Machine Gun Kelly review – pop punk’s ‘Mainstream Sellout’ doubles down on new LP
Machine Gun Kelly's the new Ice Cube, motherfuckers hate to like him. He knows it, and he thrives off of it.
At least, that's the only logical conclusion I can come to about him naming his new album Mainstream Sellout and including a title track written from the perspective of a person who thinks Machine Gun Kelly is a poseur that's ruining the punk scene. In case you need some background on that, MGK spent about a decade as a very popular but creatively stunted rapper, before hooking up with blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, pivoting to pop punk on his 2020 album Tickets To My Downfall, and -- following in the footsteps of late emo-rap pioneers like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD -- helping to re-popularize the genre in the process. Unlike bands who start out in the underground punk scene and get accused of selling out once they write songs that get played on the radio, Machine Gun Kelly was a mainstream artist in the first place, hence the name of the album.
The whole thing would actually seem kinda clever if MGK didn't come off so damn humorless, but still, whatever he's doing is clearly having an impact. He's bigger than ever (he's headlining Madison Square Garden on his just-announced tour), and I'm pretty sure he's the only non-legacy artist who can play the Garden in support of a new pop punk album. If his fame brings even a little attention to the many bands pushing pop punk and emo forward, then who cares if he's a sellout or a poseur or whatever. A rising tide lifts all ships, even when that tide is Machine Gun Kelly.
As for the music on this album, much of it is more firmly rooted in classic '90s/2000s pop punk territory than the songs on Tickets To My Downfall, which feels like both a positive and a negative. Songs like Downfall standout "My Ex's Best Friend" succeeded because MGK fused Travis Barker's influence with trap beats and hip hop cadences and came out with a version of pop punk that -- hate it or love it -- felt like something new for the genre. Downfall didn't have anything like Mainstream Sellout's "WW4," a 72-second Sum 41-style skate punk song that tells you "your teachers are full of shit/you don't need to go to school" and feels like an eyerolling yet direct gateway to classic anarchic punk. This album goes way harder, which is kinda cool if you long for the days when punk-derived music actually made it onto the radio and television, but it's also a lot less original in the process.
Mainstream Sellout's most creatively bleak moment is also its current highest-charting single, the WILLOW-featuring "Emo Girl," a thoughtless, generic song that even a C-list pop punk band would've left on the cutting room floor in the mid 2000s. (WILLOW deserved better.) Better moments come in the form of songs like "God Save Me," a track that finds Machine Gun Kelly grappling with the death of his father, mental health, drugs, and suicidal thoughts in a way that feels almost startlingly sincere. His Tom DeLonge impression in the chorus might've gotten him sued if Tom's old pal Travis didn't produce and co-write the track, but as far as blink-182 imitation goes, this one's got some legs. It's not the only time on the album that he directly imitates blink's style, just the most obvious, and it's also not the only time he cribs from other popular rock songs. If Paramore were retroactively given writing credits to Olivia Rodrigo's "good 4 u" due to its similarities to "Misery Business," then they should also get them for MGK snagging bits of that same song (which he also has an official cover of) on his Bring Me the Horizon collab "Maybe." The most offensive rip of all though is "Papercuts," which is such an obvious rewrite of "Where Is My Mind?" that I'm surprised the Pixies don't already have writing credits on it.
Similarities to Paramore aside, MGK's lyrical battles with demons on "Maybe" make that song another effective one, and Oli Sykes' guest screaming makes it what I assume will be one of the highest-charting songs of the year that you can call "post-hardcore." MGK taps into something similar with "Sid & Nancy," which scratches the itch if you're looking for pop punk with a dark underbelly, even if the Sid & Nancy metaphor was played out before MGK got his hands on it. As with most of his collaborations, Travis Barker shines and gives these songs a stronger backbone than they likely would've had without him, and he lends credibility too. But Travis' involvement isn't enough to give this album to save the album from its duller moments or provide it with any real grand slams. There's no "My Ex's Best Friend." There's nothing as hard to resist as the MGK collaboration on the new Avril Lavigne album, an album of spring-loaded pop punk that Mainstream Sellout could've taken a few notes from. It's all just very average.
Travis isn't the only one lending credibility; MGK also ups his rap cred on this album, tapping Lil Wayne for two emo-rap songs ("Drug Dealer" and "Ay!"), and enlisting Gunna and Young Thug for the likeminded "Die In California." Wayne especially works well -- he's been on a roll lately and he's no stranger to rap/rock crossover (or to collaborating with Travis Barker) -- but Mainstream Sellout's more rap-adjacent songs are also among its most forgettable. The album would've benefitted from MGK fusing his rap side and his pop punk side a little more seamlessly. It also would've benefitted from a little more oomph in general.