Bad Boy Records on a summer’s afternoon: A gangly, tattooed white kid from Cleveland who calls himself Machine Gun Kelly is flushed from having just signed a recording contract with Diddy’s label. “I’m tweakin’,” the 21-year-old rapper says, audibly geeked. With his close-cropped fair hair, a backstory that leans toward the trailer-trash side of the tracks, and a propensity for throwing up his middle fingers, Kelly exists in the post-Eminem zone, where white rappers—particularly ones who are fleet of tongue—are slapped with the tag of being the Next Great Pale-Skinned Hype.
When news broke earlier that day that Kelly—or Kelz, as he’s fond of calling himself in rhyme—had signed with Diddy, the online reaction was swift and split: For every commentator who speculated that his talent could surpass Em’s, another questioned the merits of signing with Bad Boy, pointing out that for rappers beyond Biggie, the label has been as much a dumping ground (or fast track to prison) as a pass to the platinum rap club. But Kelly is unperturbed. He talks about the decision with a steely-headed resolve: “There was a bidding war with all the labels; Puff and Jimmy were actually the latest to the table, but they came the hardest. They agreed not to touch my music—that was the most important thing for me, ’cause I’m so anti-sellout and anti-establishment.” Quickly, he adds, “Puff doesn’t micromanage me.”
This isn’t just a willful sound bite. Kelly says that his debut album—which, like his breakthrough mixtape, will be titled Lace Up—was already recorded before he signed. It will be released in the first quarter of next year, with the hit-making producers the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League providing the only creative contributions from outside of Kelly’s Cleveland-based camp, EST 19XX. Kelly openly pitches himself and Diddy as opposite personalities, with his own “wild and unpredictable” demeanor contrasting with his label boss’s need to be “calm, in control, and wanting to plan everything out.” So there are no schemes to collaborate; there will be no quirky odd-couple moment in the studio, no fallback plan of a Bad Boy remix to rescue an ailing attempt at a single. Kelly’s motivation for signing with Bad Boy rests in his desire to have his “movement”—Diddy’s plaudit—to spread as widely as possible. He wants to take the hype that he’s mustered through mixtapes and increasingly blitzkrieg live performances to “stadium status.” The copious boasts about being “independent,” which pepper his rhymes, have been humbled in the hope of the creaky, old-fashioned music machine working its commercial magic.
Kelly’s work to date, which showcases his ability to rap at something verging on warp speed, suggests he’s a smart foil for Bad Boy. (His inspirations include fellow Clevelanders Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.) Lace Up and Kelly’s other recent mixtape, 100 Words and Rhyming, comprise his calling card; the songs excite and don’t engage in lyrical acrobatics just for the thrill of the sport. Kelly says it’s easy enough to recite certain words quickly, but what he really strives to do is “tell stories in fast mode.” Biographical details come nestled in his rhymes, which focus on a concentrated three-year period when he went from a buttoned-down “loner at school” to an aspiring rapper who was “getting my ass beat every day.” During this time, he also experienced a brief period of homelessness; a stint in the hospital after a car accident; fatherhood; and success at the rap game, which came with attendant jealousy from fellow Clevelanders.
This hurried, concentrated growing-up period mirrors the way up-and-comers are now forced to announce themselves to the hip-hop community. One superlative guest verse on an established MC’s song used to be enough to give you a shot at a solo career, but now rappers must scatter at least 50 tracks over a number of mixtapes—more songs than are in many classic artists’ discographies—in order to get even passing notice. It leaves little room for reflection, and by the time the artist’s debut album actually gets released, the whole cycle could result in him believing his own hype.
Kelly is aware of these speed traps. To avoid lyrical burnout, he’s already putting the brakes on the mixtape circuit, vowing that the only music he’ll release before his debut album is a series of “rage packs”—six or seven singles aimed at promoting his live shows. Having scored an invite into the Bad Boy kingdom, he’s now slowing things down so he can savor his journey inside.
Machine Gun Kelly plays S.O.B.’s on Sunday