Released last summer to tease Machine Gun Kelly’s sixth album, the single “Papercuts,” with its strummy Cobain-pain guitar and brain-stewing power chords, was met with a mild shrug of support. According to the proverbial “people on the Internet,” it was seen as another lateral “rock” move from the ex-mixtape rapper signed by Diddy in 2011 as a much-belated retort to Dr. Dre’s Eminem gambit. Although his 2020 pop-punk bid Tickets to My Downfall (helmed by Kardashian-adjacent Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker) debuted at No. 1, there were still digs at MGK’s authenticity.
So, who’s to know when Kelly wrote the furious rap that’s now been added to the “album edit” of “Papercuts.” But it’s clear his mind is aswirl with such perceptions as he barks: “Y’all said I switched genres/I saw the limit and took it farther/I’m a genius, could’ve made Donda/But this song is to my dead father, unh.”
This is exactly the defiant, ego-flaunting sneer that has turned Colson Baker, damaged child of itinerant Christian-missionary parents, into the inked and bleached “Machine Gun Kelly,” a feuding, celebrity-coupling cutie chameleon who careens from stage to gossip site to lawsuit. Like Pete Davidson — who giggles through a cameo on Mainstream Sellout — he sparks reactions that blaze up into money.
Take the gleefully derivative “Emo Girl,” which cross-references multiple pop-culture niches and has already inspired a “Butt Rock Girl” parody. Boosted by live-wire foil Willow, a.k.a., Will Smith’s daughter, “Emo Girl” opens with a clip of the 2009 horror comedy Jennifer’s Body (current subversive feminist/queer touchstone), in which the title character, played by Megan Fox (Kelly’s current paramour), plainly states, “I am a god.” (Is this another troll by the weed bud of Ye’s ex-wife’s boyfriend?) The song seamlessly blends Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi” with Good Charlotte’s “Riot Girl” and when Kelly reins in his yelpy tiks, the buzzsaw-bubblegum sticks.
But such mirth and mayhem are not Mainstream Sellout‘s goal. Assisted by Barker, his drummer/spirit guide, Kelly makes an evolving, not-very-joyful noise that nods to his old noise and inspires him to purge. The resulting sentiment: I suck and I want to die. Song after song refers to dying, suicide, imagining himself or someone else dead, or viewing love as a zombie apocalypse. Lyrically, it’s his lingua franca.
On opener “Born With Horns,” over a double-time breakbeat and slashes of guitar, he rap-moans “I don’t want to live anymore” and concludes on the more endearing, less snotty chorus, “In this film, I know there’s no happy endings.” He repeats that line in album closer “Twin Flame,” his attempt at a “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” with acoustic guitar and piano. On “Twin Flame,” as elsewhere, he’s broken and she’s too good, too pure, too magic for him, so it’s time to check out.
Kelly, at age 31, hasn’t realized that introspective songwriting doesn’t stop at admitting you’re a narcissistic piece of garbage. The title track — not quite two minutes of alt-Nineties chum — has an Auto-Tuned MGK crooning and wailing insults hurled by others. (A vocal-fried Megan Fox pops up, asking, “Does he even, like, play guitar?”) But the song sputters out and it’s on to “Make Up Sex,” where he boasts, “Face down, laid pipe/Waterworks, swam in your pool.” All together now, “YECCHH!”
For the most part, Kelly uses rock to express his pain and rap to escape from it, i.e., abusing substances with Lil Wayne on two fairly pointless tracks. He has a nice rapport with Iann Dior on the pleasant pop-rock exercise “Fake Love Don’t Last.” But whether Kelly deploys “rock,” “rap,” or “pop,” selling out and annoying people online are the least of his issues. Maybe next time, his self-loathing death wishes could be the jumping-off point, not the be-all, end-all.