Listening sessions are always strange affairs, but this one had an enhanced aura of weirdness. With “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll” tatted on his right oblique, one would expect to see Machine Gun Kelly in an old, unironic dive bar, performing with some rugged punk band and hammering down whiskey shots between songs. In reality, he is much more complicated. Standing in a vaguely swanky club, swigging a bottle of Ciroc and chanting “Cobain’s back,” MGK proves to be a hybrid breed, a punk rapper who rocks to rap and raps to rock. This hybridity is clearly reflected in Lace Up, his upcoming debut album, out tomorrow.
Straight from the mouth of Machine Gun Kelly himself, Lace Up is “not for people who ‘hear’ music: it’s for people who listen.” The statement was powerful, but ironically most of the people attending MGK’s listening session weren’t listening. That is, until the album started playing.
“Whole city on my back,” he raps on “Save Me,” the album’s first track. Inspired by Ludacris’ “Southern Friend Intro” and backed by M Shadows and Synyster Gates of Avenged Sevenfold, MGK unleashes, painting a vivid portrait of a dilapidated and hungry Cleveland, his hometown. All rappers represent their cities, but for MGK, it feels less trite, more earnest, like there’s something very serious at stake.
“Save Me” was followed by “What I Do,” a beastly track featuring Bun B, who just unloads on the beat. MGK appreciatively mentioned that Bun B was the first feature artist on the album to sit down and record with him. Writing and recording in person are quite important to MGK, hence, according to him, none of the feature verses were submitted via email. The fact that every song was recorded in person is quite impressive when you look at the tracklist, which indicates that 11/13 songs have feature artists.
For an artist’s debut album, this seems like a lot of features, but MGK wasn’t overshadowed. On “Edge of Destruction” he keeps up with Tech N9ne and Twista so effortlessly that the guy next to me asked why wasn’t he on “Worldwide Choppers.” I don’t know; he probably didn’t want to email in his verse. Regardless, even with so many features, MGK hovers above every track, affirming that each song stays within his grasp. Standing at about 6’4, you wouldn’t expect anything less.
The one thing that was really unexpected on the album was “All We Have,” a strangely poppy song that might have been ghostwritten by B.o.B. MGK mouthed the words to every song that night, but when he mouthed “All We Have,” its weirdness was even more pronounced. It was kind of like watching Clay Aiken rap an Ice Cube song; it just didn’t fit his aesthetic. To be clear, branching out and experimenting is always good, but boundaries must be drawn.
The listening session ended with “Wildboy.” MGK prefaced the song with an apology for some his previous antics and a declaration of growth since then, which took away from the song a tiny bit, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. After MGK left the stage, the DJ promptly started playing French Montana’s “Pop That,” completely dispelling the mood established by MGK. It was unfortunate, but like MGK said earlier, the album wasn’t made for swanky clubs. It was made for “headphones and long rides.” This reviewer didn’t get to listen to Lace Up during his long train ride home, but only because it wasn’t an option yet. Tomorrow, that changes.
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