With a new sound, a new girlfriend, and his first No. 1 album, Machine Gun Kelly is on top — a place he’s not so sure about.
Machine Gun Kelly, né Colson Baker, the popular rapper, sometime actor, and, as of recent months, pop-punk superstar, is standing outside Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles’s Culver City, sucking on the tail end of a blunt. Tall and slim, with a shock of platinum hair swept off his handsome face, his torso and limbs layered with a tangle of colorful tattoos peeking through a sheer tank top, MGK, as he is often known, is the platonic ideal of a bad-boy pop star. He is the kind of artist whose catchy but just-aggressive-enough music and brooding good looks make alienated suburban youngsters feel both understood and stirred. It's early October and MGK, who is 30, and whose new album, Tickets to My Downfall, has just reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts — “I’m so happy right now,” he tells me, making the grateful “namaste” gesture with clasped palms — is taking a brief break from a photo shoot, not just to smoke, but also to see off his girlfriend of the past several months, Megan Fox. The actress and quintessential aughts babe, known chiefly for her star turn in Michael Bay’s Transformers movie franchise, recently split from her husband of 10 years, 90210 star Brian Austin Green, and has since been seemingly inseparable from MGK, the two spotted hand in hand all over town, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Just walking my lady out,” MGK says, as he rushes to the shiny black Range Rover pulling out from the studio’s parking lot, and, in a textbook demonstration of new love, leans into the driver’s window to give Fox one last kiss. “Those two are so cute together,” a production assistant whispers to me, once we are back inside the studio and blink-182’s “First Date” begins to blast loudly over the sound system. It’s easy to imagine the song, so emblematic of the mid-2000s, with its breakneck beat, sugary vocals, and lyrics of anguished feeling and horny yearning — “Honest, let’s make / This night last forever / Forever and ever / Let’s make this last forever” — as referring directly to Fox, one of that era’s young queens, and to MGK, who is now channeling its half-sweet, half-ferocious tang in his own music.
MGK would seem to be living his best life these days, but to hear him tell it, what he calls his “renaissance” — what with the No. 1 album, the coupling with Fox, the decisive turn from hip-hop to pop-punk (more on that in a bit) — comes on the heels of a long stretch of rough times. “I was like the wind, with no guidance or care,” he says, as we settle down after the shoot to talk outside the photo studio, at a metal table strewn with empty candy wrappers, salty snacks, and iced coffee. “It started with my mom’s absence.” Born in Houston to missionary parents whose itinerant life took the family around the world, from Egypt to Germany to Kenya to Kuwait, MGK settled in Denver with his father when he was 9, after his mother left his dad, and the family, for another man. Later, when he was in high school, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where, amid poverty and alienation — as a kid, he has said, he was frequently bullied by his peers for his lankiness and hand-me-down clothes — he began honing his skills as a freestyler in rap battles, influenced by the likes of DMX and Jay-Z, and acquiring his moniker thanks to his rapid-fire delivery. “There’s a beauty and a rawness to the streets of lower-class suburbia,” he says. “I had a fuck-you attitude, in and out with drugs and cops.” He worked at a string of entry-level service jobs, among them at Chipotle. After high school, he was kicked out of his house by his father, and soon after, at 18, fathered a daughter, Casie. “I haven’t been understood since the time I came out of the womb,” he tells me, frowning. This, however, didn’t tamp his ambition: “I'd be working at a fast-food spot talking about I'm going to grow up and be a superstar and people were like, ‘You make no sense.’” He laughs, his face lighting up with sudden pleasure. “Hello to them now!”
He cut his teeth in the rap scene in Cleveland, and began putting out mix tapes. In 2009, he defied naysayers by winning back-to-back victories at Amateur Night in Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Two years later, after performing at a SXSW show that Sean “Diddy” Combs happened to attend, he signed with Bad Boy records, and in the following years, released four hip-hop albums, with which he experienced increasing commercial success, touring internationally, exchanging diss tracks with Eminem, the godfather of the white-boy rap to which he was arguably an heir, and collaborating on hits with stars like Camila Cabello and Quavo, becoming something of a teen heartthrob in the process. These triumphs, however, did not change MGK’s negative frame of mind. “If you translate the title of my last album, it’s ‘hotel of the devil,’” he tells me, referring to 2019’s Hotel Diablo. “I had a mentality of wanting to piss the world off because it was fun, and I think I really ended up pissing the world off.”
MGK sweeps his hand through his hair, which, post-photo-shoot, is falling in his eyes, back to its customary shaggy whorl. “They wanted to pull my hair back for the pictures, and usually I try to hide my face as much as possible,” he says. “But I feel like this is almost like a new reveal of me. A debut.” One thing he has realized in the last few months, he tells me, is that the shift from hard-edged rap to the energetic but still sweeter ground of pop-punk in Tickets to My Downfall, his fifth and most successful album to date, which dropped in September, is less about a switch in genres and more about what he calls “self-discovery,” becoming a more authentic version of himself. “I got into the studio with Travis in December,” he says, referring to Travis Barker, the drummer of blink-182, who produced Tickets. “And I picked up a guitar, and people were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not going to rap on this album?’ And I was like, ‘No, and it’s gonna work.’”
In his turn to pop-punk, MGK is part of a broader cultural revisiting of the post-Y2K era that is currently taking place, which includes a sampling of that period’s major fashion trends — from designer-logo-printed bucket hats and Juicy Couture velour suits through tiny saddlebags and even tinier sunglasses — as well as the renewed popularity of mid-2000s acts like My Chemical Romance and Taking Back Sunday. Musically, as the critic Pete Tosiello noted in his Pitchfork review of Tickets to My Downfall, were MGK just slightly younger, he might have belonged to the recent wave of emo-influenced Soundcloud rappers such as the late Lil Peep. Instead, as someone who was entering his teen years as bands like blink-182 and Sum 41 were reaching the height of their popularity, it makes sense that these groups’ sound — brash, catchy, energetic, just a little rough around the edges — would be the one he would choose to mine. It might make sense, too, that this type of music — last popular as George W. Bush was leading a seemingly endless, hopeless war in the Gulf — would reemerge as influential at another moment of American crisis, one in which the nation has been left defenseless by its leadership against a raging pandemic, rendering people isolated and searching for connection. “This kind of music gives you a sense of completeness and shared feelings,” Bert McCracken of the band The Used, who recently collaborated with MGK and Yungblud on the song “Body Bag,” told me. The musician, whose band was around for pop-punk’s earlier, mid-2000s heyday, added, “People are desperate right now to feel, to touch, and MGK’s music is heart first.”
As for MGK himself, he can only grasp at explaining his musical transformation in quasi-spiritual terms. “In the past, I always felt like people wanted to see me fail,” he says. “And so I was operating at a lower frequency. And more recently, with this, it’s like…” he stops midstream. “Never mind, it just sounds crazy if I say it,” he says, falling silent. I urge him to continue, and he goes on. “I’m connecting with a different dimension or higher frequency that's just feeding creativity, effortlessly,” he tells me. “The songs just show up, where we listen to them after and are like, ‘Fuck, where did that come from?’”
He lights a fresh blunt, and takes a drag. “That’s what happened with ‘Bloody Valentine,’” he says, referring to one of the new album’s biggest hits, whose lyrics seem to reflect his softer-touch, more romantic mindset. (As a user on the lyric-annotation platform Genius pointed out recently, one might gain some insight into MGK’s evolving frame of mind by comparing the lyrics to “Hollywood Whore,” off last year’s Hotel Diablo — “You ain’t never gonna see my trust / Even if I got a wife / She just somebody I fuck” — to those of “Valentine” — “The simulation just went bad / but you’re the best I’ve ever had / Like handprints in wet cement / She touched me it’s permanent.”)
As we sit outside, the sun is beginning to go down, and the weather turns a bit chilly. MGK, however, is still wearing a short-sleeved Hawaiian-style shirt, printed with images of dinosaurs among cherry blossoms (Dior, he tells me), fully unbuttoned to reveal the dense expanse of tattoos on his torso and stomach, among them an anarchy symbol and an outsized figure of a raven with a dagger, covering up what used to be an angel. (His lower neck, meanwhile, bears the words “Tickets to My Downfall.”) The effect is half-menacing and half-sweet, the shirt’s cuteness undercutting the tattoos’ seeming aggression.
I ask him if his new, apparently mellower attitude has to do with his relationship with Fox, who stars alongside him in the video made for “Bloody Valentine,” lip-synching its lyrics while bouncing around a stately home in her underwear, her gorgeous doll face bearing not a mark of the decade-plus that has passed since the heyday of Transformers. “Love is not what’s being encouraged now. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: Everything now is isolation, dehumanization, separation,” MGK says. “And fuck, dude, you have in your head that you’re this rock star, with multiple women and all that…” He pauses, then goes on. “So finding someone that can take you out of the fast lane and make sure that you're safe, because at any minute you can crash — I love that it can evolve into that.”
“There’s never an attempt to control him on my end,” Fox told me later. “It’s more that he looks to me to avoid his own self destructive tendencies. And that’s where I'm useful because on his own and left to his own devices I don’t know how much interest he has in caring for himself.” Speaking over the phone a few weeks after my interview with MGK, Fox described their relationship as a “once in a lifetime thing” and a connection of “mythic proportions.” “Loving him is like being in love with a tsunami or a forest fire,” she said, laughing. “The intensity of merging with him is just overwhelming, and the threat it poses is so powerful but so beautiful that you have no choice to surrender with reverence and with gratitude.” Fox sees MGK’s bad boy self-presentation as a “genuine extension of a very real rage and a very deep pain” stemming from childhood trauma, as well as “a way of hiding himself from himself and from the rest of the world.” She believes most people aren’t able to pierce the veil, but when she found herself in a room with him on the set of the forthcoming crime thriller Midnight in the Switchgrass, she says, “I looked into his eyes [and] I felt the most pristine, most gentle, most pure spirit. My heart shattered immediately and I just knew that I was fucked.”
Certainly, it’s not only Fox who has been keeping MGK balanced. Earlier, at the shoot, as he was changing into a sleek white suit with tribal motifs down the jacket’s front, I listened in as he FaceTimed with Casie, his now-11-year-old daughter, who lives back in Cleveland. “You’re giving me Grease vibes,” she said, perhaps in reference to her father’s slicked-back hairdo. “What?! I look nothing like Danny Zuko!” MGK said in mock outrage, laughing, before turning to the studio stereo and putting on ’N Sync’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” As I watched, he cheerfully sang along with the track into his phone and then told her, “OK, I love you. I’m going to finish up this shoot now.”
But although MGK might have mellowed out a bit, he wouldn’t be himself if he weren’t still at least a little dangerous — the kind of guy who has “fuck off” and “sex drugs and rock’n’roll” inked on his wrist and torso, respectively. He has based his burgeoning acting career so far on this persona, in small but memorable rebel-without-a-cause parts alongside his friend Pete Davidson in the movies King of Staten Island and Big Time Adolescence, and, most significantly, in his star turn as Motley Crue’s wild drummer Tommy Lee in last year’s rock biopic The Dirt. When I spoke to Lee recently, he expressed his admiration for MGK’s performance. “He told me, ‘Bro, I got this part and I’m going to make you proud,’” he said. “And he fucking nailed it. He learned all of my mannerisms, and when I went down to the set and watched him rehearse for the first time, I got goosebumps. My wife was like, ‘You guys are like brothers in a weird way. You even walk the same.’” This fall, the two, along with rapper 24kGoldn, collaborated on a single, “Climb.”
Like Lee, MGK has been known as something of a wild man. “There’s no manual on how to control me,” he tells me outside the studio. “It’s a very difficult job. Always has been, from the start, because I never had any structure.” Certainly, despite his recent, relative mellowing, he remains capable of acting up. A week prior to our meeting, he appeared in the Daily Mail for cracking and then kicking out the windshield of a Mercedes G-Wagon driven by his friend, the rapper Mod Sun, while hanging out of its passenger side in what the website called “a drunken fit.” (In an Instagram Live the next day, MGK admitted that he was “very fucked up.”)
When I ask him about the incident, however, he is uncowed. “There’s some fun chaos going on now,” he says. “We have a scene, and it’s very important in a scene to have stories.” Then he turns a bit mystical again. “That happened actually three days before we found out we were No. 1. So I think in some way, I shattered that windshield and the universe was listening. And that energy is what pushed us to that spot.” (When I spoke to Mod Sun, who has been friends with MGK for a decade, he told me, “all the dead idols that we worship — Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Miles Davis — were looking down on us that night and being like, ‘Good job, you guys are real ones.’”)
I ask MGK about the title of the new album. What “downfall” is he referring to, exactly? “It’s actually ironic: You know how Gary Oldman played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy? Well, I’m friends with his son, Charlie Oldman,” he says. “And we were just sitting there one day, having a conversation, binge drinking, and he goes, ‘You know, I feel like I’m selling tickets to my downfall, and everybody’s buying them.’” His voice lowers. “The room was full of people but why did it feel emptier than ever? Just so much drugs, depression — fuck, so much excess.” This was also the feeling he wanted to convey, he explains, in the cover photo for Tickets, which shows him standing on the precipice of an empty pool, dressed in skinny black clothes, his expression defiant, holding a hot-pink guitar on which the album’s title is scrawled. “We went in my backyard and took this picture the day L.A. was burning and filled with ashes,” he says. “The first thing I said when I stepped to the pool was, ‘Wow, Hollywood didn’t treat you so well,’ right? Like, you have this fucking mansion and this fucking pool and it’s all so empty, still.” He pauses. “It’s like, what really matters is individuality, and a feeling of self-worth. This is the first time I’ve shown my face on any of my album covers.”
Earlier, during a pause in the shoot, I’d noticed that, after deliberating over which song to play next on the studio’s sound system, MGK chose “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” by Oasis, a selection that surprised me a little, considering the song came out in 1995, when he was 5 years old. That surprise was tempered, though, when I recalled that back in April, as part of his #LockdownSessions, a series of popular YouTube videos in which he had been presenting covers of some of his favorite hits, MGK performed the band’s “Champagne Supernova” on acoustic guitar, alongside Yungblud on piano. Later, I ask him what it is about Oasis that he is drawn to.
“It’s one of the first things I discovered when I was on tour in the U.K.,” he says. “I remember seeing this motherfucker, Liam Gallagher, walk out in front all of these paparazzi with the meanest walk I’ve ever witnessed in my life, just the fucking coolest. And I thought, ‘I have to be like that guy,’” he takes a sip of iced coffee, then continues. “And you either hate Oasis or you love them, but one thing I like is that the music is so good that you can’t deny it. It’s like when people who don’t like me say, ‘I hate that I don’t hate the new Machine Gun Kelly,” he laughs, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
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