Cleveland Rapper Machine Gun Kelly has never been the most respected artist. His highest point of exposure was his rap beef with Eminem in 2018 in which he hardly excelled himself and he’s been a punchline ever since. He scored a few major hits earlier in the decade, but they were mediocre at best. He hasn’t clawed his way back to relevance since his well-publicised breakup with singer Halsey, which was itself eclipsed by the subsequent dissolution of Halsey’s relationship with rapper G-Eazy, who made his own transition into rock music with the laughably bad Everything’s Strange Here.
The rapper into rocker transition has been oddly sought after in recent years with G-Eazy just the latest in a long line of rappers falling flat on their faces in the attempt to restyle themselves, including the likes of Jaden, Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi and Logic. However, with the uptake in singing over trap instrumentals, a select few have managed to style themselves convincingly. Juice WRLD’s posthumous album ended with a phenomenal indie-rock cut that’s one of the best songs of the year, and Post Malone’s “Circles” has risen to become one of the biggest songs of all time. Not to mention his genius crossover with Travis Scott and Ozzy Osbourne “Take What You Want”.
So the ground has been primed well for Kelly, but there’s little such ambitious genre-blending on Tickets To My Downfall. There’s a trap beat here and there, but mostly just to accommodate the album’s less adventurous emo-trap features. Instead, Kelly throws himself into the mid-2000s pop-punk of Green Day and Paramore with vigor and hardly a backward glance. The guitars and drums are pure day one pop-punk, with the album’s producer Travis Barker of Blink-182 lending credibility to his rock stylings with some frenzied pop-punk drumming that steals the show on the track “WWIII”. Vocally, Machine Gun Kelly succeeds in capturing the adolescent snottiness and humour of the genre and mixing it with the more contemporary intoxicated emo angst of a Juice WRLD and his guitar playing is remarkably sound, putting together some really solid rock riffs.
The opening track, wryly named “title track”, is an aggressive exploration of ideas around repurposing ones own pain and failures for the consumption of others, complete with darkly comedic lines like “if I was a painter I’d be a depressionist”. It’s also haunted by an awareness of the sonic risk Kelly is making with this album. Tickets To My Downfall is far from an experimental album, but it’s very possible his core fans will be alienated while rock aficionados will roll their eyes at his rock tourism. When he sings “my label hates that I’m like this” I can believe it. This could have gone very wrong indeed, ask Logic.
However, despite how unappealing the prospect of a Machine Gun Kelly rock album sounds, Kelly acquits himself admirably with his songwriting, portraying a series of toxic and doomed relationships, both romantic and familial, with incisive and emotionally direct lyrics and potent melodic hooks. “drunk face” and “bloody valentine” explore his inability to break out of unhealthy relationship patterns, singing revealingly about his desperation and willingness to buy into bad situations. Meanwhile “lonely” explores his adolescence and the connections he’s lost with his father and those friends who helped him through his teenage years.
Besides Barker, Machine Gun Kelly chose his collaborators fairly well here. The best choice was courting his ex Halsey to duet with him on the track “forget me too”, where Halsey once again showcasing her versatility. Her cutting, distinctive but Hayley Williams-esque vocals play the part of a bitter ex-girlfriend as perfectly as ever. Trippie Redd also gives a standout performance on the following track “all I know”, drunkenly crying into his microphone as the track transitions surprisingly smoothly into a familiar trap beat. Iann Dior and Blackbear’s appearances are less seamlessly included, though Blackbear isn’t as bad as I had feared, he acquits himself tolerably, the killer chorus on “my ex’s best friend” is flatlined instantly as it crashes into Blackbear’s verse and outro.
The weakest moments on Tickets To My Downfall though come in the form of the indulgent extended interludes, especially “kevin and barracuda” where Kelly and comedian Pete Davidson witlessly riff back and forth about aliens for a minute and a half. The later “banyan tree” with girlfriend Megan Fox is better but still adds less personality to the album than the briefer studio excerpts that appear on a couple of tracks.
Even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing, ending with some less dynamic tracks, Machine Gun Kelly’s makeover as your emo-punk high-school boyfriend is far more convincing than he ever was as a rapper. His success here really does seem to signal some real staying power in this lane, however, it remains to be seen if he and Barker can escape the realms of pastiche and develop this sound into something more uniquely his own.