Machine Gun Kelly
Remember all those distinguished titles (see also) bestowed upon Machine Gun Kelly the last time he went pop-punk? Welp, it seems like we can add the honorific of Mainstream Sellout to that ever-growing list — Colson Baker has even gone to the trouble of naming his most recent (and also way too self-conscious) sixth studio album after this namesake, guided by a sorta desperate “let me beat them to the punch” mentality that tries to be in on a joke that already stopped being funny over a year ago. You see, in MGK’s eyes, the public has not given him the proper respect he deserves; they may have resurrected his failing career and provided him with commercial success and a level of cultural ubiquity the likes of which he had never seen before, but that’s clearly not enough. He needs his respect, goddammit, and he wants it now! Forget the fact that he’s only been a “rock star” for about a fraction of the time he was a rapper, he’s as real as it gets (all according to MGK himself); he’s so sensitive about the topic that hearing the term “fake emo” would probably make him cry.
But in all fairness, he seems to be legitimately attempting some form of self-deprecation, even when he’s really just being obnoxious and pathetic about the whole thing. Straight up, it’s often embarrassing how mannered he gets when he approaches the subject from this all-knowing perspective: the title track in particular becomes laughable in how it takes the supposed “hater” point of view to several different (all equally improbable) illogical ends, including jaunts like he has no friends and that “you’re so ephemeral,” like he’s a friggin’ Stan Brakhage short or something. When he’s not bitching about his lowly social status or indulging any number of dumbass creative choices that should automatically invalidate any argument put forward in his defense — like giving Sk(P)ete Davidson more airtime to do his mopey millennial shtick or having producer Travis Barker’s untalented son show up for 5-minutes at the end; Willow Smith also makes an impassioned (if also not very good) appearance, so it seems nepotism is a recurring motif of sorts here — he’s sticking with what he did last time, except somehow even more sonically watered-down, absent any of the slick hooks and playful pop variability that elevated the high points of his last record. Besides opener “born with horns,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a single track here that actually… well, ya know, rocks — the instrumentals are far more of the Ian Dior/”woe-is-me” bitch-made variety, regressing even further than most of the lukewarm material on Tickets to My Downfall. Which, say what you will about that record, at least had some semblance of vitality (replaced now by contempt and conceitedness) and had actual songs with defined structures and hooks. Now, we have songs like “Ay!,” where MGK just mutters “ay” a lot on the chorus and gets Lil Wayne to piss away his thirty-second guest spot. He even tries the sadboi acoustic closer routine again — gotta get that unearned pathos in somewhere — but dedicating it to your big-breasted goth girlfriend over your own daughter will always be a dicey proposition, much like comparing an album as terrible as this to Kanye West’s Donda. Which Kelly obviously does at one point, because, at this point in time, what else would could we possibly expect from someone so insecure about getting his proper due? We’re all just living in MGK’s world, where the only thing more prevelant than the whining is the delusion.
The long awaited MOTOMAMI from Spanish artist Rosalía arrives with a splash, her fame now reaching peaks previously not considered for her style of urbano, flamenco-adjacent pop. With contemporaries and collaborators like J Balvin and Bad Bunny continuing their mainstream music ascent in the time since Rosalía’s last album, El Mal Querer, her popularity too has benefited from the increased exposure. MOTOMAMI, then, is the culmination of her career thus far, as well as a celebration of the genres that have helped launch her to these new heights. It’s a record that’s thematically cogent but deeply varied in its approach(es), a combination that rarely works well but here soars, replete with production choices that blow most modern pop artists out of the water.
There’s a distinctly percussive wave that guides listeners through MOTOMAMI. While most literally this can be felt in the intense drums that mark the reggaeton-inspired tracks, the general vibe seems to be largely sourcing an outside energy. Indeed, with the only new Rosalía music over the past few years coming in the form of a few remarkable singles, this album feels primed, almost impatient, and it explodes from the beginning like it’s been chomping at the bit to get going. Hype alone isn’t enough to make any project a success — often manifesting disappointment instead — but each excellent track here works in glorious tandem to validate the hype. There are industrial beats backing distorted synthesizers and jazz elements. There are reggaeton drum loops under flamenco guitar lines. There are tracks that are light and playful, like “Chicken Teriyaki,” a jovial cut about a trip to New York. There are tracks like “Hentai,” where the singer delves into her sexuality, with rapid gunfire effects trailing along a light piano chord.
That’s to say, MOTOMAMI is an album of glorious self-expression, exploring the intimacies of Rosalía’s life, portrait of the artist as a young woman and vice versa. In the hands of a lesser artist, it’s easy to see how this would turn into a schlocky mess, held together by pomp and little more. Instead, Rosalía uses her honest lyricism, careful song constructions, and fine-tuned Latin sounds to weave together a work of impressive intricacy. It’s an immense risk artistically, both to lean so wholly into raw lyricism and experiment with such a broad mixture of sonics, but Rosalía makes the whole thing feel effortless. Also unpredictable: it’s nearly impossible to predict the direction and shape each new track will take, and each unexpected course packs a punch, whether it’s the aforementioned gunfire effects on “Hentai”, the Burial sample on “Candy”, the Kate Bush-inspired vocal leaps on “CUUUUuuuuuute,” or the lightly distorted piano leading the beat on “Diablo.” Every moment is a triumph.
Even the most casual of music listeners will find something to celebrate on this massive, epically-scaled record, which further speaks to her facility with crafting monumentally broad appeal from within the confines of her genre. Of course, none of this should surprise: even before this latest work, Rosalía seemed to be operating on another level from the slate of contemporary pop stars. The hype is real, and what MOTOMAMI proves more than anything is that we don’t know yet what Rosalía’s ceiling can be, though her stature as one of the pop greats is ensured while wait for what comes next.
Just three years elapsed between Maren Morris’ splashy blockbuster GIRL and its follow-up, 2022’s more measured and earthy Humble Quest. And yet, in a lot of ways, it feels like an entire lifetime separates them. When GIRL came out, Morris was newly wed to country singer Ryan Hurd. Humble Quest chronicles their happy domesticity, the birth of their first child, and the death of Morris’ longtime songwriting and production partner, busbee. That’s a lot of life packed into a 37-minute album, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Humble Quest feels like Morris’ most grown-up record to date. The one that’s most grounded and confident in its point of view. The one that’s most driven by sturdy songcraft and least interested in chasing popular trends.
Of course, growing up usually involves some tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs are readily apparent on Humble Quest. Morris made the album with Greg Kurstin, who also collaborated on GIRL but is best known for his work with Adele; Kursten is a master of tasteful, well-recorded adult pop, and his work on Humble Quest strips away some of the bright pop colors and innovative R&B inflections that made earlier albums, particularly HERO, so distinctive. Those rhythmic and textural flourishes are replaced with a more muted palette of guitars, pianos, and soft harmonies, emphasizing Morris’ supple melodies and easeful singing. At its most evocative, Humble Quest feels faintly akin to some of Kacey Musgraves’ combinations of cosmic country and Laurel Canyon folk. At its most blase, it feels like adult contemporary with a hint of twang, inoffensive but ultimately too colorless to suit a singer as magnetic as Morris.
It’s to the credit of both singer and producer that Humble Quest streamlines a number of different moods and idioms into such an accessible package: You’ll hear Morris ease into some stuttering pop (“Nervous,” written with fellow Highwoman Natalie Hemby), hold the center of a swaying slow-dance (“Background Music”), and croon quiet folk balladry (“Hummingbird”). These songs, along with the faintly anthemic pulse of the title song and the good-natured humor of “Tall Guys,” highlight Morris’ casual virtuosity: She’s a versatile songwriter and an up-for-anything singer, and she exudes a breezy confidence throughout Humble Quest.
Just as often, though, Humble Quest leans heavily on her high-wattage vocal talent to lend interest to rote material. To be fair, it often works well enough: Hearing her navigate the curves of “Detour” offers some simple pleasures, and she conjures both aw-shucks modesty and casual swagger on the otherwise one-note “I Can’t Love You Anyone.” But what makes Humble Quest feel like an amiable crowdpleaser instead of the statement-record it could have been is that, by inching away from the grit of the Highwomen, the playfulness of HERO, and even the oversaturation of GIRL, Morris finds herself in kind of a murky middle, with an album that’s warm and personable but also a little too subdued. That’s truer nowhere than on “Circles Around This Town,” which leads the album with the completely credible claim that Morris’ talent is way too big to be confined by Nashville trends, a notion that’s undercut by pedestrian production choices that make it sound more wistful than triumphant. If GIRL sometimes suffered from the sense that it was trying too hard to be all things to all people, Humble Quest feels like it pulls its punches a little too much, living up to its title but never quite living up to Morris’ charisma.
When all hope seemed lost for scam rap, the ShittyBoyz came to the rescue. Yes, you heard that right, and it’s all true: the Ypsilanti-based trio single-handedly resuscitated the dying regional subgenre with their quick-witted, candidly ridiculous bars about rocking Crocs and Cartier Buffs at Pistons games, speeding down I-75 while faded off Turtle Pie, and selling/consuming Wocklean-Wockhardt in their free time. While members StanWill are TrDee are certainly relentless wordsmiths in their own right, much of the group’s success could and should be mainly attributed to BabyTron, their undisputed leader. He’s not to be confused with the likes Lil Baby, DaBaby, or fellow Michiganites Babyface Ray and Sada Baby (to differentiate the three, it’s helpful to remember that two are from Detroit); if anything, he probably has more punchlines on one of his mixtapes than these four have in their entire careers. He’s been building something of a little successful solo run since last year’s Luka Trončić and Bin Reaper 2, the latter of which served as a showcase for his ever-expanding skillset outside of original meme-based preconceptions (though, to be fair, he also opened and closed the project rapping over the Harry Potter and Star Wars theme music) and provided him minor artistic legitimacy in the process.
MEGATRON, his latest and sixth mixtape (named after Calvin Johnson, legendary wide receiver for the Detroit Lions) operates in a similar vein — it even has him spitting over the Jurassic Park theme this time around — and further confirms his status as one of our premier lyricists working today. “Beyond Turnt,” with its swaggering, horn-heavy production, is BabyTron in peak condition: confronting his ops at Somerset Mall, comparing his ice-cold veins to D’Angelo Russell’s celebration dance, claiming that when he caught you off guard that your “pants filled up with dog shit, look like a landfill”; he’s so damn slick with that off-key delivery of his that even when he’s getting carried away by his own brand of braggadocio (saying he’s “Asian off the Cookie,” followed immediately by a dated Jeremy Lin joke), it still sounds like a compelling bit part in this grand yarn about the ongoing activities of the Mitten’s Lower East Side. With a slew of semi-carefully selected (yet all undeniably one-dimensional) beats and a few features from D-tier rappers with lots of vowels in their names, the hour-long tape continuously flexes the 21-year-old’s burgeoning abilities without ever pushing him too far into uncharted territory; artistically speaking, this is BabyTron repeating himself over and over again, with little variation or permutation. But like a lot of niche musicians, he’s especially good at one extremely specific thing — which, in theory, makes a feature-length collection of said “thing” a relatively good idea. Change, oftentimes, is completely overrated; well, at least in this specific instance, it is. After all, the one time he does stray from his comfort zone on the pop-adjacent “MainStream Tron,” he continues to drop pure gems over melody-oriented synths (he calls himself “the Bitcoin Bandit”), making it now plainly obvious how ready he is for the rap big leagues. Long live the ShittyBoyz and BabyTron, and may they continue to bless us with their many tales of days past; they’re not the heroes we deserve, but the ones we clearly need.