Five Burning Questions: Machine Gun Kelly Scores Second Straight No. 1 Album With ‘Mainstream Sellout’

Five Burning Questions: Machine Gun Kelly Scores Second Straight No. 1 Album With ‘Mainstream Sellout’

For the second time since making a hard pivot to rock music around the turn of the decade, Machine Gun Kelly has himself a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart — this time with March’s Mainstream Sellout.

The album bows atop the chart with 93,000 in equivalent album units, in a close-to-even split between its album sales (42,000) streaming equivalent albums (50,000), along with 1,000 in track equivalent albums. They’re impressive numbers for a rock album in 2022, though the total number is still down somewhat from 2020’s Tickets to My Downfall, which moved 126,000 units in its debut week.

How should MGK feel about the debut? And where might he pivot to next? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. It’s now two-for-two atop the Billboard 200 for Machine Gun Kelly in his rock era, albeit with a slightly smaller first-week number (126,000 to 93,000) in terms of equivalent album units than Tickets to My Downfall. On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about that performance if you’re MGK?

Katie Bain: A 9. With the hype around Mainstream Sellout I imagine he was hoping, if not expecting, first week numbers to surpass those of Ticket, but ultimately I’m guess he’s stoked, as 93,000 is a respectable turnout and a number one album is a number one album.

Stephen Daw: I’m gonna say a solid 7 here. 93,000 units isn’t an incredible number, and it’s certainly not as impressive as Tickets to My Downfall, but it was good enough to land him at the top of the Billboard 200, which is a tough feat in and of itself. If I were MGK, I’d take that win as the headline of Mainstream Sellout’s first week.

Josh Glicksman: An 8.5. In his recent Billboard cover story, Machine Gun Kelly said that he has waited for “the confidence to hit ‘play’ [on the album] and know that what’s about to come out of the speakers is what I’ve wanted to say all along.” To know that listeners are resonating so strongly with such a cathartic experience must be nothing short of incredible for MGK. Sure, the numbers are down a bit from Tickets, but a) that album arrived shortly before Billboard’s new merch bundle rules went into effect and b) a No.1 is a No. 1 through and through. Plus, he kept good on his word about beating out the Encanto soundtrack.

Kristin Robinson: A 9. I think he’s probably very relieved he could repeat the success, and he should be proud of that. I think to The Weeknd as a way to gauge how big this No. 1 repeat is for MGK: The Weeknd’s first album of this decade earned him the top spot, but his second record in that nocturnal pop mode just made it to No. 2 (Gunna earned the No. 1 spot). Obviously, every week on the Billboard 200 is a different race, but I think the shock value of the genre pivot definitely helps earn high listenership in the first week that is very hard to repeat this once the newness wears off with the second pivoted record. I’m not sure if Machine Gun Kelly thought about getting this record to No. 1 as a difficult feat for himself, but I think it certainly wasn’t a guarantee. I think it proves people genuinely like him as a pop-punk artist, probably more than they liked him as a rap artist.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s a 7 for me. A No. 1 is a No. 1 — and like the man says, he doesn’t lose to the Encanto soundtrack — and good evidence that Tickets was no single-album fluke. Also worth mentioning that Tickets was released when ticket and merch bundles still were permitted to register as album sales for Billboard chart calculations, which gave that album a big bump that Sellout cannot benefit from. However, all that said, I also know how ambitious MGK is — and I’m confident a small part of him is intrinsically bummed that he posted a bigger number last time than this time, no matter the factors behind it.

2. Much of Mainstream Sellout is designed in the same mold (with most of the same collaborators) as Tickets. Are there any songs (and/or collaborations) on the album that you think push him into particularly new or interesting territory this time around? 

Katie Bain: Not to my ear, but given the success of his sound and his position as a leader of the pop-punk revival, it’s not necessarily surprising that MGK staying squarely in the lane he dominates.

Stephen Daw: Not really — part of Mainstream Sellout‘s appeal is that it doesn’t really change the formula that made Tickets to My Downfall a success, and fans of that album are going to be perfectly fine with this one. If anything, MGK employs a few techniques that feel like a small step back into his rap career; songs like “Die in California” feel like a blend of pop-punk and hip-hop that’s made emo rappers like 24kGoldn and Iann Dior stars over the last few years.

Josh Glicksman: After spending a week and a half with the album, the song I keep returning to that falls in this category is “Die in California.” Sonically, it stands out from much of the project, trading raucous guitar-playing and head-banging drum lines for terse clapping production. It’s not wholly unfamiliar territory for MGK by any means, instead simply something we haven’t heard from him much in the past few years — though it serves as a good reminder that it’s still in his repertoire. And frankly, any time we’re treated to another Young Thug and Gunna team-up, it’s hard to complain.

Kristin Robinson: “ay!” with Lil Wayne could be a good indicator of maybe MGK finding a happy medium between his rap and pop punk sensibilities in the future. I find it hard to believe he would never rap again, but maybe he will start landing more in the middle in the future. Otherwise this album was incredibly consistent with the last one, to me. So much so they could have been branded as pt. 1 and pt. 2 of the same effort!

Andrew Unterberger: I’m not sure if there’s anything totally new — though opener “Born With Horns” does some interesting things structurally, and the Bring Me the Horizon collab “Maybe” takes him into heavier territory than he ever quite broached on Tickets — but the rap collabs feel like a more through consolidation of his career-spanning strengths than anything on his prior set. “Die in California” in particular feels like a potential way forward for MGK, one that maintains a lot of his rock-era attitude and energy but returns him to the hip-hop mold he originally made his name in.

3. The biggest hit off Tickets was the blackbear collab “My Ex’s Best Friend,” and the highest-charting song off Sellout is “Make Up Sex,” which debuts at No. 59 this week — and once again, features blackbear. Do you think this song will go on to achieve similar crossover success to “Ex,” or will it ultimately live in that song’s shadow? 

Katie Bain: I think “makeup sex” is the slightly superior song, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it follow the same trajectory as “my ex’s best friend,” particularly given that these two tracks share so much of the same DNA.

Stephen Daw: Considering that the songs sound extremely similar — both are in the same key, share a lot of the same chords and have the same collaborator, with just a different tempo and lyrical themes separating them — I’d say that “Make Up Sex” has a shot at seeing similar success to “Best Friend,” but the odds are against it. “My Ex’s Best Friend” was here first, and it does remain just a little bit catchier than “Make Up Sex.”

Josh Glicksman: Sure, why not? It’s perfectly tailored for a similarly lengthy stay on the Hot 100, where “My Ex’s Best Friend” spent a year’s time and reached a No. 20 high. Like their last team-up, “Make Up Sex” is a quick listen that works well across multiple formats and should see plenty of run at pop, rock and alternative stations. Don’t discredit its clean chorus, either: with an overly raunchy hook, it could’ve struggled more at radio, but with lyrics “Break up just to make up/ You’re gone when I wake up,” the catchiest part of the track needs no censoring.

Kristin Robinson: I’m curious if this entire project is destined to live in the previous project’s shadow, honestly. Trends change so fast these days. The release of Tickets was absolutely perfect timing. He cemented himself as the leader of the *brand new* pop punk resurgence then, and in the two years since, pop-punk as a phenom has quieted and normalized a bit. He also perfectly marketed that record by aligning himself with the coolest kids of 2020 – Lil Huddy and Sydney Sweeney – and since then, I would say the heat of the kind of star Lil Huddy was has also cooled. This is not to say he’s not still wildly popular, but TikTok has definitely changed a lot, even since then. This album (and “Make Up Sex”) have a lot to live up to in the next weeks and months with numbers and marketing, and I don’t think that it will reach quite the same height. It’s more of the same, and this second blackbear track is a good example of that. But I’d love to see him prove me totally wrong! He might have more marketing tricks up his sleeve too.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s got a chance to be that big, certainly — it’s an obvious not-fixing-what-ain’t-broke re-teaming, while maintaining enough freshness not to feel like a pointless retread. But I’d probably bet against it, if only because “My Ex’s Best Friend” was so gigantic for so long, ending as one of the top 25 hits on Billboard‘s year-end Hot 100 for 2021. I’m not even sure radio has totally gotten “Ex” out of its system yet, it might not even have playlist space for the sequel right now.

4. Much has been made of the big comeback of rock (and pop-punk in particular) in the mainstream so far this early decade, but it’s worth pointing out that Sellout is the first album classified by Billboard as “rock” to top the Billboard 200 since AC/DC’s Power Up in Nov. 2020 — and before that, it was Tickets. Why do you think we haven’t seen the rock revival much at the top of the charts yet, and do you see that changing anytime soon? 

Katie Bain: I think the artists leading this revival — namely Olivia Rodrigo, Willow and Travis Barker — have either made an album that had enough other styles on it to make so it wasn’t classified as rock (Rodrigo), haven’t released an album since the comeback has really taken off (Willow), or has been shepherding the resurgence more from the background as a collaborator (Barker.) If more artists (or any one of the artists just mentioned) do what MGK is doing and make LPs that are devoted to the genre, then yes, we’ll see the revival reflected more on the charts.

Stephen Daw: Rock is certainly having a moment again, but it’s having a moment within the context of pop music as a whole — pop-punk has returned, but there is a particular emphasis being placed on the word “pop” there. Take Olivia Rodrigo, for instance — she certainly took inspiration from pop-punk acts like Paramore and Avril Lavigne, and employed elements of it throughout Sour, giving it that angsty, grinding flavor. But it is still fundamentally a pop record. I think that as long as this current resurgence of pop-punk continues to rely on the trends of modern pop music and the aesthetics of late-2000s pop-punk, then we’re going to continue to see these kinds of returns on the charts.

Josh Glicksman: I hope so! It feels like the rock revival hasn’t experienced the same sort of success in the way of viral moments on platforms like TikTok, which goes a long way in terms of boosting chart performance — the genre has lots of ground to make up on that front in terms of catching pop, R&B and hip-hop. Take for example Spotify’s Viral Hits playlist: rock songs are few and far between. Pop-punk’s resurgence is nothing to be ignored, but oftentimes, the songs from it that lean further into more obvious pop elements are the ones succeeding in the mainstream.

Kristin Robinson: Rock, R&B, electronic and rap are all important genres, no matter if they are the genre-du-jour of the moment or not. I think these four take turns in the spotlight, bleeding into “pop” music and reaching strong positions in the charts. Last decade it was pop music with big drops a la EDM, then it was pop music with trap beats, and now it’s pop music like “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish and the songs of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour at the top of the charts, with loads of angst and guitar. Eilish and Rodrigo are considered pop stars, but both released very rock-leaning work recently. I think some of the rock revival should be seen not just as the albums of classified capital-R Rock artists, and just as the genre’s influence on the time’s most popular songs.

Andrew Unterberger: As many more rock hits as we’ve had so far this decade than we had in the late ’10s, they haven’t added up to a lot of breakout artists, necessarily — at least, not the kind who are based squarely enough in a typical rock setup to get branded first and foremost as “rock.” That’s sorta what happens in a TikTok-driven musical economy, where folks get attached by chance to a song (or just a snippet of a song) without necessarily investing all that much in the artist behind it — and it’s what makes it all the more impressive that MGK has actually become a fairly reliable hitmaker and star performer in this mold.

5. Assuming for argument’s sake that MGK has gotten pop-punk out of his system with this second album, what genre or style would you enjoy seeing him pivot to next?

Katie Bain: I think he owes the world an EDM crossover.

Stephen Daw: Purely for the sake of the argument, and not because I think this is the right move for him, I’d be interested to see how MGK would take the punk out of his pop-punk. What would a purely pop-focused MGK album even sound like? Would he go full throttle synth-pop and create dancefloor bangers, or would he take a more folk-pop style approach so he can keep the guitar elements of what he has going for him now? I’m not sure I need to have those questions answered, but my curiosity is certainly piqued.

Josh Glicksman: Not to sidestep the question, but at this point, trying to neatly fit artists’ music into one box oftentimes feels futile. I’ll stand in line to hear his radio-ready pop-punk hits all day long, but sign me up for any blend of rock, hip-hop and pop — or anything else — that he wants to create. If it’s good, it’s good. That’s all that matters.

Kristin Robinson: I think the throughline of MGK’s work is his edginess. Pop-punk and rap are both great vehicles to get that message out to the world. I think I see MGK going back to his rap roots and taking a little guitar with him for his next project. I don’t think people would respond to an R&B, electronic, or bubblegum pop track for him so I think he’s found the two best lanes already!

Andrew Unterberger: Country MGK — doing outlaw anthems and murder ballads and covering old Johnny Cash classics — feels like a distinct possibility. Maybe he could enlist Post Malone to join in the fun, too.

Five Burning Questions: Machine Gun Kelly Scores Second Straight No. 1 Album With ‘Mainstream Sellout’ For the second time since making a hard pivot to rock music around the turn of the decade, Machine Gun Kelly has himself a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart — this time with March’s Mainstream Sellout.…