For all the media frenzy surrounding his name as of late, it was still surprising that Machine Gun Kelly’s first full-length foray into pop-punk on Tickets to My Downfall was somewhat competent, transforming the genre’s resurgence into the cultural conversation into a full-on, Travis Barker-backed movement with its chart success. But when you’re doing a complete switch-up of your persona for a trendy musical cash grab, it’s hard to replicate. The memes have already been flying about Kelly’s demonstrated lack of knowledge about all things “emo,” his latest fascination, and as Kelly spends more time in a world that never came as naturally to the former rapper, things get more cartoonish, distorted and stretched to what sounds more like a parody than a serious attempt at another pop-punk project. This might have been fine, if it weren’t for Kelly’s lyrical content, which ranges from eye-rollingly melodramatic, laughably self-aggrandizing, genuinely concerning and dangerous, and highly juvenile coming from a man in his 30s. With an increasingly formulaic backdrop, Kelly’s musical output is starting to feel a lot more like nothing other than a massive marketing scheme.
The opening track “born with horns,” at least, kicks things off with one of the project’s only true redeeming qualities: the return of the true talents of Travis Barker on the drums. Beginning and ending with some highly complex drum work that I wish he’d implement across some of the other tracks in his pop-punk production monopoly, everything in between from Kelly still manages to dull the shine as he offers some surface-level musings about depression in his grating tone that’s sounding even more hoarse and gruff than usual. The abrupt switch to a sad acoustic number in the middle feels out-of-place as well, but it doesn’t measure up to the craziness of “god save me.” Featuring some absolutely deranged takes from Kelly throughout, the first verse sees him criticizing labels who relish in profiting off artists’ deaths and romanticizing death and unhealthy lifestyles in the same breath – it’s almost as if he’s on the side of the big businesses. Not too punk of you, MGK. It’s a bland, basic pop-punk structure on the surface, but then Kelly also begins spouting conspiracy theories about aliens and the government tapping phones. The track “maybe” is one of the catchier tunes here, but that might just be because it’s also the umpteenth song in the past year to rip off Paramore’s “Misery Business.” British metalcore band Bring Me the Horizon are credited, and while frontman Oli Sykes’ screams sound highly out of place on the sanitized instrumental, he still makes Kelly sound clownish in comparison.
The album’s second quarter actually does feature a couple songs that work for Kelly – mostly because they bring things out of the self-serious doldrums. “drug dealer” feels like the kind of fun party track that someone of his character should be making instead. With a classic driving rock beat, a cleaner vocal performance from Kelly and a memorable hook, the trap switch-up in the end actually feels surprising and earned and Lil Wayne impresses on a feature verse like he’s trying to compensate for his rock album disaster on Rebirth. “emo girl,” as well, feels like a highly specific bit of 2000s nostalgia that hasn’t been hit by Barker yet. It’s clear with the laughably blatant lack of effort when it came to songwriting that this one was just trying to hit a couple buzzwords – this “emo girl” could have been just about any girl in the world – but WILLOW sounds great on the track. Unfortunately sandwiched in between these two are “make up sex,” another team-up with blackbear after their smash hit together that features some awful mixing, gross lyrics and absolutely zero vocal chemistry between the two over a shoehorned trap beat, and “mainstream sellout,” a brief track where Kelly whines about all the completely valid criticisms that he’s received in an uncomfortably unhealthy-sounding voice. It almost makes me want to attend one of his shows to belt “leave the scene, you’re ruining it” at him.
The contradictory self-awareness continues on the track “5150,” where he bellows “I romanticized all the wrong things for the wrong reasons” and then continues to do so in the next couple lines as he sings about not wanting help to fix his abusive ways due to being a narcissist. One can only hope that a sizable amount of the people who helped this project to a six-figure debut would be turned off by his mind-blowingly unlikable character at this point. Kelly elects to reminds listeners that he wasn’t the greatest rapper either with a verse dropped onto the end of “papercuts,” a track full of some of the cringiest and most bizarre lyrical moments on the whole project, but he takes it even father on “WW4,” managing to issue death threats to artists who don’t like his work (work, mind you, that he distills and waters down from their original compositions), demonize teachers and tell kids not to go to school wit in just barely over a minute, coming across as one of the planet’s most despicable human beings.
Things fade out with an assorted buffet of nonsense, as we get a couple more focus-grouped collaborations as Kelly repeats the same tired songwriting formulas on tracks like “ay!” where Lil Wayne returns to sound quite a bit more lost than his former appearance, “fake love don’t last” with iann dior and “die in california,” which features a truly awful verse from Young Thug as he stumbles through alongside Gunna and Travis Barker’s son. But MGK couldn’t let listeners leave without another disgusting taste in their mouths, so he offers up the back-to-back tracks “sid & nancy” and “twin flame.” The former sees him continuing to romanticize a toxic relationship that could be on the verge of lethal violence at any time, praising a murderer in the process, then expects people to do anything but laugh at his sappy melodramatic take on the same relationship on the closer.
I’m rather unclear who this iteration of Machine Gun Kelly is supposed to be for – you’d think that the pop-punk diehards, any music fan valuing originality, and anyone who knows that idolizing Sid Vicious might be wrong would have jumped ship, but clearly a lot of people are still on the bandwagon. I can’t imagine the person that would like this, but whoever they are, I’m scared of them.
Favourite Tracks: drug dealer, emo girl
Least Favourite Track: make up sex