New (to Me) Artist Spotlight: Machine Gun Kelly (MGK)
Although I first heard a couple of Machine Gun Kelly’s tracks several months ago, I decided to hold off writing about him until I was more familiar with his music by listening to at least one complete body of work. Now, having heard the mixtapes 100 Words and Running and Lace Up, I feel that I can write an article which does Machine Gun Kelly justice. After listening, I believe that he has the potential and the drive to do great things in music.
Machine Gun Kelly Biography
For once in writing my New (to Me) series, I’ve come across an artist with a Wikipedia profile. Therefore, in order to avoid regurgitating a lot of what you can read elsewhere, I will take the basics and integrate a few facts gathered from Machine Gun Kelly’s music to create my own brief biography for the artist.
Born on April 22, 1990 in Houston, Texas, Machine Gun Kelly’s real name is Colson Baker. He gained exposure to the world at a young age by traveling with his missionary parents. Although he has seen different parts of the world, including Germany and the Middle East, Machine Gun Kelly admits that his experiences in these places could not be fully appreciated because he had not yet reached the age of nine before returning to the United States. In the States, he has lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, and Cleveland. Machine Gun Kelly has said that Denver and Cleveland have had the most profound influence on his transition into adulthood.
The stage name, Machine Gun Kelly (a.k.a., MGK or Kells), refers to the rapid-fire pace at which he delivers his lyrics. His ability has given him the distinction of being the first rapper to gain back-to-back victories at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater.
According to one of his tracks, MGK was plagued at some point by a throat condition that threatened to end his career for fear of irreparably destroying his voice. Dedicated to the point of sometimes coughing up blood, he still manages to make music and perform.
Although, his style contains characteristics similar to other artists in rap and hip-hop, I will avoid direct comparisons because I feel that the combination of the various elements gives MGK a lyrical quality that he can rightfully claim as his own.
As far as “technical lyricism” is concerned, MGK falls in the middle of the pack. By this I mean that, although he makes a point to demonstrate his lyrical proficiency by including different variations on rhyming patterns, use of metaphor and the like, MGK does not indulge in overly elaborate wordplay to the point of losing the listener in thickets of double meanings and complex turns of phrase. His overall presentation and energy are what make his sound very appealing.
The comparison to the weapon helping to comprise his name is well deserved because Machine Gun Kelly’s delivery is very quick and powerful. He fills every possible space in his lyrics and largely manages to avoid the traditional overuse of “rap-filler” words and sounds during his main verses (background noise excluded).
[Note: I believe that I might be the first to use the particular term “rap-fillers” to describe the trend, so I will simply define this tendency as the overuse of sounds like yeah, umm, uh, eh, yo, and the ever-popular short laugh (in all its variations) in order to take up space or mask gaps in the lyrics.]
MGK’s speed is very formidable and thankfully does not suffer from lack of clarity. Although a listener may not be able to repeat (without practice) some of the things he says, one can still immediately understand him and, therefore, respect his ability. This is a quality which is often lost when some artists try to go too fast.
Although he may be commended for his pace, this is not his only strong point. From a lyrical standpoint, MGK can be very playful and energetic and also dark and imposing. This greatly adds to his range. He uses many different techniques to add emphasis and tonal variations throughout his verses. This, in addition to having a distinct and recognizable voice quality, makes MGK very enjoyable to listen to when you hear him. I believe that this combination of traits will allow him to stand out lyrically and not be confused with anyone else.
Although I give MGK credit for this attention to lyrical development, I must still, unfortunately, take away a few points for his excessive use of the so-called F-bomb. He drops that one quite liberally in his desire to add that extra bit of emphasis to his lyrics. It serves the purpose most of the time (and doesn’t bother me too much, personally), but I had to make note of it in order to provide a fair critique and address a possible shortcoming from a lyrical perspective that many people will likely hold against him.
MGK’s approach to his music is evolving, I think. With 100 Words and Running, he was nose-deep in typical “rep my city (Cleveland, Ohio) mode” for the vast majority of the time. He did not completely abandon his “voice of the people” persona on Lace Up, but it was toned down a bit (maybe waist-deep now). I will be the last to say that acknowledging a hometown or main support base is a “bad” thing for MGK or anyone else, but there often comes a time when it becomes excessive to the point of stifling an artist’s development. Whether MGK has completely avoided that pitfall remains to be seen. But judging from a musical perspective and his collective body of work (absent how he chooses to market himself on the video side), I think that he is moving in the right direction while still paying homage to those who have supported his efforts.
Musically, he is diverse and shows that he can blend his sound with different types of production styles. As far as subject matter is concerned, MGK proves that he can brag with the best of them, but still craft a good, heartfelt story when he wants to do so. While certainly not taking anything away from 100 Words and Running, Lace Up would probably be the best demonstration of the breadth of his ability. With this collection, MGK shows that he can take the listener to different places and deal with various emotions, themes, and points of view. He seems to be very confident as an artist and is in full control of the tools at his disposal. I think that he will only get better as he moves forward.
I'm interested to see how MGK would approach his career should he move to a bigger stage in the music scene. From what I can tell, he has already developed a strong following through his independent efforts, and I certainly think that he has the ability to reach even greater heights if he continues to develop as he has already shown that he can. I hope to hear a lot more from Machine Gun Kelly in the future.