At the risk of kicking someone while they’re well and truly down, why is Machine Gun Kelly still trying? It’s hard to see how he could try and salvage anything from his floundering mess of a career, though that can be traced right back to his profound sell-out move on 2017’s Bloom, an album which saw him pegged as little more than a freeloader within rock and hip-hop, and another faceless guest to provide sub-par rap verses in pop. It all makes the shots taken at Eminem on Rap Devil feel a bit more explainable as a shot for increased relevance, but all it really produced was a far more visceral and competent response in Killshot, and Kelly’s own Binge EP which based its entire existence on the fact that Rap Devil was the only thing of worth on it. And yet, at a point where Kelly’s career should’ve been ousted a good while ago, there’s something impressive about the tenacity he’s displaying if nothing else, even if the run-up to Hotel Diablo has largely been defined by a collaboration with Yungblud in order to foster even a tenuous connection to what’s currently popular. It makes sense though really, especially those two teaming up; both have barely anything of substance to offer in any conceivable way, and for all their notions of breaking down genre barriers in their output, all it’s really ended up with is a rather constant stream of dramatic misfires from both parties.
That song in question is I Think I’m OKAY, and to be perfectly honest, it’s far from the worst thing that either artist has produced, mostly because it’s locked into a fairly bombastic pop-rock groove courtesy of Travis Barker’s drumming that sets the stage for a genuinely sincere and introspective core to shine through. And as a whole, that could possibly be a good sign for Hotel Diablo going forward; Kelly has typically had some decent successes when embracing his rock impulses, and if his push from the alternative media is going to continue, meeting some of those sonic expectations couldn’t hurt. But that really isn’t the case, and while the obvious slides into darker tones and themes away from Bloom’s unsubtle pop pivots make Hotel Diablo better (or at least a bit more deserving of understanding), this is still an album that highlights just how profoundly Kelly is struggling in settling on a career direction that’s both musically fruitful and creatively fulfilling. There are certainly flashes of both here, but nothing that could coherently come together for this to be worthwhile enough to be considered good. It’s definitely an improvement, but ultimately not enough of one to cross the necessary thresholds.
To Kelly’s absolutely credit though, the events over the past two years that have resulted in these changes have been chronicled and extrapolated well here. This definitely feels like a more driven album in its return to more nimble flows that feel spurred on by the feuds that have comprised so much of Kelly’s recent spotlight and that heavily underscore Floor 13, but also one trapped in its own murk and nihilism, whether that’s a case of being broken down by a predatory and manipulative music industry on Hollywood Whore, or through Kelly seeing so many of his peers take their own lives after giving into depression in situations that mirror his own on Glass House. Even if the mental health angle on I Think I’m OKAY isn’t the most detailled or visceral, the dejected, bellowing release is still there, and when tied together by a deeper reality on Burning Memories and Death In My Pocket, there’s a notable amount of pathos that does actually feel compelling. That would all make a great basis for the whole album if it was workable, but Hotel Diablo proves that that’s not the case, and like with plenty of other Machine Gun Kelly projects that have preceded it, it’s down to a lack of focus and deeper engagement with what’s at hand. The former comes with tracks like El Diablo and Roulette that rend the theming more and more with chest-puffing posturing that really doesn’t fit, or ‘comedy’ skits like A Message From The Count and Truck Norris Interlude that shouldn’t even be here, but it’s the latter that’s the most damning indictment of Hotel Diablo, in that for all the pain and prostration that Kelly lays out onto the table, he’s not able to get enough from it to make it all interesting. It’s perhaps most evident on Waste Love and 5:3666 which just wind up as flavourless recycling of broader anguish that refuses to stick in any capacity, but then there’s the generally abortive Candy or the truncation of Glass House that takes what could’ve been a rather poignant song and tries to cram it back into a pop framework that, at this point, Kelly has rinsed of whatever little viability it has. It’s good to see that’s not the overarching goal of Hotel Diablo, but with the way in which a good handful of these tracks are pared down or stripped to their raw materials with little to buoy them, you get the feeling that might’ve been a better tactic to try.
Unfortunately, it’s the same case with the presentation too; for as much as Kelly turning to darker, more menacing sonic palettes to match his lyrical turns, it’s hard to find the grabbing hook in a lot of this material that stops some of these tracks from being little more than filler, even if the instrumentation and production does have more merit overall than a lot of the content. That doesn’t stop the flimsy pop-rap of Glass House from feeling any less like a standard Garageband loop though, nor does it stop the dour, washed-out dreariness of Burning Memories or 5:3666 from continuing to operate from the ponderously heavy yet empty template of later-period Eminem, albeit with a trap inflection to bring them up to date. In fact, for all the beef they’ve had, Eminem still seems to be natural touchstone to Kelly’s music, for good or for ill; he still has the same authoritative tone in his delivery which, when used for swaggering assertiveness of El Diablo feels like a natural fit, but he’s also brought forward the habit of getting interchangeable female vocalists for hooks that struggle to form any sort of personality against instrumentation that’s already crying out for it. Moreover on that point, it’s not like Lil Skies or Trippie Redd bring anything of much value to Burning Memories or Candy respectively, with only Yungblud and Travis Barker having a noticeable impact with their contributions on I Think I’m OKAY that shows what Kelly can offer when he steps out of his own circle of banality. That’s actually true for a lot of this album, in fact, as when the bare minimum acts a baseline rather than the final result, Hotel Diablo has moments that feel like they come from an artist actually trying to grow. The sharper Ronny J beat on El Diablo is a good start, but the most prevalent moments come the embrace of rock that Kelly actually has a decent command over, and while the greasy guitar sizzle on Floor 13 feels slathered over the mix without even a whiff of tact, the more oppressively bleak atmosphere of Hollywood Whore actually has some menace with it, especially with paired with the chilly synths flourish of Linkin Park’s Numb, and the melancholic alt-pop guitars of Candy and the bounding closer I Think I’m OKAY bring a nicer diversity of colour into the mix in an extremely welcome move.
It’s enough to show that, when he wants to, Kelly can bring some more fire to his material, even if the path he’s currently going down is doing everything in its power to discourage him from doing anything of the sort. And that’s probably the biggest shortcoming of Hotel Diablo; it doesn’t attempt to hide the obvious dichotomy between Kelly as a mainstream rapper and Kelly as a harsher, more incisive rockstar, and to have those two halves clash with as much forces as they do results in a splintered mess that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. That’s definitely preferable to the flat, bland emptiness of Bloom in the sense that there’s actually something here, but Hotel Diablo doesn’t even feel transitional as much as totally misguided and confused in almost every aspect. The highlights do shine through with a degree of inspiration that’s worth exploring further, but whether that’s going to happen at all is more of an open question now than ever, especially when Kelly himself seems to have no clue what he actually wants to do.
For fans of: Eminem, Hopsin, nothing,nowhere.
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Hotel Diablo’ by Machine Gun Kelly is out now on Interscope Records / Bad Boy Records.