In my eyes, Machine Gun Kelly’s music has always felt non-essential. He’s clearly talented, but his inability to find a niche as a mainstream entity continues to bog even his biggest hits down. His most popular tracks are pandering at best, embarrassing at worst. 2017’s “Bad Things” was a cookie cutter pop-rap smash thanks to Camilla Cabello’s highly sensual chorus and sugary vocals. “Rap Devil” headlined the most lopsided hip hop battle in years. Even during his worst musical run of his career, Eminem quite literally offered a possible kill shot to Kelly’s tenure as a relevant musician.
Kwlly’s recent foray into film has surprisingly suited him well during a second-act revival. The Cleveland native’s most notable performance was his portrayal of Motely Crue’s idiosyncratic drummer Tommy Lee in The Dirt. The 2019 Netflix film proved that, under the right circumstances, Kelly can easily get lost in a character he’s heavily familiar with. And while he has yet to break out as a true main event in cinema, Machine at the very least displays some artistic versatility in multiple situations.
In a roundabout way, Kelly’s depiction of Lee in The Dirt would ostensibly foreshadow his musical direction in 2020. Prior to the movie’s release, most of Machine’s music felt like it was trying to keep up with hip hop’s ever-evolving ecosystem. He drew himself towards the sad boy aesthetic with a pop-punk edge that felt jerry-built. The makeshift style would not last long in a musical landscape that begs for unique tropes. A sharp turn was imminent, if not a little necessary.
On his newest album Tickets To My Downfall, Kelly conjures a nostalgic lane with improved results. The early 2000s Blink-182 reproduction is fully brought to life by Travis Barker’s foot-stomping drums. The former Blink member is also enjoying a second life thanks to his genre-bending collaborations with $uicideBoys, iann dior, and other artists who grew up in that era of music. Based on his recent artistic endeavors, Kelly belongs in this class of young upstarts who don’t always need hi-hats and 808 drums to “sing their hearts out.”
In fact, Kelly’s transition from derivative rapper to punk-pop hell-boy is somewhat admirable. It’s, at the very least, a genre he’s enjoyed throughout his entire life, and something he’s been clearly leaning towards over the past couple of years. Kelly sounds comfortable-or uncomfortable depending how you look at it-plotting his own shroom-filled collapse.
He shies away from being too much of a caricature, instead focusing on real-life implications that carry clear consequences. For example, on songs like “title track” and “all i know,” Kelly subtly shuns the industry for basically exploiting the trials and tribulations of a drug-fueled artist without offering any type of help for them. “My label hates that I’m like this/I gotta go through shit to keep writing” he sneers on the latter, while Interscope continues to profit off of his sadness. Kelly almost offers a cry for help, a sentiment transparently advertised in the album’s title and first song (“I sold some tickets/To come see my downfall/It sold out in minutes”).
The album as a whole begs the age-old question surrounding voyeurism, and how we as critics and fans should approach an artist’s music with a certain balance between enjoyment and empathy. Kelly, with a hint of self-awareness, seems to ponder these dynamics intermittently throughout TTMD. In the meantime, he also succumbs to the very temptations he would most likely love to avoid.
From the suicidal contemplations to the shit-faced lovelorn tales (“Drunk Face”), Kelly just doesn’t seem very happy. He sings in a bratty tone about doing cocaine and running out of serotonin (“nothing inside”) when heartbreak is smacking him right in the face. He talks about taking a pill that isn’t shaped like a heart while directly comparing his recent instability to World War III. You really can’t get any more forthright than, “Goddamnit, I’m trying to find inner peace/But it’s World War III.”
Barker’s heart-pounding production isn’t necessarily ageless, but it is a perfect platform for Kelly to unfurl his rage. At times, the combination can feel like an R-rated Disney anthem, specifically on “concert for aliens,” where Machine attempts to gain some type of self-esteem back as his shroom trip wears off. His metaphorical songwriting is significantly more grounded than before. It’s also slightly alarming, particularly when he speaks on wanting to end his life by jumping off the ledge. This is the type of shit Juice WRLD leaned towards in his first album from a couple years back.
Despite going for a style that many thought wouldn’t find its footing again in the industry, Kelly and Barker construct a design that a lot fans my age would probably enjoy considering the era it’s borne from. The former rapper turned literal rockstar is finally making the music that he wants to make. The only major question is at what cost? Hopefully not his mental health.