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Depending on who you ask, Colson Baker – AKA Machine Gun Kelly – is either pop-punk’s savior or the man holding the tickets to its downfall. Despite what his detractors would have you believe, Baker’s take on pop-punk is no worse than most others who have revived the sound for the 2020s. Co-written and co-produced by Travis Barker, Mainstream Sellout follows the same formula as pretty much everything Barker has worked on in recent years – it’s loud, bombastic, highly compressed, and reliably unsubtle. However, as one of the genre’s most commercially successful rivivalists, MGK has unwittingly become the poster boy of 2020s pop-punk – and therefore has become the prime target for those who see the current strain of predominant pop-punk as an inauthentic, synthetic ploy for nostalgia.
As suggested by its title, Mainstream Sellout sees MGK attempt to skewer his critics, but Baker, frankly, is neither deft nor adept enough as a musician to do this with any great success. The title track seeks to diminish and dismiss his critics but instead ends up merely repeating their claims. It’s the musical equivalent of people who put insults made against them in their Twitter bio or incessantly go on about how much they don’t care about what others think about them. Eventually, the more time you try proving how unbothered you are, the more obvious it is how much you do.
There’s an exhausting vein of self-pity that runs throughout Mainstream Sellout – whether Baker is complaining about the fallout of fame or singing about how everyone should leave him already because he’s “too bad to keep.” It quickly becomes grating and undermines the emotional impact of what should be genuinely affecting moments – where he’s singing about addiction, grief, and mental turmoil.
This is what’s so frustrating about Mainstream Sellout. It’s not the disaster MGK’s critics would have you believe, but it’s an album where Baker can’t seem to stop putting his foot in his mouth; bringing down otherwise good songs with lyrical clunkers, headache-inducing arrangements, or questionable features. On “Born With Horns”, genuinely disconcerting admissions like “I don’t want to live anymore” are drowned out by reliances on cliche elsewhere (“There’s no happy endings in this film”, “Mercury is retrograding”). Similarly, “God Save Me” includes one of the album’s frankest and most commendable examinations of grief (“Can’t reconcile, both of my parents are gone… Last month, took a gun in the room alone”), which is why it’s so disappointing when these admissions give way to a chorus of “I’m a lost boy, I’m a lost boy // She’s a goth girl, she’s a goth girl.”
There are some particularly regrettable moments on Mainstream Sellout – “WW4” sees Baker projecting his own struggles growing up onto everyone else, while flippantly telling his younger listeners to not go to school because “Life’s gonna kick your ass anyways.” Meanwhile, there’s not much to say about the reviled “Emo Girl” that hasn’t already been said – other than it’s sad to see Baker drag down one of pop-punk’s more promising revival acts. For the most part, however, Mainstream Sellout is surprisingly inoffensive for an album as loud as this one. It’s filled with power chords, resentment, hooky choruses, straightforward lyricism, and an unwavering belief that less is never more. Despite the strong reactions MGK generates from fans and critics alike, Mainstream Sellout, ultimately, is largely indistinguishable from most other recent pop-punk albums. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to you.