Where the Wild Things Are
Photo Gallery Follows the Text
It’s four on a Thursday afternoon, and Machine Gun Kelly is asking a stranger in his House of Blues dressing room to read his ribcage to him. That’s where a particularly memorable tattoo of a bus and a stick figure fl ying through the air sits, emblazoned with “5/14/2013”—the day he almost died trying to score weed in Manchester.
For the 25 year-old Cleveland rapper, it’s a typical story: marijuana is harder to find in Europe than on our shores. To that end, Kells hit the street looking for the sketchiest drug dealer he could find. When he spots his guy, he steps out into the wrong side of the road and goes flying six feet. The 20 mile-per-hour collision with a double decker trolleybus was head-on in the most literal sense, given Kelly’s skull spiderwebbed the bus’ windshield. He wakes up to screaming bystanders and an ambulance. At the hospital, the first X-ray showed no fractures or bleeding, despite the fact that—medically speaking—the man’s head should have split in two. Baffled doctors ordered an MRI that came back clean, then another.
“Then everyone in the hospital started calling me Superman,” he says, “and it was just this moment where I was like, holy fuck. I cannot be fucking hurt.”
But his fans already knew that. (Turns out he was being pretty straightforward on “Wild Boy” when he said “all they know is they can kill anybody but Kells.”) His hellraising childhood should have killed him to begin with, from his first arrest at 13 to homelessness weeks after walking at a high school graduation nobody expected him to see, followed by a two-year heroin addiction. All MGK does is defy expectations. The audience of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater never expected him to become the first white rapper ever to win the whole damn show in 2009. “I have people’s choice awards from MTV that were supposed to go to Kendrick or Macklemore because at the time, they were hotter,” he says. “But their fan base isn’t like mine, so we defy.”
Nobody expected a rapper whose influences run from Anti- Flag to U2—and whose music is just as hard to peg—to prove the weight of his name after his 2012 debut, Lace Up. But everything that hasn’t killed him only set the stage for what’s to come: His sophomore album, General Admission, and the next phase of his career, where he’ll have to defy expectations again.
MGK is the kind of rapper who needs to be experienced full-on to understand. There’s a raw energy, sometimes bordering on manic, that drives his rap and message. He’s the kind of kid who puts his entire self out on stage, who refuses to restrain himself (see, again, “Wild Boy”) That means you’re going to take the good with the bad. He’s an open book, and his albums and stage presence veer between wild vulnerability, political earnestness, the fury and ecstasy of a young guy who’s had to claw his way to where he is and hasn’t lost sight of what that means. His fans are just as rabid.
That’s why he’s splitting the final track of General Admission, “Bad Motherfucker,” with Kid Rock, because those who would judge the rapper for that don’t get him. For an album that could make or break his career, Kells isn’t shying away from risks. There are guests and music on this album that are far from safe. The majority of General Admission was born from jam sessions with friends, and one of Kells’ goals for the release is to capture the spirit of his show, where live musicians feed into his unhinged energy on stage. “I think we’re going to wake up one day and realize we can’t be in a club forever,” as he puts it. Not that he hates EDM, but “a synthesizer can only say so much for me,” he says. “But that guitar solo? Oh, my god, that motherfucker can make me cry. ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ I’ll cry to that.” He continues with interesting influences for a rapper. “Neil Peart. John Bonham. Blink-182. Green Day. Let me zone out to that, I’m like, holy shit.”
This album is a tour of his life, from Cleveland streets to headlining stages today. It’s the story, in detail, that couldn’t be told on the first album. “My relationship with my father, with my daughter, the difficulty of her not being two anymore and realizing her dad is gone. The things I deal with as a man by saying damn, am I doing this for the right reasons? To really provide for my kid, or because I was such a fucking loser growing up and I have this point to prove to the world? Am I doing this because I love the music or because I want to spite every person that said I wasn’t one of the greatest to touch the microphone?”
That’s not to say MGK’s life is anything other than fantastic, relatively speaking. He’s signed to Interscope and selling out shows, making money—the rock star he dreamed of becoming when he started this long climb. Also fantastic? Amber Rose, his new girlfriend, a woman as hard to pin down as him. On their first date, “we sat and listened to Appetite for Destruction, spazzing about guitar solos, and it clicked. I realized she’s a badass. And things kicked off from there.”
Holding court with a hip-hop princess like Rose is a nice leap from, as he tells it, “fucking girls for Adderall when I was 20,” he says with a laugh. “My first album was fueled by Adderall. Straight up, there’s plenty of girls out there right now like yo, Kells crashed on my couch for a night or two in college, stole half my bottle of Vyvanse and left in the middle of the night.” For the record: The guy who annotated his own lyrics on Genius two years ago with “side note for the girls out there who think their men are ‘fucking’ them, you don’t know what rough sex is like until I fuck you” hasn’t grown up a bit in that department.
“I have no restraint,” he says, as if anyone expected anything else. “If I’m in an Uber, or stepping outside for a smoke break, or at a dinner meeting, I will fuck on the spot. And being in public turns me on even more. I’m mastering the sensuality of a good love making session, but I love me a sloppy, scratchy, almost bloody fucking sex session.” A paragon of moderation this kid is not.
On his back, Kells sports a new tattoo, Salvador Dalí’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. It’s the kind of nightmare-cum-drug trip that made Dalí synonymous with surreal: Elephants and horses lurch across the desert on spindly legs as tall as buildings, with Jesus at their feet brandishing the cross. “Like he’s repenting,” Kells says. “He sees the end is coming, and he’s repenting because he knows he’s done so much wrong, but has good intentions and wants to be forgiven. And I feel like that’s me, man,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of fucked up things, but my heart is pure. People I’ve done wrong, situations I’ve handled poorly—shit, crimes I’ve done—I want to be forgiven for all that.”
General Admission is his confession. Look into MGK’s eyes and you’ll see the gritty passion of a man who battled his share of demons to win that rock star lifestyle. “This album is a ticket to my life,” he says. “See how similar we all are, man. We’re all going through the same shit, seeing the same stuff.” Maybe not the exact same; few guys get to date women like Amber Rose, or peer out at sold-out House of Blues audiences chanting along in time to your lyrics. But anyone who’s sinned and repented, anyone who’s been through a gauntlet, been pigeonholed and miscalculated—as Kells would say, “straight David and Goliath type shit”—can find something of themselves in MGK and his new album.
Image 1 of 19