“But I love you so much. Don’t you love me? Do you want to see my car?” Colson Baker whispers to the kitten clutching his chest for dear life. Whiskey — named after his dad’s drink of choice — is a 15-week-old Bengal that looks like a leopard, if a leopard could sleep in a shoebox. They’re in the driveway of Baker’s Los Angeles home, appraising the cat-friendliness of his first ride, a mint green ’53 Pontiac Chieftain with Ohio plates. “What do you think?” Baker asks his tiny feline. “We’ll go cruising in this. You can have the whole back seat. You’re so beautiful.”
Like a born rock star, Whiskey appears horrified by his proximity to early-afternoon sunlight, mewing from between Baker’s fingers, which glitter with pink polish that matches his hair. “I’m sorry, boy,” Baker murmurs into the kitten’s neck. “The real world’s scary. I know. I know.”
You probably wouldn’t peg Baker — better known as Machine Gun Kelly — as a guy typically awake before sunset himself. There’s no one on the charts serving balls-to-the-wall rock’n’roll decadence like the 31-year-old musician, who has become the poster boy for the streaming age’s renewed interest in guitar riffs. His last album, 2020’s Tickets to My Downfall, channeled his long-simmering inner-adolescent angst into addictive TRL-era pop-punk and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200; at the time, it was the first rock album to do so in over a year, making MGK the rare rock artist not circling AARP membership to top that chart in recent memory. Haters would say Sid Vicious is rolling in his grave; to them, Baker would like to say: Get over yourselves. “It opened the lane back up for people to make money. It opened up these festivals,” he says of the pop-punk revival he’s helping fuel. “[Rock] needed a defibrillator. Who cares who gives it, just as long as that motherf–ker doesn’t die?”
Is it strange that the face of pop-punk 2.0 was best known, not too long ago, as a moderately successful white rapper? Not for an artist who likened himself to Jackass’ Steve-O on his 2011 breakout hit, “Wild Boy”; who insisted on leading a live band and playing guitar onstage back when his only chart hits were pop-rap team-ups with junior-varsity divas; who was covering Blink-182 songs in concert long before he tapped the group’s drummer, Travis Barker, to become his main producer. Nor is it strange to anyone who has observed the collision course that rap and rock have been on for a few years already, as late artists like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD married hard-hitting beats with the visceral edge and open-vein lyricism of alternative rock and emo music. “I think people try to put in a box what rock or alternative music can be,” says Baker’s label boss, Interscope Geffen A&M chairman/CEO John Janick. “[MGK] is the definition, right now, of a rock star.”
Achieving that involves a lot more than just music, though, and Baker is a careful student of the pyrotechnic theater of it all. “The task as an entertainer is to entertain, and that means giving a part of yourself, including your comfort, away,” he explains from his candlelit living room, overlooking a backyard infinity pool in need of some cleaning. It’s something he believes all great artists have in common, from Prince’s freaky fashions (“You think Prince liked playing in high heels?”) to Daft Punk’s iconic masks (“They didn’t get five years in and go, ‘You know what? F–k it. This s–t’s uncomfortable. I can’t breathe!’ ”) to Migos’ opulent swagger (“They’re giving you more than talent — they’re giving you entertainment. They’ve got the jewels, the clothes, the hair”).
It has become a mission of Baker’s to give the people what they want — a show, and not just onstage. So he’ll do things like smash the windshield of his friend’s car in full view of the paparazzi during a wild night out on the Sunset Strip, or jump on the boardroom table during a playback session at his record label, or walk the red carpet decked out in leather and fangs, chained by the fingernails to his fiancée, actress Megan Fox. A couple of tequila shots into our afternoon together, Baker casually announces his plan to get his nose pierced; sure enough, a woman named Doll Face arrives to add a third hoop to his right nostril. (It’s apt — considering that precise blend of glamour and sleaze — that Pete Davidson portrays him on Saturday Night Live.)
Baker is particularly attuned to the mythologies of rock stardom: As an actor, he played a pitch-perfect Tommy Lee in the 2019 Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, and he executive-produced and stars in this year’s Taurus as a rap-rocker approaching rock bottom. The coffee shop he recently opened in Cleveland, The 27 Club, is named for the age at which some of the most legendary rock musicians have died. (Regarding his coffee fanaticism, he deadpans, “It’s better than cocaine!”)
In person, it’s clear why Fox tends to refer to her husband-to-be in the language of a Gothic romance paperback: “my achingly beautiful boy,” “magical and haunted.” Through the holes in his sweater, there is no visible real estate left on his tattoo-saturated torso. Baker stands a spindly 6’4” without his platforms; in certain lights, his blue eyes appear almost black. His offstage antics, combined with the fact that his corporeal form would not have been out of a place on a ’90s runway, have not always made him the easiest person to root for. “My own friend was like, ‘I couldn’t even listen to your music at first because I just didn’t like your face,’ ” says Baker with a half-laugh, swiveling a pair of Zen meditation balls in his palm. “He’s not wrong!”
Yet the reigning poster boy of not giving a f–k admits he’s still sorting out just how many f–ks he wants to, or should, give. He has just returned from Cleveland, where he grew up, having MC’d the opening of the NBA All-Star Game in a bedazzled grandma sweater. When he’s back home, he feels like the same scrappy teenager from 15 years ago, hustling mixtapes outside the mall. Cleveland’s also the only place where he’ll let people get away with roasting him: for his love of the color pink, or his penchant for dressing like Edward Scissorhands, or for being, in Baker’s words, “on some Brad Pitt s–t.” But it bothers him a little when the rest of the world — the ones who only know MGK, not Colson — makes those jokes. “I felt from the beginning, even in my household, like the kid who was just outcasted from birth. I was always too tall for the kids at my school, or I didn’t have enough money to buy the outfits the other kids had — it was just always something,” Baker remembers. “But the world isn’t looking at me like that. They’re like, ‘F–k you, dude, you’re a rich rock star. How hard could it be?’ ”
So he has gotten into the habit of telling the joke before anyone else can. Hence, a title like Tickets to My Downfall. “It’s either really ironic or I called it, you know?” explains Baker as he hunches on his white leather sofa. “It’s like the ultimate checkmate.” He had intended to call the follow-up born with horns, a summation of that outsider feeling he has always held on to, and even got matching tattoos of the name with Barker. Then he had another idea: If the world still wanted to pick him apart, he would lead the conversation. The new title had to be mainstream sellout (which shares the name of his world arena tour kicking off in June). “It was time to just accept all the deprecation,” Baker says, the ice in his glass of Japanese whiskey rattling in his shaking hands; the kitten lunges around the room, hunting imaginary prey. “I can handle it.”
The skeptics could chalk one No. 1 album up to dumb luck. Two, though? That would shut them up. The prerelease singles from mainstream sellout, out March 25, have yet to reach the Billboard Hot 100 highs of any singles off his last album, but Baker and Interscope have employed a similar merchandise-heavy strategy to the one that helped take Tickets to No. 1; at press time, his webstore offered over a dozen different box sets for sale. “One thing about Machine Gun Kelly: He doesn’t lose to the Encanto soundtrack,” Baker scoffs, sounding about 10% like he’s joking.
Chart milestones aside, there’s something more intangible that Baker is after that he’s well on the way to achieving: a level of success, or at least omnipresence, at which he can’t be ignored. His 2019 album, Hotel Diablo, received mostly tepid reviews, but what bothered him more was how little it was reviewed in the first place — “like it wasn’t even worth it.” Tongue-in-cheek title aside, mainstream sellout is, he thinks, his best shot at being genuinely heard, and maybe even understood. “I’ve waited for this,” he says in the hushed rasp he slips into when he gets serious. “The confidence to hit ‘play’ and know that what’s about to come out of the speakers is what I’ve wanted to say all along.”
In the home Baker shares with Fox and their respective children (he has a daughter from a previous relationship; she has three sons with her ex-husband, actor Brian Austin Green), books are scattered across every surface: compendiums of ritual magick and tarot, Abloh-isms by Virgil Abloh, a Salvador Dalí cookbook from the ’70s. The centerpiece of the all-white living room is a rare Egyptian chessboard, a nod to Baker’s itinerant childhood, when he lived in Egypt, Kenya and Kuwait with his missionary parents before settling back in the States. Underneath the spiral staircase in the foyer, an engraved wooden sign — “Two halves of the same soul meet again. I love you in all lifetimes. Now let’s get married!” — is tucked between a vase of white lilies, an MTV Video Music Awards Moonman trophy and a journal emblazoned with the words “WHO ARE YOU?”
It’s a question Baker has confronted his entire career. Rap and rock are genres defined by their proximity to youth, with their own codes about authenticity, and Baker has had an uphill battle for credibility in both. He hated being treated like a novelty when he was the odd, skinny white kid rapping alongside the likes of Waka Flocka Flame and entering ridiculous feuds with Eminem. (Prior to Tickets, one of Baker’s biggest hits was the 2018 diss track “Rap Devil.”) And he hates it all the same when detractors suggest he is a pop-punk poseur, a mere tourist who’ll pack up and leave whenever a genre stops suiting him.
“I know it kills certain bands in that community that I got the success that I got. But I earned that s–t,” he says as he schools me in a chess game. “Dude, I was f–king loading up the van with our drums and amps in 2010, driving to Indiana and Chicago, playing Warped Tour. I can tell you the f–king Wi-Fi codes to venues in Blackfoot, Idaho. Can you say that s–t as a band?” Videos from his 12 p.m. set on the fold-out stage at Warped Tour 2012 show a mohawked Baker, full band in tow, covering Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” and ending up in the pit.
The members of his team and touring band, most of whom have worked with him for over a decade, witnessed the grind. Andre Cisco, one of his three managers, first met Baker in Cleveland in the mid-’00s outside the airbrush shop where Baker worked. The teenage MC caught Cisco’s attention, battle-rapping outside the mall for anyone who would listen, and soon, Cisco had quit his job to be Baker’s full-time tour manager. By the early 2010s, the crew was opening for acts like Rick Ross and Meek Mill, and touring for crowds of Juggalos with the rapper Tech N9ne, with whom Baker performed an impressive 99 shows in 104 days. “So we’ve been through the wringer,” Cisco says — janky tour buses, filthy communal bathrooms. “Any mistake that you can make in the music industry, we probably all made [them] together.”
They’ve got tour stories for days, most of them unprintable; Baker animatedly tells the tale of the night they dropped acid that they got from a random hitchhiker and changed the sign outside a Missouri buffet to “ALL YOU CAN EAT BUTT.” The band grew even closer during the beginning of the pandemic, bunkering down in Baker’s previous house with a month’s supply of food and a bunch of machetes — just in case all hell broke loose and they needed to protect themselves. (Unsurprisingly, their house wasn’t the most popular on the block: After cops were called to Baker’s 30th birthday party, he apologized to his neighbor by delivering a Dom Pérignon bottle by skateboard.)
Yet the downtime proved fruitful in more ways than one. Early in the pandemic, Baker had begun a practice he called the Lockdown Sessions, hopping on Instagram Live to perform casual acoustic covers of Nirvana, Oasis and Paramore. To his surprise, the broadcasts were a hit, amassing views in the millions — and the type of critical acclaim his albums never seemed to drum up. By then, the gears for a full-fledged pop-punk record were already in motion. Inspired by his time working with Barker on a song for 2019’s Hotel Diablo, Baker spent two months in the studio with him and a revolving door of guest musicians, jamming until sunrise almost every night. Quick and catchy, with classic three-chord melodies, the songs that materialized dealt with addiction, depression and disillusion — themes Baker had covered before, only now delivered in a more potent package.
That combo of feel-good sounds and heavy lyrics is the secret ingredient of the pop-punk resurgence, according to Baker collaborator and writer-producer Omer Fedi, who has been a driving force in bringing guitars back to the Hot 100 with his work on songs like 24kGoldn and iann dior’s chart-topper “Mood.” “English is not my first language, so when we write a song, the first five times I listen to it, I only care about the melody,” Fedi explains. “Then after five times, I’m like, ‘Damn, this song’s also really deep.’ If we produced it on the piano, it’d make us all cry, but we’re doing it with drums and fast guitar.”
Baker’s label didn’t flinch over the transformation. After all, Janick had cut his teeth in alternative rock, having founded the indie label Fueled by Ramen — the launchpad for bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore — in the mid-’90s before finding his way in 2012 to Interscope, where Baker was already signed in a joint venture with Bad Boy Records. “Obviously, he was a rapper, but he also was an alternative kid — and that’s what everything is now,” Janick says. “Knowing where he came from, the conversations we’d had over the years, it’s easy for me to see the progression.”
At first, Baker wanted to follow Tickets with a return to rap, something for his friends at home to vibe to. “But I love playing guitar,” he rasps from the desk of his upstairs office as he meticulously hand-rolls a cigarette. (He makes his from scratch using tobacco grown by Native American shamans, a practice inspired by Fox; he pauses to say “thank you” each time he runs the leaves through the grinder.) “The 2010s was great for singers and rappers, and I was part of that. But I think we needed something else: We needed an instrument,” Baker continues. “Kids come up to me like, ‘Dude, the first time I ever saw someone play guitar in concert was at your concert — and now I take guitar lessons.’ ”
But don’t even get him started on the videos with titles like “Machine Gun Kelly Live Guitar FAIL!” that pop up on YouTube every few months. “Never once was I like, ‘I need to be touted as the greatest guitar player,’ but you know what, though? I’m playing my f–king guitar, and you guys stopped,” counters Baker. At awards shows, he says he is often the rare act not performing alongside a prerecorded track. “F–k that! At least mine sounds like how I was feeling that day, and maybe I was feeling angry, or I was drunk and I didn’t give a f–k. But if I have to be a scapegoat for people’s own insecurities, whatever. I’m more punk rock than you are because at least I’m willing to put my ass on the line — like, hear me as I am, today.”
From the desk of his home office, where a bobblehead of himself sits alongside a Bruce Lee figurine and a fancy bong, Baker cues up mainstream sellout over the speakers. The songs he previews sound like every chapter of his career rolled into one; this time, Barker’s thunderous drum rolls are cast into relief by 808s, while verses from Young Thug and Gunna sit alongside appearances by Willow and Bring Me the Horizon’s Oli Sykes. But there’s one guest who Baker can still barely believe is involved at all, let alone on two separate tracks: Lil Wayne, who made his own attempt at fusing rap and rock over a decade ago with 2010’s Rebirth. (Though the album was widely panned at the time, Wayne perhaps got the last laugh when one of its tracks had a viral moment on TikTok last year.)
Baker beams as he tells the story of Wayne arriving at the studio at midnight in a cloud of neon and smoke to record his verse on the song “Drug Dealer.” Wayne’s second appearance, on the downcast single “ay!,” arrived in Baker’s inbox the morning the album was due to his label, recorded fresh off a 7 a.m. skate sesh. “That motherf–ker is everything I loved about the rock stars from back then,” Baker raves. “Someone where you’re like, ‘I don’t have the screw loose enough to pierce my face a million times or go out like “F–k you!” to the world — but I need a vessel to live through.’ ”
A Lil Wayne co-sign was one thing. But the approval he had been seeking his whole career actually arrived in 2020, when Baker’s father — who had kicked his delinquent son out of the house after high school — finally complimented one of his tracks. It was his dad who had helped him write his first song on guitar, and he was happy to see Baker embrace the instrument after all those years. Baker’s hands tremble when he talks about it. “In that moment, when he acknowledged my music and we bonded over a song, it gave me the richest memory I’ll ever have,” he whispers after a long spell of silence. “To me, that was the ultimate success. And everything else that preceded that in our relationship didn’t matter because we had finally made it.” His father died a few months later. Sometimes when Baker performs certain songs, he feels something take over him, lighting him up with purpose.
Lately, Baker has been wondering about whether he romanticizes the turmoil that fuels his music. “The torture is real. However, do I invite the torture or create it for myself? Probably,” he admits. “Do I fear a stable life? Do I fear that it’s going to stop my writing? For sure. Sometimes I wake up and it’s like, ‘It’s sunny today. I live in this house today. What am I? I am a mainstream sellout, dude.’ ” Early in his career, he would counter feelings of awkwardness and discomfort by putting on what he calls an “exoskeleton of arrogance and cockiness.” He cringes at certain old interviews now, at the guy he was trying to be. “I’m overcompensating so much for how I actually was inside,” he says. “I was scared to be myself.”
Baker’s not trying to hide anymore. If being honest in his lyrics helped misfit kids everywhere connect to him, he might as well embrace it in real life. And while he’s holding the world’s attention, he would like to remind you that he’s just a person doing his best, too. “My name is Colson Baker, and I have real feelings,” he says, the smoke from his cigarette wafting past his face and out the open window. “I have real loss. I have real vulnerability. I have real regrets. I just want to be given the same respect that you would give yourself to f–k up and bounce back.” Giving a f–k, he has decided, is actually pretty punk rock.