fuilu” bristles with anger at “blank stares”, “blank chairs” and “times we never shared”. Forgiveness feels out of reach. But the song ultimately strains for understanding and maybe even empathy. After all, blackbear now has a wife and kids of his own. in loving memory might be a blast from his past. But in true pop-punk fashion, the growth that blackbear shows on this album comes from proudly bearing his flaws.
blackbear will give fans plenty more to wail about when his “Nothing Matters” tour stops in Philly this week. He’s playing The Fillmore on Thursday, September 8, alongside his buddy MOD SUN.
As you can see, MOD SUN and blackbear have very competing views on punctuation. But that they’re sharing a lineup makes perfect sense. They’re kindred spirits who share an uncommon appreciation for face tats, though their bond runs deeper than Rick Owens cargo pants.
Mod Sun, whose real name is Derek Smith, comes from chilly Bloomington, Minnesota. As a kid, Smith sported a pretty mean slapper but that didn’t stop him from feeling any less like an outcast. He and his mom didn’t have much money. Year after year, they bounced to yet another quiet itty-bitty farm town. Come the first day of school, he often found himself stuck with being the new kid all over again.
Like blackbear, Mod Sun eventually rose to fame on a kushy cloud of frat star hippy-hop. But like blackbear, he found his calling through pop-punk. After getting some timely advice from Sublime’s Bud Gaugh (who happened to be his next-door neighbor), Mod Sun got to drumming for a slew of hardcore bands, including Four Letter Lie and Semester. A decade later, he reconverted to the genre on Internet Killed the Rockstar. That album grabbed a whole lot of attention and not just from the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Who came sliding into his DMs but Avril Lavigne, who’s now his fiancé.
As if getting married to pop-punk’s perennial queen wasn’t enough excitement, Mod Sun is gearing up for the release of Rich Kids Ruin Everything, his second album for LA rock label Big Noise. New single “Battle Scars” blows out Mod Sun’s deep-throated theatrics with even loftier bombast. The verses flicker with pensive piano pinks. Drums burst up through the chorus like Hollywood spotlights beaming down through a black hole.
Mod Sun told PAPER that he got the direction for the song’s video from Gus Van Sant, the man behind the camera of Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy and that bizarre shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. It shows too. Spliced with forbidden romance, triple crosses, Derelicte fashion and a puzzle-piece narrative, the “Battle Scars” video definitely feels cinematic. I probably won’t sit through Mod Sun’s latest stoner comedy. But this kind of high drama? This I’m here for.
Don’t miss blackbear and MOD SUN this Thursday Sept. 8 at The Fillmore in Philly, doors are at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm! For tickets and tour schedule click here!
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