Reviews \

MGK, ‘Lace Up’ (Bad Boy/Interscope)

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Label: Bad Boy/Interscope

A firebrand of a 22-year-old white rapper from Cleveland, Richard “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker has journeyed from the Midwest rap underground to Bad Boy Records on the strength of his spirit, angst, and enthusiasm. (That youthful rage also recently inspired him to rough up some innocent computers during a performance at a Microsoft store in Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall.) But his debut album under Diddy’s supervision is a rather soulless affair: The man rebranded MGK goes about his rapping as if the project of pitching to a broader audience necessarily requires him to compromise his identity and his emotions.

In the rapper’s pre-Bad Boy days, his most endearing songs were powered by an infectious combination of passion and precision. As an MC, he could rattle out verses at what seemed like warp-speed, but those quickly spit syllables also managed to convey a worldly pain and frustration. His pangs were tangible in his best rhymes. But these instances are rare on Lace Up. The album’s opener, “Save Me,” has MGK coming closest to hitting his own alchemic formula as he raps about “fiends outside trying to get they fix / While my first born here trying to get sleep — motherfuck this rap shit / Try burying your boy six feet / Let me show you about real.”

Here’s the guy who inspires his fans to tattoo his lyrics on their bodies, who channels his rough-and-tumble life story into bracing art: His turbulent years include a period of homelessness, hospitalization after a car crash, fatherhood, a pilgrimage to Harlem’s Apollo to win Amateur Night, and a fair amount of hometown hostility as he found success. His breakthrough mixtape, 2010’s 100 Words and Running, mined this turbulent path and turned it into an energized collection of songs. But as MGK’s profile has skyrocketed, he increasingly sounds like he’s already poured out the contents of his heart. These days, a fledgling rapper’s early mixtapes are more cherished than a first official release; by the time a proper studio debut arrives, something like a traditional mid-career malaise could be setting in. A young MC might already be running on empty.

Lace Up tries to remedy this problem by fattening the album with guests. But contributions from Bun B, Waka Flocka Flame, Young Jeezy, and DMX rarely mesh with MGK’s own verses. (Quick-spitters Twista and Tech N9ne fare better on “Edge of Destruction.”) And for a rapper who’s so eager to talk about his anti-establishmentarian bent, the glut of songs with schmaltzy R&B singers seems like a cop-out, capped by the Auto-Tuned “Runnin’.” Instead of turning this debut proper into an expansive listen, the guests seem like they’re papering over holes in both the music and the message. MGK is a talented rapper, but here, on his major label album, he sounds hollow.