Over the course of his almost decade-long career, Machine Gun Kelly has been at his most raw and resonant in two modes: one features his high-register, rat-a-tat flow, kicking over a mic stand in ripped Converses and diving into a moshpit; the other, confessional explorations of pain that elude melodrama, remaining relatable, honest and vulnerable.
On his new album, Bloom
, we only get these modes in glimpses and shards in favor of a glossier pop construction. Kelly’s punk, D.G.A.F. attitude feels a bit too slick. His introspective moments seem recycled, far less urgent than he’s conveyed before as though he’s relying on echoes of memories or just turning to emotive tropes. His duet with actress/singer Hailee Steinfeld, “At My Best,” is case in point, the refrain a page out of a teenage diary: “I shout, I swear, I get angry, I get scared/I fall, I break, I mess up, I make mistakes.” Relatable, but bitterly generic — it comes off as an elementary appeal that unintentionally echoes a line in “Kiss The Sky”: “[I] want the world... but nothing in specific.”
Kelly’s fumbling comes with some self-awareness — he seems to be actively grappling with the difficulties of staying fresh despite the relatively comfortable lifestyle his success has facilitated. “How I’m supposed to write a song when I’m famous/and all the pain is created?” he raps on the album’s closing track. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like he’s found an effective answer to that critical question.
Musically, the most jarring aspect of Bloom
is the pop atmosphere that seems to envelope the album as MGK cosine waves through sub-genres. Kelly has hydroplaned from where he once stood at the convergence of rap and rock through the slick patch of pop-punk into straight bubblegum pop. “Go For Broke” features James Arthur, a past winner of The Voice
; “Bad Things” features Camila Cabello, a former member of girl group Fifth Harmony. Both of these contributors are characteristic of this heavy pop slant.
Even Kelly himself explores a poppy range of talk-singing, whether on bridges in “Bad Things” and “At My Best” or verses in “Kiss The Sky,” “Let You Go” and “27.” At it’s best, he evokes Weezer; at it’s worst, he evokes the same niche that the Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart has made a (commercially successful) fratty little nest in. In “Rehab,” he’s neck deep in what could even be considered pop-country: the acoustic intro tees up a listener for Kelly Clarkson or a Backstreet Boy, and the four-and-a-half minute jaunt comes fully equipped with layered strings, cross stick hits, a canned guitar solo and a swaying, chanted final chorus.
It’s quite a shift from what we expect from the Shaker Heights-bred rapper, but if the title and radio-pushed singles are any indication, it may well be the way he’s heading – away from the Waka Flocka-assisted wilin’, towards semi-singing and major chord pop tunes from Fall Out Boy’s and Katy Perry’s producers.
A few moments cut through the boilerplate pop sound and lyrical orthodoxy. Cleveland’s own EV (fka DJ EV) co-produced “Wake and Bake,” which pairs psychedelic, distorted guitar riffs and rich, bluesy background vocals over a sizzling trap beat and leaves a listener in a reddish haze. EST labelmate DubXX provides a vibey, satisfying hook to “Moonwalkers,” and “Bad Things,” though pure pop radio fodder, is a Skittle in song form — tasty, simple, and easily repeatable. “Trap Paris” is a romping, hedonistic ode to European debauchery — it gets a lazy feature verse from it-kid Quavo, but his vocal instrument is so naturally enjoyable that even disinterested scatting from the Migo elicits head nods and exuberant exclamations of “Ay!”
“Golden God” is the album’s best cut, an arms-raised anthem majestically composed by EST in-house producer Slim Gudz. Kelly is in the pocket, tastily syncopated raps replete with Almost Famous
references and hard-nosed boasts. Gudz’s layered, intricate trap beat features booming 808s that dilate and collapse, a distorted vocal sample that riffs in response, and refined, playful piano runs accenting throughout. It’s the most refreshing, unique song on the album — we see Kells at his peak, bellowing from the roof of the party.
And while Kelly assures us that he’s still just “almost famous,” the self-proclaimed golden god appears to be on the other side of the equation that began with his 2012 EP, Half Naked
and Almost Famous
. Five years later, he’s no longer a truth-seeking, coming-of-age youngblood full of raw energy, but a semi-jaded rocker grasping at meaning. Bloom
makes a couple earnest swipes but largely opts for a conservative, pop-focused recalibration. Its appeal may prove broader, but the album comes up short in emotive or sonic complexity for what could have been a maturation for the eastside rapper.