After scoring a Top 5 hit with the Camila Cabello-assisted “Bad Things” in 2016, it’d be fair to assume that Machine Gun Kelly’s then-height of popularity would translate into more success and confidence. But when a feud with one of the biggest rappers in the game brought his skills, prowess, and staying power into question, Colson Baker had two options: throw in the towel or keep pushing and create the strongest body of work he could.
It was during this dark time of his life that Hotel Diablo came into fruition. With his fourth studio album, Kells tackled topics like tumultuous family relationships, the emotional strain behind diss tracks, and his experiences with addiction, culminating in some of his most personal work to date. Hateful online comments raged on while he recruited some of his closest friends, including phem and YUNGBLUD, and his idol-turned-mentor Travis Barker, to reflect on his shortcomings, childhood trauma, and family conflicts.
That was the first time I really expressed my true self with no outside influence, meaning the label. [It] came from already feeling like I’d been counted out, so I didn’t even care what the public was going to think. That’s why the project was, ironically, my best-received one, because it was the most effortless.
MGK to Interview
Hotel Diablo centers around the idea of control and the lack thereof, in regards to Kells’ image, mental health, and the past experiences he hadn’t quite recovered from. The misleadingly-named “Sex Drive” welcomes listeners to the world of Hotel Diablo with a fairly optimistic message: “come and find yourself.” It suggests the album will discuss coming into your own and standing your ground, which is true to a point, but it also doubles as a comfort to fans who can relate to the heavier lyrics on the project. This lighthearted lyric gets interrupted by distorted voices that represent MGK’s battle with depression and his public image, as well as mirroring how the media and skeptics distorted his reputation.
“el Diablo” puts fans right into the middle of his biggest beef and media controversy to date. The calm, yet pronounced, flow on “I shoot dice, gamble with my life” mirrors how his well-being took a backseat during this tumultuous time in his life as he took more risks and contemplated his identity as an artist; it might even parody how Eminem fans claimed his life and career would be over thanks to their back-and-forth diss tracks. It can also be interpreted as Kells putting on a persona – the rest of the project shows how the feud deteriorated his well-being, while the lyrics put on a confidence that doesn’t quite match the voice on later songs.
Warning: the music video below contains flashing clips from 0:11 to 0:13 and from 2:33 to 2:36. Viewer discretion is advised for people with photosensitivity.
Another notable lyric on “el Diablo” is the simple “keep my circle tight,” which seems to be a precaution Kells takes to prevent further fallout. The next track, “Hollywood Whore,” describes how this tactic didn’t work, delving deeper into the pitfalls of fame and detailing how someone MGK trusted betrayed him and his family. It ties together the main themes of the project while paying homage to Kells’ influences – there’s a sample from Linkin Park’s “Numb” as a tribute to late frontman Chester Bennington. As one of the more guitar-driven songs on the record, it’s almost like a foreshadowing hint towards his next album, the fully pop-punk Tickets to My Downfall.
Warning: the music video below contains several flashing clips throughout. Viewer discretion is advised for people with photosensitivity.
“Glass House,” which features a hook by Naomi Wild, focuses on how rude comments and relentless criticism can make someone spiral or “fuck up and lose control,” touching on MGK’s drug abuse, the tragic deaths of artists like Lil Peep and Mac Miller, and a suicide attempt. He spoke about the suicide mention in a July 2019 interview with Cleveland:
I added that verse months after everyone first heard the song. I think everyone thought [it was too revealing]. That was an uncomfortable moment for sure.MGK to Cleveland
Warning: the music video below contains several flashing clips throughout, as well as a bloody car wreck scene. Viewer discretion is advised for people with photosensitivity.
The second Naomi Wild-assisted track on the album is the ominous “Death in My Pocket,” which ponders how much control someone really has over what happens to them while reflecting on MGK’s mental health, the state of his family, and the early days of his music career. Even towards the end of Hotel Diablo, it feels like a climax of sorts, where his whole “world is crashing down” but he evidently keeps pushing despite having such an easy escape from life, be it drugs or suicide. A creepy coincidence: Kells says “doctors told my dad he won’t be here a year from now” and his father died on the album’s one-year anniversary – they were luckily able to repair their relationship and reconnect before he passed, serving as a post-release reminder that you have more power over your life than you think.
“FLOOR 13” is a vengeful track that touches on his frustration toward his Eminem feud and the fallout. There’s a touch of confidence that makes you root for him, bragging about his past tours, acting career, and performance skills, with an outro by his daughter, Casie, that represents how his reputation could affect her. It’s a moment of reflection and a change in direction, making Kells reconsider his public image and drug use for the sake of himself and his family.
For everything that I went through mentally / When it felt like everybody in the world was against me / When all the critics and every article tried to offend me / My daughter slapped a kid for talkin’ ’bout me in elementary / We ain’t playing, it’s deeper than the fameMachine Gun Kelly, “FLOOR 13”
Further commentary on his drug use comes on the misleadingly catchy “Candy,” a collab with friend and fellow rapper Trippie Redd, the angsty “Burning Memories,” which discusses his relationship with his once-estranged mother he’s since reconnected with, and “5:3666,” which personifies a drug as a woman he’s in a toxic relationship with. Thankfully, he’s since started therapy to work on healthier coping mechanisms and tackle his past substance abuse, yet another post-release example of regaining control over your life.
The album’s closer, “I Think I’m OKAY,” serves as a pick-me-up letting fans know they have more power over their life than they think. It ends the record on a bittersweet note, with the title suggesting that anyone can recover from what they’re dealing with while the lyrics discuss feelings of hopelessness. One notable example is the lyric “it’s just my life and I can take it if I wanna,” which sounds like it references suicide, but MGK told Genius that it has a more optimistic meaning:
I think a lot of people think it just immediately means it’s suicide, but I think it’s really just, like, I can take back my life. You know? I can make my decisions. That’s one thing I would like to clear up. Everyone thinks that means suicide. This was like saying, ‘Take your destiny into your hands. Manifest what you want and make your life yours.’Machine Gun Kelly to Genius
Largely thanks to the catharsis of Hotel Diablo, Machine Gun Kelly has not only been able to turn his life around but reach a new career high with Tickets to My Downfall, which became his first #1 album and went platinum with over a million units sold or streamed in the U.S. And little did he know while creating it, this album went on to save so many of his fans as well as him.
Hi! I’m Madison Murray, a pop culture and music writer who also loves writing about lifestyle and fashion. I have credits on sites like TREMG, The Honey POP, Genius, Young Hollywood, and Audible Addixion, as well as my own Melodic Musings blog. Find me on socials @madisonmwrites!