Machine Gun Kelly has fallen in love with an emo girl, in case you haven’t heard.
The rapper and rocker, whose real name is Colson Baker, has found his twin flame in actress Megan Fox. Together, they have cultivated an aesthetic of mercurial bliss and mutual destruction, woven through passionate lines of Instagram poetry.
On his latest album Mainstream Sellout, released March 25, Baker feeds into this very public image, tying it up with a pretty pink, pop punk bow. Anticipated as a potentially promising successor to 2020’s Tickets to My Downfall, the album instead plods through purposeless self-awareness.
Rapid, irregular rudiments accented by quick hits on the cymbal overlay a monotone base in the first moments of “Born With Horns.” An electric guitar delivers a series of disjointed notes, formulating a recognizable pattern even in their disconnect. Disorientingly, Baker enters with his grovely brand of yell-sing, shifting between different octaves as he loosely narrates a violent descent into discontent. Filled with experiments in musical form and self-deprecation, the opening track overflows with potential, though much remains left unrealized through the remainder of the album.
For all its flickers of artistic flare, Mainstream Sellout comes wrapped in palpable Y2K pastiche. The opening of “Maybe (feat. Bring Me the Horizon)” is reminiscent of Everlast’s “What It’s Like,” while the bridge takes a note from AFI’s “Miss Murder” — rife with unearthly screams. The work of drummer Travis Barker provides the pop punk pulse that beats through it all, and the resulting sound is inextricable from its Blink-182 influence.
Invoking his fiancee’s 2009 cult classic “Jennifer’s Body,” Baker spends the first verse of “Emo Girl (feat. WILLOW)” sketching a romanticized image of antiheroine Jennifer Check: “She is a monster in disguise/ And she knows all the words to the trap songs,” he unironically declares. While WILLOW burns bright with riot grrrl energy, even she cannot save the track from its vapid lyricism and repetitive chorus.
If Mainstream Sellout has a singular message, it is that Baker knows his reputation as a “poser,” and he doesn’t care. During the title track, he recognizes his chart-topping success with a hint of insightful self-awareness, imitating his critics as he repeats, “Leave the scene, you’re ruining it.” However, he does little to rewrite or subvert the narrative, coming across more petulant than punk. (Oddly enough, the album’s most effective critique of celebrity culture comes during Pete Davidson’s interlude “Wall Of Fame”: “Wow, LA sucks,” the comedian remarks, letting out an immediate laugh).
Nevertheless, Baker spends much of the album attempting to prove just how punk he is. On “Sid & Nancy,” he takes inspiration from the ill-fated Sex Pistols couple — after all, there’s nothing more emo than killing one’s girlfriend at the Chelsea Hotel. Built upon an overplayed piece of popular culture, the track plummets in its glorification of “murder-suicide” and love bent on self-destruction. Though intended to be quasi-romantic, the subject matter proves too disturbing for its own good.
Occasionally, Baker sprinkles in glimmers of authenticity. On “Papercuts — Album Edit,” electric riffs cut through an acoustic strum, mirroring Baker’s own instabilities. Amid pulsing instrumentation, he delivers a fervent rap about his inner demons and relationship with his dead father. Dynamic and thoughtful, the song leads listeners into a tumultuous yet intimate world, and it seamlessly superimposes Baker’s rap and rock eras. In doing so, it reminds long-term fans of what led them to listen to Baker in the first place.
From Avril Lavigne’s Love Sux to WILLOW’s Lately I Feel Everything, the past few years have proven fruitful for pop punk. Unfortunately, Mainstream Sellout falls short in propelling this energy forward; instead, it comes across tired and unoriginal, recycling old forms without offering much of anything new. Baker may be deemed one of the patron saints of the pop punk renaissance, but if Mainstream Sellout is any indication, he was probably better off as a rapper.