NEW YORK -- It's just after 8 p.m. on the day before the release of Machine Gun Kelly’s sophomore album, and he’s surrounded by shoppers.
On the second floor of a Jersey Gardens mall in northern New Jersey, the 25-year-old giddily jaunts past a snaking line of a couple hundred fans, doling out high-fives like a basketball player emerging from the locker room tunnel.
At the front of the line is the entrance to F.Y.E., where just minutes later, Kells and those devoted fans -- each of whom bought his new album, General Admission -- will greet one another like old friends.
Some of that familiarity is because of the nature of MGK’s music and his dedicated base: His autobiographical approach and raw honesty has let them connect to him on a rare level and, conversely, allowed him to know, even upon meeting for the first time, that they share something.
But much of it's because a number of these fans he’s not meeting for the first time. Some of them are old friends.
“I met him before he was even signed to Bad Boy [in 2011], and I saw him after he was signed, at an event in New York, and he recognized me,” said Gina Deleo, who was at a rooftop listening party for fans and industry members on Manhattan’s West Side earlier in the night, before coming out to Jersey, too. She's sitting next to Frankie Ventura, who's been to over 50 MGK shows, and they've been together traveling for years across the country with other friends they met through the MGK fandom, who call themselves the East Coast Ragers.
“[Years after that], at his EST Fest, [MGK] came by my campsite, and he was like, ‘Oh, this is Gina, she’s from Connecticut.’ Just as much as you know about him, he knows about you. He genuinely cares. And I think that’s something you don’t find.”
Gina isn’t alone.
There are a couple dozen fans at the listening and in-store with whom Kells shares actual memories and experiences. There are others he meets for the second time who, when jogging his memory about their initial interaction, set off an immediate light bulb.
This relationship with his fans isn't a recent development either; it's the one he's had throughout his career. It's a major reason he became one of the most buzzed-about new artists a few years ago, won MTV News’ Hottest Breakthrough MC in 2011, took home the fan-voted Breaking Woodie in 2012, and secured a spot front-and-center of the XXL Freshman cover that same year.
“I’ve seen the same people my whole career, and that’s the beautiful part about this,” MGK told MTV News, before acknowledging the weight that comes with it: These aren’t people who just like his songs; they live to his music.
“You question all the time: Am I strong enough to handle this responsibility?” he admitted. “Because I see so many artists get by being the coolest motherf--ker in the world to the majority, and they don’t have this responsibility.
“And I get kind of shunned in certain crowds, but I’m one of the last left doing things specifically for [fans]," Kells said, likely referring to being shut out by casual hip-hop fans and radio. "I mean, f--k, I planned a year ahead to give my fans a 24-hour exclusive on my album title. And I don’t think I saw that sh-t anywhere [in the media] when I did that.”
Indeed, the MGK hype train doesn’t have quite as many passengers as it did three years ago -- a shift that started in late 2012, when his debut album, Lace Up, underperformed and failed to cement him as the music superstar he seemed poised to become.
Now, with the his still-dedicated base and the new release of General Admission -- easily Kells’ strongest body of work in half-a-decade -- he again has a chance to reach the wider musical recognition for which he seemed destined. But will the world listen?
IF YOU DON'T LIVE IN Cleveland, where MGK, born Colson Baker, moved when he was 14, the earliest you may have heard of the tall, lanky, tatted-up white boy was in 2010.
It was then, after a slow local build in the city whose influence on him is unmatched, that Kells dropped his mixtape, 100 Words and Running. He followed it up later that year with his seminal Lace Up mixtape (not to be confused with the album of the same name, which came two years later).
In 2011, he signed with Diddy and Bad Boy, started getting national exposure, and released his breakout single, the rowdy, Waka Flocka-assisted “Wild Boy.”
The track truly picked up steam the next year, and it --- along with the major label deal, Diddy co-sign, rabid following and pure talent --- set expectations high.
But October 2012’s Lace Up, his official debut album, failed to meet them.
“It didn’t do at all what I thought it was gonna do for me,” he admitted to me. “I think my head was in the f--king clouds back then. I didn’t have too much of a sense of reality. I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe I expected: You got a record deal, it’s your first album, you got some hype, next is the #1 single.”
It didn’t quite happen that way.
“I think [I felt disappointed] even before it came out, because I knew that there was a lot of old songs on there that the label wanted to keep on there, [but] I kind of wanted some newer ones. I don’t know. I was in an ugly place then, too. When you’re putting ugly vibes out in the universe, you kind of know that you’re gonna get some back.”
Yet, despite the album’s commercial and creative (it was a bit scattered sounding at times) letdown, fans have continued to gravitate to his music.
“He’s genuine; it’s pain that a lot of people can relate to,” Lydia Akehurst said as she tried to hold back tears. Akehurst first started listening in October 2012, when the album was released, and has seen him 16 times since, including on that rooftop listening party last week, where she rapped the just-released “World Series” word-for-word.
“It’s not music you’re going to hear on the radio, [but] it should be on the radio more," she said. "He speaks for people that the media doesn’t really speak for. So he’s a big voice for a lot of people.”
Three years after his debut, being that spokesman is a role MGK has continued to play on General Admission.
There are the profoundly personal moments, like the single “Gone.” A down-tempo, somber selection, produced by Grammy-winner Jim Jonsin, its two verses prove particularly potent on an album full of them. On the first, he explores the strain that his life -- rapping, the road, recording, partying -- can place on his relationship with his 6-year-old daughter, Casie. On the second, he contemplates his fractured relationship with his own father.
“We haven’t gotten good again,” he said of that paternal relationship, whose status he also tracked on 2010’s “The Return.” “We’re working towards that. Trying. The career is a gift and a curse. He hates that I’m so honest with certain stuff, but also, he’s proud that I didn’t become a f--k-up like everyone thought I was gonna be when I didn’t wanna go to school.”
As for the Casie verse, it was written in a tough moment, but isn’t indicative of where they’re at on the whole.
“We love to rock out to music together,” he told me with the glow of a doting father. “I love to show her Michael Jackson or get her hip to Nirvana or get her hip to stuff that I believe is gonna be influential in the long run in her life. We like to talk about the way people are, life lessons, books -- she’s really into the mind, very inquisitive. And she loves my life and she loves my job."
He pauses: "She hates my job, because it takes me away, but she loves being around it. She’s always checking in. She feels like the cheerleader for our squad.”
And if Casie is the girl who brings MGK the most joy in his life, the woman who has brought him perhaps the most pain has been his mother, who left before he turned 10.
On “Story of the Stairs,” which comes directly after “Gone” in the album’s sequencing, he examines that past.
“I was really nervous about that one,” he said of the song, which finds Kells at maybe his most vulnerable, in a catalog of songs marked by that very quality. “I didn’t want that one on the album.”
The track builds up to her arrival at his door -- about five years ago -- after years of estrangement. A couple years after that, she tried to reach out again.
“She came to a soundcheck and she gave me a flash drive and was like, 'I know you don’t have a lot of pictures from your childhood, so here you go,'” he remembered. “And I looked through them, and there would be pictures from when she would come out to visit me for a day when I was like 14. When I saw those pictures, I was shocked, because I was like, 'I don’t remember any of this.' I literally just blacked our relationship out of my mind when she left. And the last time I truly remember seeing her --- not looking at her, but seeing her --- was when I was 9 years old, and that was the purest I had seen her. And ever since then, it’s just been f--king ugly.”
These days, they’ll see each other “once every two years type sh-t -- trying to figure that out still.”
There are less personal moments that land on General Admission, too.
“Everyday” speaks to the unrelenting grind regular folks go through, whether that’s working to pay the bills, navigating through school, or doing both. The Kid Rock-assisted "Bad Motherf--cker" is already The Rock's gym anthem.
The project is sonically cohesive, lyrically impressive -- both technically and narratively -- and wholly indicative of what attracts fans to his music. There's still nothing that sounds built for radio, and so to what extent he's able to cross over, is up in the air. But adding to the army is what he's after.
AND WHILE MGK STILL WANTS to be that guiding force, he can't shake every hand, however much that may hurt him or the shunned fan.
"I kind of became an introvert this past year," Kells revealed. "I kind of stopped talking to a lot of people, and stopped being approachable, because I stopped knowing who was for real and who wasn’t. I was doing things like satisfying every person back in the day, but then an incident happened where I missed a flight [because I stopped] to take a picture with somebody, and ended up looking and seeing that same picture on the Internet, and this dude was like, 'I don’t even know this motherf--ker’s music, but it’s a famous guy.'
"You’re just like, 'Damn, you don’t know what I just sacrificed for you. What if I would have just missed a performance on Jay Leno for you?' I was so underground before that the only people that knew me were people that were really fans. The big fame kind of scared me and I became an introvert because I stopped knowing who was for real and who wasn’t, and I just figured that if you’re a real fan and you were down, then the music was good enough."
Though Lace Up didn't bring the respect or recognition he sought, in the years since, he's earned that "big fame" -- though not necessarily for the music.
In 2014, he appeared in a supporting role in the movie "Beyond the Lights," which only scratched the surface on his acting aspirations. Earlier this year, he shot "Nerve," with Dave Franco and Emma Roberts, and just last week, Cameron Crowe's series "Roadies," which boasts Kells as one of its main characters, was picked up by Showtime.
Then there was the tabloid fame, which came earlier this year, when he briefly dated Amber Rose, frequently ending up on TMZ and becoming exposed to an entirely new population.
And so his weariness of certain fan interactions is understandable, and his exhaustion is inevitable. But when you're wired a certain way and have been living that way for years, holding a torch for a legion of followers, you can't -- and probably don't want to -- escape that impact when its up close.
Just a few hours after claiming, in the car on the way to the listening, to have become less approachable, at the in-store meet and greet, he's anything but.
But knowing it as an outsider and seeing it in person are two distinctly different experiences.
Midway through the F.Y.E. picture-taking, a fan approaches and lifts her low-cut dress to reveal to Kells a tattoo of his lyrics on her upper thigh. He's as exhilarated as if it were the first time. The girl, in her late teens or early 20s, then steps to the side to wait for the rest of the line to get their turn at a picture and chat -- she wants him to sign his name, and she'll then have that signature tattooed.
"His music, honestly, has gotten me through every single struggle; anything I’ve had to face," said Alexa Gioello, who proudly sports "Home Soon" lyrics on her leg. "It’s pumped me up when I want to get excited for something, it’s gotten me through any hard time. That’s what people don’t understand.
"I got this last year," she continued, of the ink. "I was contemplating, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to get. I didn’t know if I wanted to get something like 'Lace Up,' or if I wanted to get his artwork or something like that. 'Music makes the world go 'round/ And the ones in search of freedom generate into a crowd.' That really resonated with me. It’s in plain sight, because it’s so important to me."
After signing Alexa's leg, Kells heads out of the store and toward the parking lot, where he'll hop in the van and dart back into the City for a radio appearance, before getting up at the crack of dawn on album release day for more radio and press, trying to spread the word to the masses.
On that walk,the trail of fans at his back look like a current pushing him forward. Whether they can propel him to a new level of stardom remains to be seen.
Will the world see what these hordes of tearful and tattooed fans see? Will they hear that MGK is making some of the best rap music of the moment?
He sure hopes so. And until he gets every other ear that he's chasing, he's still got Gina and Lydia and Alexa and Frankie and the rest of his family. And they've got him.