Photo Credit: Universal Music Group
Richard Colson Baker has already had four top ten albums as a rapper. However, for his current release Baker, professionally known as Machine Gun Kelly, reloads and switches ammo to take aim with a full rock album. His previous albums have included some singing, but mostly provided by guest vocalists. Here, Baker takes his first steps forward in the role of rock frontman.
The album’s title, Tickets to My Downfall, alone almost tries a bit too hard, leaving nothing to the imagination in letting listeners know that the work will reflect the same self-deprecating themes which have arguably dominated rock since the grunge movement of the early ‘90s, putting forth an uncomfortable but somehow synched-up mix of self-consciousness and narcissism. Even the cover photo – with the artist holding an electric guitar while standing on the edge of an empty swimming pool – comes off as a bit too obvious.
Still, the album’s songs are mostly enjoyable enough, or at least will be to fans of the type of this fairly specific rock sub-genre. Thematically, most of the songs do explore the subjects suggested by the album’s title. Back-to-back songs about drinking, looking at it from both the perspective of its promised escapism (“Hey you // Same time and same place // We can get sh*tfaced, yeah yeah,” he sings on “Kiss Kiss”) as well the repercussions of alcohol and other controlled substances (from “Drunk Face”: “I’m still young, wasting my youth // I’ll grow up next summer”).
So if nothing else, Baker does try to create a balance with some of these themes. “Forget Me Too” is a classic anti-love song in the tradition of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sometimes Always” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, with the sides of both former lovers being heard via a duet. For this one, Baker recruited Halsey to sing that other vocal. Certainly not a bad idea in theory, although she sort of approaches her vocal part with a bit of a screech, which is somewhat beneath her very legitimate talent (it ends up coming off like stunt-casting).
Hip-hop artists who trade rapping for singing and then make a seemingly-drastic leap in musical genres is not unprecedented. Queen Latifah, a pioneer among female rappers, crooned through an album of jazz and R&B standards in 2004. But probably the rapper-to-singer metamorphosis to which Baker’s Downfall will draw the most comparisons to is that of Everlast with his 1998 release Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. The former House of Pain emcee’s socially conscious classic “What it’s Like” from that album definitely stood out as unique at the time.
This new Machine Gun Kelly album, by contrast, offers very little which can’t be heard in numerous other pop-punk/emo/mall punk releases that have come out since the ‘90s. Additionally, while Everlast surprised everyone with a focused and soulful singing voice, Baker’s vocals grow a bit annoying even within the relatively scant length (36:09) of this album. On that tip, he doesn’t really stand out among other vocalists in that genre (although a fundamental punk aesthetic might argue that this is helpful or necessary to illustrate that the singer is a “real person” and not some please-the-masses sellout).
Still, Baker also plays guitar on a number of the tracks and proves himself to be sufficient on that instrument (seemingly the cover photo was no psych-out after all). Also, longtime Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker co-wrote every track in addition to keeping the beat throughout, which almost undeniably solidifies the legitimacy of the whole thing (Baker and Barker! It was obviously meant to be). Oh, and there’s also the little matter of Tickets to My Downfall becoming Machine Gun Kelly’s first number one album in the US, so this has already proved to be anything but his downfall, at least commercially. But how much of a chance is an artist truly taking when they do something which is a major departure from what they’re known for, but still sounds very similar to material that has proven successful for many others? That’s a debate that probably a lot of people would buy a ticket for.