Favorite Track: "Weaponry" Least Favorite Track: "Tracy Calls Noelle (Mike’s Ex)"
Detroit singer-songwriter Mike Posner has built much of his status off of the backs of other artists. His early mixtapes such as, A Matter Of Time are littered with big name rap features that constantly steal his spotlight, as well as large interpolations of classic rock and pop songs. It’s ironic that what once could have been considered his weakest musical quality is now the sole reason he still has a career: his songwriting. Following the success of his 2016 hit "I Took A Pill In Ibiza," Posner experienced change to the highest degree. He lost his father, his good friend Avicii, and one of his biggest inspirations, Mac Miller. At the same time, people seemed to lose interest in what he was doing musically. His follow-up to his biggest commercial success ever wasn’t a fleeting appeal to the mainstream, instead he shared two poetry albums, and as if that wasn’t unorthodox enough at the beginning of 2019, Mike Posner decided to walk across America. What followed was a perilous six-month journey, resulting in a near death experience and an entire album's worth of inspired, storytelling music (2019’s Keep Going). Loss, accomplishment, and the lows and highs that have detailed the life of Mike Posner over the last few years, have shaped a new era of his career. On December 18, 2020 Posner shared his first post-adventure album: Operation: Wake Up.
Operation: Wake Up is a thirty-six minute, fictional, autobiographical, concept album detailing the mental decline of an aging songwriter in Los Angeles, California. The plot is harrowing, emotionally confusing, and memorable, but more than anything, it is extremely convincing. There are few moments where Posner’s meticulously detailed songwriting fails to captivate, he does a fantastic job at painting Operation: Wake Up as it’s own narrative universe. In the album’s intro, Posner lays out a simple set of directions; “It (this album) is meant to be listened to all the way through/ if you can’t devote thirty six minutes of undivided attention to this album, I politely ask that you turn it off and return at a later time”. What sounds like an unintentionally subtle brag of his art’s greatness turns out to be a valid reccomendation. This project truly requires one’s full attention to be enjoyed. The story and the plot is accessible, Posner doesn’t present Operation: Wake Up as more abstract than it is, but attention is certainly required to enjoy Posner’s sonic storytelling to the fullest extent.
Operation: Wake Up doesn’t run like a collection of songs as much as it does one auditory embodiment of a story; in that way, it could easily be seen as more of something like an audiobook or the soundtrack to a musical. Upon first listen this shouldn’t be surprising, Posner is a writer. It’s simply what he does. He is a student of poetry and a songwriter at heart. Appropriately this is where the story of Operation: Wake Up opens. Track #1, “Shave It All Off”, sets the scene with Posner at a rented LA mansion, where he is staying to write songs for other artists. The track consists of dialogue between Posner and his barber Tracy, depicting his impulsive decision to shave his entire head before he begins spilling the story of his breakup. Here is where we first see how well this album interweaves storytelling and songwriting. Posner often takes the central theme of many of the tracks on this album, chooses a related key-word, and then interpolates the hook directly into the character dialogue in a style that feels reminiscent of his fellow Detroit native: Eminem.
Next in the story, Posner heads to a studio session with Jessie J, where they write the album’s only true song: “Weaponry”. This gorgeous ballad showcases Jessie J’s vocal chops, backed by some emotional pianos and extravagant instrumental pop progressions. We hear the duo pen the song and discuss it, before hearing the final product; effectively masking its presentation as part of the story. After his studio session, Posner meets blackbear for dinner at Joe’s Falafel, his thoughts still clouded by the breakup that he described to Tracy, (which he uses as a subtle theme in “weaponry”). Due to the close nature of their relationship, bear sees straight through Posner's plastic smile as they eat dinner. blackbear recommends “some LA pussy” to get his mind off of his ex-lover. Posner argues profusely, but eventually blackbear persuades him to throw a party at his rented LA mansion. Following this, we learn that blackbear has been sleeping with Posner’s ex ever since he moved out of LA. The drama sets up a sticky situation to ensue at this future party.
In “Blackbear Throws A Rager in LA”, the duo indulge in an acid trip to help Mike let loose and stop worrying about his recently lost relationship. Soon after as the story climaxes, Posner takes us on a sonic embodiment of his LSD trip in “High & Low (on LSD)”. This five minute instrumental experience eventually develops into a sole voice saying “nothing is real”. This is where the majority of the story begins to reveal it’s message. “Nothing is real” is a metaphor to describe the LA lifestyle that Mike so desperately hates. In the album’s opening track he states that his biggest fear was “being famous again” and being “back in LA”. We soon start to understand how this phobia drives the ethos of Mike Posner. It’s why he didn’t want to throw an LA party, it’s why he admitted he thought “Weaponry” was corny, it’s why he moved away from LA, and in relation to his real life, It’s why he walked across America. His biggest fear is that nothing is real. Operation: Wake Up is his rebuttal to plasticity. He understands the facade that is the Hollywood lifestyle, and he is doing everything he can to combat it. At the end of this track, Posner witnesses his biggest fear and a testament to the validity of his phobias; his best friend blackbear having sex with his ex-girlfriend. He pulls a gun on them, kicks them out of his house, and drinks himself to sleep.
Operation: Wake Up closes with “Alone In A Mansion”, where Posner wakes up after blacking out drunk to find himself alone in a destroyed, rented LA mansion. The track covers his fleeting attempts to be “someone different/someone who’s not him”. Mike Posner comes to the conclusion that he will never be able to concede his livelihood to the toxic lifestyle of other Hollywood pop stars, therefore solidifying his fate as an aging songwriter in LA. He realizes that without becoming something fake, one can’t make it in Los Angeles, and if an artist can’t survive in Los Angeles, they can’t survive at all. With his newfound mindset of future failure eating away at his consciousness, Posner takes his own life.
Few albums of this nature achieve the convincing storytelling that Operation: Wake Up does. Mike Posner consistently interweaves this thought-provoking narrative with beyond catchy songwriting that’s all too impressive. Closing your eyes and listening to this in a dark room turns your brain into a movie theatre: what’s most impressive is how easily Mike does it. Some of these songs tote the line between a banger and a TV show in a way that’s wildly unique. For example take “Mike meets Blackbear at Joe’s Falafel”. The title clearly notes that the piece is meant solely as a part of the cohesive storyline. The fact that it’s enjoyability as a stand alone track comes naturally, serves as a testament to Posner’s songwriting ability.
It’s quite sad that Mike Posner is releasing his best work now because it seems as if it’s too late. Arguably, this is the best album he has ever made. His duo with blackbear, Mansionz, released a very solid 2017 debut, and Posner’s 2019 album A Real Good Kid was easily his best project in years. Yet, for whatever reason, Operation: Wake Up isn’t getting nearly the amount of respect that it deserves and in a lot of ways that stands as a testament to the truth of it’s message. Operation: Wake Up, isn't fit to be a commercial success. It seeks to impress the very industry that it’s subject matter critiques. When the smoke clears and one begins to ponder this project's core message, it becomes painfully apparent as to why Operation: Wake Up won't see commercial success, large streaming numbers, or constant radio play. This project tells the truth. That’s why no one cares about this album; it isn’t cool to be real in LA.