It’s hard to even know what to make of the video. Machine Gun Kelly, longtime rap-industry B-teamer, bunny-hops on one leg across the Interscope Records conference room table, playing air guitar and dangling freshly bleached hair down in his eyes. He’s got on Chuck Taylors and ripped jeans and a flannel and a wallet chain. The assembled music-industry types sit and watch him — utterly nonreactive, hopelessly bored. The spectacle looks a whole lot like the scene of Bobby Shmurda in the Epic Records conference room three years earlier — with crucial differences.
One: Machine Gun Kelly is white. Two: Machine Gun Kelly is not hopelessly trying to escape poverty. He’s already rich. He’s good. Three: Machine Gun Kelly is attempting to sell himself as a punk rocker — despite the whole complicated reality that part of being a punk rocker, at least in theory, is not selling yourself as one. Also, the label execs in that Bobby Shmurda video at least seem excited about the prospect of signing the kid. The people in the Interscope room look like: Ugh. Fuck. I guess we’re doing this now. But they’re doing this now. Machine Gun Kelly is a punk rocker. The pitch has been made.
Once upon a time, Machine Gun Kelly was a pretty good white mixtape rapper — the type of energetic and technically precise voice who would show up at the end of a Travis Porter song to add a quick jolt. Inevitably, he got signed. Diddy brought MGK into the Bad Boy Family, and the young man born Colson Baker spent the better part of a decade making jumped-up pop-rap. He always seemed happy to be there, which made sense. He should have been happy to be there. He was lucky, and he knew it. Eight years ago, I saw MGK open up an arena show on Rick Ross, Meek Mill, and Wale’s Maybach Music tour, and he spent much of the headliners’ set jumping around in the crowd. Jumping around was really his specialty.
But the clues were there. MGK always sold a simple, easy sort of rebellion: “Yeah, bitch! Yeah, bitch! Call me Steve-O!” And he always made nods to another simple and easy sort of rebellion, from the middle-school binder-scribble anarchy symbol tatted across his midriff to the absurd claim that “Cobain’s back.” In 2013, he released a mixtape called Black Flag. We should’ve known.
Up until now, Machine Gun Kelly has had a moderately successful rap career. He’s stuck around. He’s been on songs. He’s even had hits; the 2016 Camila Cabello collab “Bad Things” made it to #4. And yet MGK’s greatest moment of relevance probably happened a couple of years ago, when he got into a brief and fairly entertaining feud with obvious aesthetic inspiration Eminem. Some of MGK’s lines on the anti-Em track “Rap Devil” were genuinely funny: “His fucking beard is weird.” (Also, as a tall man, I support all tall people making fun of short people for the crime of being short.) The MGK/Eminem feud didn’t have a definitive winner, but MGK got something out of it just by getting under the skin of a way-more-famous, way-more-established rapper. MGK played the heel, and he played it pretty well.
MGK also played the heel in his acting career. (Sometimes, he’s played the literal heel, as in the 2015 moment where Kevin Owens powerbombed him off the Monday Night Raw stage. MGK landed on a very visible crash-pad, but still, he took the fall.) In his first onscreen role, in the underseen 2014 drama Beyond The Lights, MGK played Kid Culprit, a total-asshole white rapper. That role capitalized on MGK’s innate punchability. Since then, MGK has played dickheads, burnouts, and dickhead burnouts. Most of his characters have been low-level villains.
Over time, MGK has gotten a little better at playing dickhead burnouts. He was pretty funny as Tommy Lee for instance, in the otherwise-unwatchable Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, and he was nicely vulnerable in his friend Pete Davidson’s Hulu coming-of-age flick Big Time Adolescence. Last month, I experienced something I never expected. I was genuinely happy to see MGK show up in a movie. He’s got one scene as an aloof tattoo artist in The King Of Staten Island, and when he made his appearance, I was like: Oh! Hey! This guy!
Maybe that’s why I’m not quite willing to reject the MGK pop-punk experiment out of hand. Or maybe it’s just that I’m fucking fascinated with how this could’ve happened. Because Machine Gun Kelly is now making pop-punk. That’s his thing now. For his new album Tickets To My Downfall, MGK has teamed up with Travis Barker, a guy who has signified rock ‘n’ roll excess and rebellion within rap-music circles ever since Da Shop Boyz namechecked him on 2007’s “Party Like A Rockstar.” (Between Tommy Lee and Travis Barker, MGK definitely has a thing for bad-boy drummers. If Keith Moon was still alive, MGK would be stagediving into his Instagram DMs right now.) Barker has done plenty of rap production over the years, but that’s not what Tickets To My Downfall is. Instead, Barker is there to help MGK jump headlong into the world of glittery Warped Tour pogo music. It’s wild.
MGK has been building to this moment for a little while — or at least since last year, when he released the Yungblud/Barker collab “I Think I’m Okay” as a single. This year, MGK, to his credit, has been out and visible during the protests against police brutality. He’s also saluted those protests in the silliest way possible: By posting a video where he and Barker covered Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name.” That well-intentioned, hopelessly embarrassing cover proves that Machine Gun Kelly is not as good a rapper as Zack De La Rocha, or at least that he’s not as good at this type of rapping. But MGK hasn’t rapped since.
MGK doesn’t rap at all on Tickets To My Downfall. The album is a full-on mall-punk genre exercise. Parts of it sound like mid-period Fall Out Boy. Parts sound like New Found Glory. Squint your ears hard enough, and parts of it even sound like Saves The Day. The single “concert for aliens” is a full-on Blink-182 pastiche, with an actual Blink-182 member right there behind him. (There are rumors that Matt Skiba is out of Blink now, which means there’s a non-zero chance that MGK will just fuck around and join the band.) Also, I swear to fucking god, there’s a moment where MGK has Trippie Redd singing an Operation Ivy song.
The song “all i know” — MGK is on that all-lowercase song-title wave — heavily interpolates Berkeley ska-punk gods Op Ivy’s 1989 anthem “Knowledge,” to the point where all the members of Op Ivy get songwriting credit. (Jessie Michaels is getting Bad Boy checks in 2020.) On that song, MGK brays, “My label hates that I’m like this,” and I honestly don’t know if that’s true. I would not be surprised if Tickets To My Downfall becomes MGK’s biggest record ever. It’s definitely the first time I really feel compelled to pay attention to the guy.
In the past few years, rap music has truly discovered the magic of mid-’00s MySpace emo. Lil Peep identified as a rapper while throwing 808s over the kinds of songs that you could hear banging from the Warped Tour parking lot a decade earlier. Juice WRLD and Trippie Redd became stars by nasally whine-singing about romantic travails over maddeningly sticky guitar riffage. In recent months, the Kid Laroi and 24kGoldn have made massive hits that only barely even qualify as rap music. Machine Gun Kelly has been chasing the rap zeitgeist for his entire career. In a way, he may have finally caught it by moving away from rapping entirely.
Is Tickets To My Downfall any good? I honestly have no idea. I’m still trying to process the idea that it exists. The lyrics are gallingly dumb: “If I’m a painter, I’d be a depressionist.” MGK pulls the trick, common to both pop-punk and to the rap that imitates pop-punk, of blaming way too much sadness on some poor girlfriend: “She’ll get attached and then trap me/ Then I gotta act like I’m happy.” There’s also a whole lot of classic mall-punk posing: “I’m overstimulated and I’m sad/ I don’t expect you to understand,” “I know you wanted me to go to law school/ I dyed my hair, pierced my nostril.” I love that. That’s always fun. Over the course of my lifetime, I have given way too much of my money to NOFX to front on any type of shit like that.
Musically, Tickets To My Downfall layers 808 booms under candy-bright guitars. Barker’s drums, both electronic and otherwise, sound huge. A lot of the hooks are nastily effective. I appreciate that MGK’s voice is deep and gruff, that he doesn’t adapt the nasal whine that way too many of his rap peers use when they’re adapting pop-punk sonics. There’s a song called “Jawbreaker” on the album, and I have no idea whether that’s supposed to be a reference to the band or whether it’s just the candy. But Travis Barker is in a band with Tim Armstrong. There’s no way Barker doesn’t know his Gilman St. classics, and I’m willing to bet that he’s at least noticed that MGK sometimes sounds at least a little bit like Blake Schwarzenbach. (He doesn’t write like Blake Schwarzenbach, but neither do I, and neither do you.)
Right now, the gamble seems to be paying off. MGK is getting more airplay on alt-rock radio now than he ever got on R&B radio. Two singles have made the top 10 of the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart. As I write this, the Blackbear collab “my ex’s best friend” is the only non-rap song in the Apple Music top 10 and one of the only two in the top 10 on Spotify. (The Justin Bieber/Chance The Rapper joint is in there, too, if that counts as being non-rap.) MGK has also gotten plenty of mileage out of the fact that he is now dating Megan Fox. Fox is in his “Bloody Valentine” video, an unapologetic Green Day pastiche. (With the “Love The Way You Lie” connection, maybe it’s also an Eminem pastiche. Again, though: No rapping.)
This isn’t like Lil Wayne, at the peak of his stardom, making a sudden and self-indulgent pivot to radio rock. This is something else — a rapper finding out that he might just be better off as a mall-punk figurehead. Hell, maybe all those years in rap’s B-list have given MGK a certain credibility to the kids currently streaming his album. Maybe that’s his version of spending years touring basements in a van. It’s 2020, baby. Everything’s on the table, and nothing makes sense. All I know is that I don’t know nothing.
1. Willie The Kid – “Egregious”
15 years ago, Willie The Kid was the DJ Drama protege taking up valuable space on Lil Wayne mixtapes that should’ve gone to more Lil Wayne verses. Today, Willie The Kid is making ridiculously solid boom-bap with Evidence producing. The world is a wondrous place.
2. Billy Bank$ – “Underrated”
Do you think the young Queens drill rapper Billy Bank$ knows that he’s chosen a stage name that makes him sound a lot like he’s the guy who invented Tae Bo? Does he just not care? Either way, this kicks hard.
3. 14 trapdoors – “Means To The End” (Feat. Boldy James, Royce Da 5’9″, & Billy Essco)
The Buffalo group 14 trapdoors makes, eerie, paranoiac indie-rap with a great eerie early-’00s edge. They also have good taste in collaborators, which more than makes up for the dumb line about putting out the blunt on Donald Trump’s combover.
4. Icewear Vezzo, Hoodrich Pablo Juan, & Z Money – “No Autotune”
Being a foundational rap star and coming out with a song called “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune)” is corny. Being a group of regional underground rappers and coming out with a song called “No Autotune” that never mentions Auto-Tune is much, much cooler.
5. Tha God Fahim & Your Old Droog – “Mailman”
Let’s make this song a hit — partly because it’s good and partly because I want to hear Bfb Da Packman on a remix.