ALBUM REVIEW: Machine Gun Kelly – ‘mainstream sellout’

Machine Gun Kelly playing the guitar while purple tomatoes are thrown at him from out of shot.

See what happens when you give these people an inch? They start thinking it’s a good idea to make more music, and thus try and legitimise career choices that don’t deserve that leeway in the slightest. Clearly Machine Gun Kelly is trying to prolong his emo phase more than a lot of rappers ultimately will, something which, against all odds, has united rock music’s tribes to agree on how much of a thorough annoyance he really is. You’ve got to give him credit for his unparalleled confidence though; imagine having the balls to come swanning into a scene where no one wants you, spawning the most heinous wave of pop-punk imaginable, and still proceed to beef with respected genre veterans for no reason other than keeping your embers of clout flickering. It’s clearly working given that his career has never been more fruitful, much to the chagrin of anyone with good taste or who can realise how transparent of an act this all is. He’s the archetype for everything wrong with this current wave of pop-punk (something that we’ve previously expanded on here), and the fact he’s still trying to play up that he’s a real rockstar is actually kind of laughable when you take it all in. Calling this album mainstream sellout was probably supposed to be his clapback against the haters who’ll deny his credentials (even though they have every right to), but at the end of the day, he’s just telling it as it is. As a rapper, his biggest successes came from his clearest pop concessions, something which can parlay easily enough into cosplaying as a pop-punk artist and trying to feign some form of influential status within that. It’s frankly embarrassing, and the degree to which MGK has played it up has done the complete opposite of his aspirations, in that no one can take him even remotely seriously anymore.

All of that is to say, of course mainstream sellout is bad, but where Tickets To My Downfall was more just generic, this is exactly as flounderingly pitiful and cringeworthy as one would expect from someone in MGK’s position, a grown man trying to nakedly flog his own ineptitude and embodying everything wrong about pop-punk today. It’s the way he’s always tried to sell it as something fresh and unique that’s really made him sound like he has no idea what he’s doing, where he’ll claim that no one’s pushing rock in the mainstream as far as him when that couldn’t be further from the truth. He regularly comes off as a whiny loser bitching about his first-world problems; that’s literally the pop-punk playbook to the letter that he’s following. But because MGK is useless at everything, it’s taken to the point where any vestige of genuineness is yanked out in favour of juicing as much ‘relatability’ as possible to an audience half his age. He’s not blurting out how he’s “in love with an emo girl” for any adults listening; it’s all for the hypothetical 13-year-old stans, who’ll insert themselves in and willfully ignore how shamelessly and thoughtlessly they’re being pandered to.

But obviously MGK doesn’t care, which really is the thesis statement of the album. He’s wearing the pelts of ‘mainstream sellout’ like a badge of honour, because in his narrow-minded perception of literally everything, being a controversial rockstar is something to aspire to, when in reality all he’s doing is ignoring how no one whose opinion holds any worth likes him, and how limiting that’ll be for him going forward. He’s clearly not willing to move past the base-level themes that have built his pedestal, which is why this already feels so much duller than even Tickets To My Downfall. As much as the first short stretch might imply inching towards something more, it doesn’t take long to reveal that’s been blown way too quickly. He’s depressed; he’s doing drugs; he’s got a string of bad relationships behind him; it’s about as boilerplate as MGK’s content comes, where he’ll try for heightened emotion but oversell it all to the point of utter meaninglessness. WW4 is the big example as maybe the most egregiously performative ‘punk’ song ever put to record—with a line like “Your teachers are full of shit / You don’t need to go to school”, it’s beyond any doubt that MGK knows exactly who he’s targeting—but that runs off on how many of his sentiments feel like acts. drug dealer and emo girl especially are about as laser-focused on cultivating an image as possible, no matter how flagrantly trope-y they’ll subsequently seem, but mainstream sellout as a whole makes no bones about how far MGK is willing to take this particular thread, and how exhaustingly deluded he seems throughout. He’ll openly call himself a genius on papercuts, but there’s no evidence of that anywhere, and the fact he’ll draw parallels to Kanye West’s DONDA just proves how rampant ego is prioritised over all else. The number of chances he’s been given to fail is frankly staggering, but he never has to deal with the consequences, and thus bold-faced declarations like that from the most see-through poser imaginable will seem justified to him. Just look at the title track, designed to be a snarky riposte at the haters and the doubters, but all it accomplishes is regurgitating the criticisms with no deeper application (how fitting…) to wind up just proving them right.

Because, let’s be blunt—if MGK thinks literally anything he’s put to record here is ‘genius’, he needs to be sectioned as soon as possible. Yet again, he’s treating the table scraps of blink-182 as a worthwhile foundation for an entire musical identity, still with Travis Barker in his corner to give him more competent drumming than he deserves. The backsteps to emo-rap on ay! and die in california might constitute something new (they’re still gutted and needlessly thin but whatever…), but this is more or less a holistic retread of Tickets To My Downfall. Hell, make up sex is practically a carbon copy of my ex’s best friend, all the way down to the blackbear feature. It feels so lazy in a way that’s perfectly in-keeping with where MGK’s wave of pop-punk will go; he might have added to his crew of collaborators WILLOW and Bring Me The Horizon (you’d expect them to know better) alongside the usual blackbear and iann dior (you wouldn’t expect them to), but they’re still bent back to meet MGK’s usual homogeneity. Even on maybe, the Bring Me The Horizon collaboration, it turns out more propulsive than usual, but that’s less a factor of allowing the featured guests to provide anything meaningful, and more because it’s yet another blatant appropriation of Misery Business that MGK inexplicably seems to keep getting away with. Why he gets away with any of this is a mystery, given that he comes off as unwaveringly surly and unlikable in his performance, where even on a song like emo girl, he’ll sound a lot angrier and more confrontational than it demands. That might just be a consequence of how poor a singer he is, not that that’s a roadblock within punk, but for someone like him without much talent to begin with, it helps to have something, y’know? Instead, his presence makes everything sour and congeal so much quicker; the already-terrible papercuts is borderline unsalvageable because of it—imagine someone who’s had a description of grunge written for them on a post-it note being asked to do it themselves—and what’s presumably designed to sound edgy and angsty elsewhere winds up as petulant and pissy.

All of that hits a mark where mainstream sellout isn’t the absolute worst that modern pop-punk has offered—it’ll take one hell of an incompetent bottom-feeder to take that crown from jxdn—but it’s likely among the most unappealing. Even outside the moral issue of effectively buying his success in a genre that deserves so much better, MGK just seems to have no ideas that justify the size of the ivory tower he’s erected for himself. Nothing about him is new or innovative, but he treats his bad dress-up and shitty attitude as something that’s going well for him, and as long as he keeps making headlines and getting column inches, it’s a success. It’s the approach to making music, especially in an alternative space, that saps away any possible respect that could be given to someone like this. MGK doesn’t care about the music he’s making, about how willing he is to pander to get literally anywhere, and if any justifiable controversy arises from that, so be it. That’s what he wants at the end of the day; he’s already failed at being a rapper, so whatever morsels of attention can be given to him anywhere else, he’ll happily snap them up, reputation be damned. And because of that, he’s probably one of the most hated figures in music right now; most people aren’t as stupid as he’ll likely believe, and can easily see through what he’s doing. It’s not even hard to, but he’ll keep getting away with it, his stupid face will keep getting more and more attention, and music will be all the worse for him being in it. He’s like a wart in the respect—irritating to see at best, potentially unhealthy to keep around at worst, and in need of icing as soon as possible.


For fans of: bad, inauthentic music

‘mainstream sellout’ by Machine Gun Kelly is out now on Bad Boy Records / Interscope Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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