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Diddy’s new Bad Boy movement is beginning to resemble a hall of mirrors. The label’s rejuvenation has been spear-headed by fresh faces—Cleveland’s Machine Gun Kelly, Bronx-based French Montana, and Baltimore’s Los—but there are striking parallels and warped similarities with Bad Boy’s glory years. French Montana has coined an early anthem with his Lords Of The Underground-sampling “Shot Caller”—and just like its ’90s equivalent, Craig Mack’s off-kilter “Flava In Ya Ear,” it’s been upgraded into an all-star remix, this time with Rick Ross and Diddy rapping instead of Biggie and Busta. “Shot Caller” is Bad Boy’s calling card right now, but it’s unlikely Montana has the chops to sustain interest for an entire album. Which leaves Machine Gun Kelly as Diddy’s hope for a new Biggie.
White, gangly, and tatted with the insignia of a midwestern upbringing, Kelly is Biggie’s image opposite—but for Bad Boy to carve out a second spell of rap dominance, Diddy is counting on the XXL Freshman to follow in Big’s hallowed footsteps. Kelly’s Half Naked and Almost Famous EP, out today, is the first marker on his Bad Boy journey—and it underscores the potential the rapper possesses without signaling his arrival as the label’s next figurehead.
As his name suggests, Machine Gun Kelly’s gimmick (or “unique selling point for Bad Boy”) is his ability to rap fast. His words spew out quickly and with a rigid intensity—he raps like he wants to bombard the listener with syllables. The five songs on Half Naked and Almost Famous seem produced with this in mind. Split between hit-makers the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League (“See My Tears”) and JR Rotem (“Warning Shot”) and Kelly’s own in-house producers GB Hitz and Slim Gudz (“Wild Boy,” “E.S.T. 4 Life” and the title track), they regularly overdose on clattering hi-hats and sinister synth lines. The combination musters up a dramatic and forceful listening experience, but often the relentlessness ends up only subduing Kelly’s words. He delights most when he’s paired with something—a rapper, a beat—to temper his style: on “Wild Boy” his swift style is complimented by Waka Flocka Flame’s non-rapping yelling to forceful effect, while “See My Tears” has him getting introspective over production that strips things down and gives his words the room to breathe. It’s a blend the EP should have embraced more often.
As Half Naked and Almost Famous unravels, what becomes apparent is not so much what’s there, but what’s missing: Diddy. The first time around in the Bad Boy saga, he was hands-on to the point where Death Row’s Suge Knight called him out at a Source Awards shindig for being all over his artists’ songs. But the modern version of Bad Boy has him taking a backseat role. French Montana has already stated that he has Rick Ross executive producing his album, and Kelly seems intent on putting faith in his own stock of upcoming local producers. It’s admirable, but for all of Kelly’s youthful energy and bluster he still needs someone to mold hits for him. Diddy has a natural knack for that, complete with signature hushed ad libs book-ending a song.
Diddy’s role in the success of The Notorious B.I.G. has been romanticized: Biggie’s first Bad Boy releases came as double whammies designed to appeal equally to the radio and the streets, with the poppy “Juicy” balanced out with the uncompromising “Unbelievable,” and the R&B-leaning “Big Poppa” paired with the assassination anthem “Warning.” It’s a trick that’s been accredited to Diddy’s vision. The extent Diddy’s decision making to the side, those early releases successfully broke Big by making sure that everyone loved him. Half Naked and Almost Famous doesn’t do that for Machine Gun Kelly. Instead, it’s a release for those who are already converted to his style; it’s a pre-album stop-gap, not a career definer.
“Juicy” hails from a slower and simpler time in hip-hop. Big’s phrasing is deliberately economical; the looped sample of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” is easily digestible. It’s a winning combination, and one that has become timeless. These days, though, the industry moves quicker, the demand for new music borders on the impossible, and artists rarely have time to breathe. Kelly has shown that he can keep up with these rigorous demands, but if he wants to become the rapper to put Bad Boy back on top, it might be time to let Diddy step in and work his old-fashioned magic.
Machine Gun Kelly celebrates the release of Half Naked And Almost Famous tonight at Hiro Ballroom; admission is free with RSVP.