Author’s Note: Machine Gun Kelly is my favorite artist. So, what you are about to read is biased. Yes, I am biased. Everybody is.
More importantly, I am familiar with nearly all of his music—from teenaged mixtapes to collaborations to EPs to albums—I have seen his progression, and I wholeheartedly believe it is time for everybody to take notice of Machine Gun Kelly. He’s a multi-faceted artist—rapper, musician, actor, model and more. People who know about him tend to love him or hate him, but there are still a lot of people who just don’t know him. So, I would like to introduce you to not only his latest project, Hotel Diablo, but to Kells, a man I know deserves more recognition. This album is, essentially, a portrait of Machine Gun Kelly (real name Colson Baker) in musical form.
Before you walk with me through Hotel Diablo, first, open your go-to music platform, pull out your headphones or high-quality speakers and just listen. Play it In order, preferably a minimum of three times.
“The first taste acclimates the palate, the second establishes the foundation, and the third is to make your decision.” — Emily Gilmore, Gilmore Girls.
You ready? Let’s take a walk.
Sex Drive is the demon disguised as an angel, wearing a halo and playing the harp to beckon you closer. Once you pass the gate, the demon throws you in the back of a souped-up, yellow sports car and shackles you in, flooring the accelerator for the ride to Hotel Diablo.
An instrumental, collaboration with Mark Foster of Foster the People, Sex Drive opened every show of Machine Gun Kelly’s latest tour. There, backed with stunning visuals, it drew you closer to a dark place. But the visuals aren’t necessary to appreciate what Kells himself calls “driving music.” It’s hypnotic. It takes you straight to the hotel, a metaphor for Colson Baker’s mind, where he opens the door to his psyche to you.
Welcome to Hotel Diablo (shout out to Cara Delevingne for the greeting).
He is el Diablo, the general, the assassin, in charge of this establishment, and he is busting through the lobby doors to announce his presence.
Set to a up-tempo beat with a Latin influence, the trumpets and whoops evoke a feeling of celebration. It’s a party in a song.
If you don’t know him, it’s also an introduction to where he is in his life. He has a small circle of close friends that have been with him since his teenage years. They are a talented group who are an essential part of his music, participating in instrumentation, engineering and producing on all of his projects. They are truly a band of brothers that have evolved together musically, and in concert, Machine Gun Kelly is a band, not an individual. He keeps them close and is very reluctant to allow new people into the circle because of betrayals in the past. As a celebrity, he has dealt with people who are only interested in his fame and this song shows that he is wary of others’ motives.
Loyalty is an essential requirement in his life. He has dealt with haters his whole career, and he is not running away. This song is a good foundation for the hotel. It is what we will need as we continue through the next few dark corridors.
Hollywood Whore is a seductress, laced up in a slinky red dress, slipping out of a room down the hall. She is a song of betrayal. Falling in step with us, we hear of the damage she has done. Her latest victim, a tall tattooed man who trusted her. From her, we learn why loyalty is such a valued commodity in this place.
With production from his bass player Stephen Basil (Baze) and best friend and hype man, Brandon Allen (Slim), as well as live drum beats by his drummer J. P. Cappelletty (Rook), this song is truly a representation of the team. The melody clearly pays tribute to Linkin Park’s Numb, while the lyrics take you through a betrayal by a close friend, the debt, the hectic schedule. Life as a celebrity is not what it seems. At the end, we hear the warning, “City of Angels, danger!” The lights of Hollywood aren’t quite bright enough to illuminate the snakes hidden behind the doors.
As you continue to walk, you pass a room with glass walls. You join a crowd of people peering inside at a shrouded figure, curled on the bed, full of despair. The room is stunning, with sparkling glass everywhere, but so dark. The silence from the figure on the bed is devastating.
Opening with Naomi Wild’s haunting vocals, Glass House is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. These are some of the darkest, most painful lyrics on the entire album, which makes the song even more poignant. Colson has lost many friends in the past few years and has seen others go through a hell similar to what he has experienced as his fame has grown. The Glass House is a metaphor for fame; everybody is watching. There is no escape. This song mourns the lost relationships and depicts a loss of hope that is nearly final. The only sign of hope is a reference to an older song, See My Tears, in the line “I’m waiting on the rain to come and wash it all away.” Against the chorus of “throw me in the damn flames,” it seems like that is the only thing he has left to put out the fire in the pain he feels. One of the things that you will begin to notice is how effectively he uses his voice to express his emotions. It is clear that this is not just a song. This is personal and authentic; he is telling us what it is like to live behind those transparent walls, and even though it seems it should be light, it is very dark.
The ride deeper into his mind continues. The elevator stops, and the doors open to reveal a shadowy basement. Over by the furnace, a little boy throws his Burning Memories inside and watches as they incinerate. He is severing ties with the mother who abandoned him.
The next song has a deceptively pretty instrumental. It begins with a soft, jazzy, medium tempo that sounds like a song from the past, modernized. A collaboration with Lil Skies, Burning Memories shows a maturity in recognizing that he was left behind, but that it is fully the responsibility of the mother who left him. He said “I spent twenty years waiting on the stairs,” a clear reference to Story of the Stairs on his General Admission album, another very personal collection of songs. At the same time, he understands that this devastating pain helped make him into the person he is; it drove him somewhere he might never have gone without it. The talk box at the end of the song completes the 70s vibe, but feels completely new.
A Message from the Count
Meanwhile, in the penthouse, two boys are laughing at each other’s stupid jokes. Their giggling brings a sense of relief after the depths we’ve been in. The windows are open, and we get a little breeze of fresh air.
The skit with Pete Davidson serves as comedic relief. Listening to Pete imitate a vampire brings a smile to your face, especially as you hear Kells laughing in the background. According to Machine Gun Kelly, in a recent interview, he said that this was originally going to be more scripted, but it turned into a mess that was funnier as is, so they just used what they had. It really illustrates their friendship and lets you know he’s not alone.
Back in the elevator, we press the button for 13. It can’t be a good sign that this hotel, unlike most, has a 13 floor. Across the hall is a conference room, the door opens to a mob of people gathered around their boss. He is angry. The industry is coming for him, and this is the meeting to strategize and plan to meet the haters head on with guns blazing.
This song is a statement of fury over the haters and others who have blocked his career so many times. (Many have focused on the reference to previous beef with another artist, but that isn’t the focus of this song). From a magazine that refused to mention him to bloggers running him down, he is tired of the disrespect, and he’s ready to fight. He knows he has an army behind him (“I never die, I multiply,”) and they are not going anywhere. Unlike most, he embraces the symbolism of unlucky 13. In the chorus, he says “I got off on Floor 13, no in between.” He has chosen to go directly to the source of the bad luck and evil he has endured and confront it.
This is a good time to mention Machine Gun Kelly’s movement, known as EST, which stands for Everyone Stands Together. The name originated from a tattoo on his chest, but the meaning is much deeper. In his song Letter to My Fans, Kells asks his fans if they will stay with him if he doesn’t become successful; will they support him still if he can’t overcome his addiction. His fans, which he calls a family, is a group of people who have been through pain and loss who find common understanding in his music. EST also wears a black bandana with 19xx on the front for identification; it is known as the black flag (also the name of an excellent mixtape from several years ago. In Raise the Flag from the aforementioned project, he said “Follow me now, follow me now,” an invitation to join him.)
Years later, he weaves in imagery of a mafia family with a young, blonde godfather reigning, and the song picks up the bandana and ties it around his face as he comes out with guns blazing. The instrumental has a threatening feel, with sound effects to emphasize the hostile lyrics.
Within, Hotel Diablo you find an empty casino. At a lone Roulette table, a man sits with a revolver, loaded with one bullet. He spins the chamber, puts the gun against his head and pulls the trigger. Click. Another win over death.
Roulette takes the burning anger in Floor 13, and amps it up. It is a call to the family to get ready to ride. He and his team are rolling out. The lyrics come fast and furious, speeding up near the end. In this song, his voice is a deeper growl with a more monotone delivery, which only serves to further emphasize his message: he and his crew are not going anywhere.
He tells you all of the things that have tried to bring him down in his career, like a lawsuit over a fight that cost him a million dollars (also referenced multiple times previously, most recently in Get the Broom off his EP Binge — “knocked that man out, had to make a million dollar payment.” And in an Instagram Live broadcast to his fans in summer 2018, he said he has made and lost a million dollars three times. At the time, he said he didn’t know if he could do it again, but here it is clear that he is winning and that he will do that, and more.
By the end of the song, you have fully experienced the wrath that is Machine Gun Kelly.
Moving on from Roulette, MGK is joined by friends in a dimly lit smoky bar. A group of men sit around a table laughing. You have charged in here ready to go to battle, and the hilarity knocks your sword out of your hand. People don’t have to die. Yet.
The second skit is perfectly placed. His team is laughing about the concept of Truck Norris (stemming from his bass player, Baze, wearing a similar hat and looking like a truck driver version of Chuck Norris), and the various voices puts you at that table with friends who have become a family. These are people who know each other so well and are so relaxed together that when one of them starts joking the rest find it hilariously funny. The real purpose of this is to break up the anger that has been building and prepare you for what’s up next.
Death in My Pocket
In the corner room of the 13 floor, a man stands in front of a mirror, reflecting on all of the pieces of his past. Shrouded in the shadows, stands Death, watching the man, close but not yet ready to take him away.
Death in My Pocket also features Naomi Wild with, in my opinion, a perfect vocal chorus, and is a walk through the darkness that has been Machine Gun Kelly’s life.
From his known disdain for people taking photos of him (in his song Halo, he said “I don’t ever wanna become a celebrity, so put your camera down and stand next to me), to the birth of his daughter when he was 19, which kicked his ambition into gear, we see him reminiscing to a time when he was sharing a room with Slim making the raps that helped get him where he is today. He has many songs referencing those times; in Save Me (from his first album, Lace Up, in 2012) he talks about how they only were able to eat when Slim brought home food from work.
More recently, he is a man, trying to repair his relationship with his father because his aunt, the family member with whom he was the closest, (who passed away in 2017) wanted it. Through it all, he has gone through pain and come out the other side feeling alive.
Death in my Pocket is the beginning of a realization that in the presence of death, there is a precious moment where you realize why you need to live. It is the magic of a movement of love and acceptance. It is recognition that all of the things that have hurt him are what's brought him to where he is and that he's never felt more alive.
In the alley behind the hotel, a shady character with a pocket full of illicit drugs watches for his next customer. He wears a brightly colored tracksuit that clashes with the darkness in his eyes. He is a dealer, yes, but he is a reliever of pain. HIs customers both fear him and love him.
Candy, a bouncing wistful ode to self-medication, is a deceptively fun song, but his voice tells a different story, sounding almost numb. He references Mandy Moore’s 1999 song of the same name. While her “candy” was love, his is drugs.
Trippie Redd is featured in the second verse. Like most of the songs on this album, the music contrasts the content of the song. Kells gives a beat you that makes you want to dance, yet he raps about drugs and ripping his heart from his chest.
Near the elevator, a heart-broken girl sobs in her room. She has given her love to someone who isn’t capable of loving her back. She left, but she is angry, not understanding what has gone wrong.
With every word, MGK expresses the regret he feels at not being able to accept love. His album Bloom from 2017 contains several songs about love, including Rehab: “I swear this love is a sad song.”
As Madison Love’s voice gently chides him for wasting the love he has been given, you feel his pain in a tortured echo in the background. To me, this song is the best use of his voice to induce a mood. He has been so focused on the pain in his life that he has missed many opportunities to accept love that might have helped him heal along the way. It is clear, though, that while he is sorry, he does not know how to apologize or to fix himself. Madison Love’s voice is the perfect counterpoint to his. She has a smoky sound that suits the song perfectly.
In room 5:3666, you find a temptress in white with red skinned knees, alluring in her devastation. She has her eye on somebody, ready to whisk him away to Paris at the first sign of weakness. She knows that he’ll come around sooner or later. She keeps herself where he can find her.
Opening with the siren voice of phem, representing the desire of addiction, the song is a haunting, dreamy-sounding mixture of contempt and desire, of acceptance and shame. If you aren’t listening closely, it’s easy to mistake the seductress of the song for a woman, when really this song is about addiction.
He knows he has a problem. When he doesn’t have what he needs, he knows that he can find it easily, as access is not a problem when you’ve gotten to a certain level of success. Still, the gnawing sense of dependence to lift his spirits is keeping him awake. His addiction is a theme consistent throughout his discography from songs like Lead You On, about heroin’s seduction, to Habits where he again references “little white lines.” It is how he copes with living in a glass house, referenced again.
However, this feels like a dawning of recognition. The first step to fixing a problem is to acknowledge that there is one.
I Think I’m OKAY
Once again, we are back in the penthouse. The two boys are gone, replaced by a jubilant crowd of people celebrating being alive, dancing to a joyous-sounding anthem.
By the end of this journey, he has faced his past demons. After saying goodbye to family and friends, becoming a father at a young age, struggling with addiction and working hard to find success, he has finally recognized that something is fucking wrong with him. I Think I'm OKAY is an anthem for those who struggle, those who are in pain and those who act as if we are fine, as we turn to confront the people that have hurt us. We are not alone.
This song is a nostalgic venture into alternative rock territory, featuring Yungblud and Travis Barker from Blink-182 on drums. There is a definite Blink-182/90’s alt vibe, which is inspired but not derivative. You can’t listen to this song and not feel empowered.
The music itself provides the hope and joy, while the lyrics say that, yes, I still have work to do, to figure it all out, but that’s okay. The real revelation is in the title of the song: ”I think I’m OKAY”, with emphasis on the OKAY. The phrase doesn’t appear in the song, but it symbolizes that we are starting to go down a better path.
If you have made it this far, thank you for joining me on our tour through Hotel Diablo.
To get here, I have been playing the album through every minute since it came out, in order, over and over; letting it all wash over me, feeling every lyric to get to my understanding that is likely shallow compared to the depth of Colson Baker's mind.
Overall, I find that the collaborations integrate into the message seamlessly. To me, each shared song feels like an organic joining of like minds. Naomi Wild, Madison Love and Phem bring the soft counterpart for the hard truths being laid out on the table. Lil Skies and Trippie Redd are the homies. They have his back and understand where he is coming from as they experience similar, but different, challenges in their careers. Yungblud and Travis Barker show you another side of the ever-evolving Colson Baker, bringing out the punk.
Kells and his team are here to change the world, and this album announces his arrival, again, but so loudly that it’s hard to ignore. Had you listened to everything else in his strong library of music, you would not be surprised to see that they're here. They have been coming. In a freestyle on Funk Master Flex’s radio show in 2018, he said “Look, I told you, I told you that I’m coming. They should’ve left me doing pop, y’all don’t want me gunnin’.” (Pop is a reference to his hit song Bad Things with Camila Cabello).
Machine Gun Kelly is the voice of a new generation of music that digs back to the past of his youth and comes out with something unique and unlike anything else I've ever heard. He has brought his friends and Cleveland along. They share in his success and stand with him in his struggles. You can watch them along the way in his Kellyvision series on YouTube that starts from the beginning and continues through 2018 (with hopefully more to come).
And yes, you might say to me “Shelly, but you're such a big fan. Of course you love it. Of course you think you can understand him. You've heard every word. You've been to 14 shows. He has hugged you. (Sorry. Still can't believe it). You've watched the videos, interviews and the movies. You can't possibly be objective. And speaking of that, what is a 56 year-old woman doing listening to a tattooed self-proclaimed bad motherf*cker; shouldn’t you be listening to Kenny G?”
As I said in the beginning, when it comes to K, I'm not objective. I'm passionate. I am a firm believer in his talent and vision. His music has pulled me from dark places like no other music ever has. His movement has given me freedom to be who I am and to offer love to anybody who needs it. And I may be 56, but I have never felt freer than when I’m listening to his music, whether by myself in my car, or in a crowd at a concert, or at his annual music festival.
Acceptance is a powerful thing, and he has changed my life.
I know his album will resonate with anybody who opens their minds and hearts and gives it a fair chance. It is hard to not connect when an artist pours his soul into his music. Every song is good, authentic music. You may feel, hear and interpret it differently, but that's part of the reason we need music. It helps us understand each other and connect in an increasingly disconnected world.
In the last few weeks, I have seen many new fans join EST. These were people who had never heard of him, and after finding one song, they go listen to another, and then another. Until eventually, they have listened to as much as they can and enthusiastically have converted into a member of the movement by his passion alone.
This album doesn't need a Grammy because it is already triumphant. But it deserves one.
If you need me, you’ll find me on Floor 13 of Hotel Diablo, because I checked in, and I’m never leaving.
(And the title, it's an inside joke. EST gets it. EST for life. ❌❌)
A review and interpretation by Shelly Slade