Thursday, May 18, 2017

album review: 'bloom' by machine gun kelly

So let's talk about selling out, because while I've opened up reviews with this topic before, I think a refresher is in order. To make this abundantly clear, going 'pop' or changing your genre and style isn't in and of itself 'selling out' - just because an act goes for what be deemed is a more accessible sound isn't inherently bad if the core of what makes a specific act unique and special remains, instead of just nakedly following commercial trends less because you're going to do anything interesting with them and more because it's guaranteed to produce a hit of dubious quality. And even then, it's not inherently a bad thing for an artist to want to cash in and make money, and some acts only discover their pop appeal when they try this. My point is that 'selling out' is often a misused term, it's not always a bad thing.

With Machine Gun Kelly, it was a bad thing. Look, I'll admit right now I was never a huge fan of this Cleveland MC: I always tended to slot him in the Tech N9ne mold of cranking out impressive flows and delivery but saddled with production that was too thin or flimsy to back up its pretensions to bombast, and could also slide towards corniness or some utterly wack bars. But even then, I was a sucker for a good flow, and while his full-length debut album Lace Up was pretty far from great - it's was overlong, his reliance on crass party bangers that he didn't have the personality or wordplay to back up - there were definitely moments of flow and energy I could appreciate. Most of this went out the window for his second album General Admission, which aimed to play darker and more personal but also did so by compromising the delivery and much of the intensity that made his early work at least likable. There are a few choice tracks and stories being told, but when you factored in the production, he wasn't doing anything any number of more aggressive, insightful, and honest MCs didn't do already, and that's before you get to the Kid Rock collaboration!

Then 'Bad Things' happened - which is apt in referring to both the godawful duet with Camila Cabello and the likely trajectory of Machine Gun Kelly's career. Because thanks to 2016 giving a pass to entirely too many boring white rappers in the mainstream, MGK got his breakthrough with his most pop-accessible flows and least interesting content to date. In other words, I was expecting Bloom to suck, and I'm only covering it because at least it looks shorter than his last two albums and because I need it off my schedule on Patreon so I can cover Perfume Genius. So on that promising note, what did I find off of Bloom?

Okay, there are three ways to consider this album. The first is if you're the average mainstream listener who only knows Machine Gun Kelly from 'Bad Things', where you'd probably find this below-average with some jaw-dropping low points. The second is if you've heard Machine Gun Kelly since his albums, and you'd probably consider this a shocking drop-off in quality that not only squanders potential but shows him embracing the absolute worst parts of his persona. The third is if you've been listening since Machine Gun Kelly's mixtapes - and unless you're a diehard fan devoid of self-awareness, this record will make you want to set things on fire. Folks, I may have expected this to be bad from the stuff I had heard off his first two albums, but Bloom will likely go down as one of the worst records I review this year, an album that alternates between selling out hard and some of the most stunningly misconceived hip-hop fusions with other genres I've heard in some time. Make no mistake, this is bad - but what's unnerving is that with this progression, I get the feeling it's only going to get worse.

And what we need to start with Machine Gun Kelly himself - and if you want to call 'sell-out' on anything, it's here, because this is a shocking drop-off in terms of his delivery and bars. What happened to the guy who could flow as quick as Tech N9ne or Twista on Laced Up, I'm hearing none of that speed or intensity - or indeed much intensity at all! And it's not like this record isn't going for that sort of bombast on songs like 'The Gunner' with all of these ominous piano lines and abrasive synths and noisy drums and guitar smolder and gunshots - granted, when you have MGK rapping about being a trending topic, it's a little hard to buy into it, but at least there's a hint the intensity might be there. But he's bringing none of the tempo consistently, and by the time we hit the lumbering 'Wake + Bake' that tries for blues and yet has none of its groove, Machine Gun Kelly is rapping in one of his most basic, boring flows yet, which is later mirrored on the clusterfuck of degenerating chiptune and reverb of 'Can't Walk' with somehow even less energy! But nothing is so bad as when he wants to sing - quite frankly, if he's struggling to convey charisma when he's rapping, he's projecting nothing as a singer, either opposite James Arthur on 'Go For Broke' or the autotuned hook on '27' with added stuttering 'Kiss The Sky', or the utterly godawful vocals on 'Rehab' and 'Let You Go' that don't even hide how flat and inert they were. And look, I wasn't really a huge fan of Yelawolf's weak singing voice either back on Love Story, it was the biggest problem with the album - but at least his rasp was modestly convincing, he was going to amp up the tempo and intensity when the song demanded it, and he didn't rely on so much flagrant autotune. Granted, when you have singers like Camila Cabello on 'Bad Things' who could really use it to not sound painfully thin in her upper register, you almost wish there was some.

But that's more of an issue of production and instrumentation... and I don't even know where to start with this mess, because this is some of the most slapdash mixing and malformed ideas I've heard on a hip-hop album in a while. To go back to Yelawolf's Love Story again, he knew enough that when you want your hook to stand out, you give your guitars the body and swell to supplement your beats, whereas with MGK we get the classic case of percussion over any sort of melody which certainly does not help any of these hooks gain swell or momentum. Again, a major issue is tempo - I was kind of grooving to the smoky blues of 'Wake + Bake' before your by-the-numbers fizzy trap h-hiats come in too slow and stodgy to work whatsoever. And that's providing you can get a melody at all, as 'Golden God' is a rattling trap beat and bass with fragments of faded vocals and piano trying to give the song any sort of weight as they put a filter on MGK's voice to make him sound intimidating... and it doesn't work. Similar issue on the discordant trainwreck of 'Can't Walk' - I think the dead-eyed delivery and distorted screams against the blubbery bass and trap beat is supposed to sound intimidating and cool for being this screwed up for multiple days, but it sounds more like the montage of the rock star overdosing and choking on his own vomit. And that's before we get 'Rehab' and 'Let You Go', which decide that super-clean guitar lines - and in the latter case one that feels jacked from a bad Weezer album - that shift into weak beats midway through count as quality! And that's before we get to the piano ballads of '27' and 'Kiss The Sky' or the utterly forgettable come-up/self-esteem percussion-over-melody mainstream pop of 'Go For Broke' and 'At My Best', my larger issue comes in the compositions, namely how underwritten they feel. Often we get maybe two verses, two hooks, and that's it - no bridge, no significant change-ups, maybe a guitar solo that sounds like it belongs on a mid-period Poison reject, it's underwritten as all hell! Even 'Trap Paris' with Quavo and Ty Dolla $ign, there's only two forgettable verses - I might have issues with 'Moonwalkers' with DubXX, but at least it feels a little opulent in the chimes and blubbery trap beat, even if it's basically MGK riding the Migos flow with such lines like 'sex tape like it's porn'.

Yeah, might as well get to the content - and if there's an area where I can see MGK fans really turning on this record, it's here. Let me say this for General Admission, I at least can respect it for a few potent stories that didn't shy away from the unpleasant details and felt marginally personal. That's effectively gone on Bloom, as MGK alternates between getting wasted in his success and knocking out increasingly stale themes or increasingly corny lines. 'At My Best' is utterly mediocre self-esteem anthem fodder that I already took apart on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but it's not like 'Go For Broke' is anything more than a self-aggrandizing and obnoxious come-up story, or that 'Golden God' is trying to be powerful and striking describing himself as the 'David Bowie of his generation' - uh, not a fucking chance - but then he says he's a golden god that's almost famous that he also describes as being the king of the underground and 'retarded', and at some point you just stop taking it seriously at all. But it gets a lot worse when he's trying to muster something close to a romantic sentiment, like on 'Rehab' where it starts with him wanting to reunite despite killing his pain with strippers, and yet then devolves into a confused showcase of vulnerability and thinking maybe it wasn't supposed to work and thus everything is okay and he's now so happy, which offers no real resolution at all! Or 'Let You Go', which seems to be trying to have him as the guy who gets left behind by a girl after a one night stand... which kind of contradicts the whole alpha male bruiser image he's trying for on the rest of the album, but whatever. And then there's the points that are trying to be more sensitive like '27', where he muses about dying young and his need to write so he must 'overdose on inspiration', or on 'Kiss The Sky', where he tries to use a few space metaphors to write himself a confessional story to win back a lover but not only does it end up feeling like it feeds his ego more, he also 'wants the world, but nothing in specific' - which is telling why there are so few actual details in these stories.

But the line that jumped out to me the most came on 'Moonwalkers', where Machine Gun Kelly compared his jacket to that of Elvis, and it got me thinking how white rappers like Eminem compared themselves to Elvis in order to highlight and satirize his usage of hip-hop, or in even bleaker details on songs like 'Deja Vu' paralleling Elvis' own drug abuse to match his own, whereas MGK uses the comparison for... his jacket. And that's when it hit me: we're dealing with an artist that in order to appeal to the mainstream has sloughed away the majority of his talent and personality to a more basic form, and what's left would sound like what Kid Rock would be making if he rapped in 2017. That's not even getting into the flubbed rhymes or that blurred lines reference on 'Can't Walk' that probably wasn't intending to sound as rapey as it did... ugh, this was a gross listen, and by far Machine Gun Kelly's worst project, netting a 3/10 and absolutely no recommendation. I've heard better hip-hop this year... hell, I've heard better rap rock this year, whereas this is sloppy, lazy, and a waste of an otherwise promising talent. Skip it.

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