When the biggest rap tour of the season stops by 1st Mariner Arena on Saturday, opening act Machine Gun Kelly will provide a stark contrast to the flashy, dipped-in-gold Maybach Music Group trio of Wale, Meek Mill and headliner Rick Ross.
While the MMG clique presents a cool, almost icy demeanor in its songs, the 22-year-old Cleveland rapper, born Richard Colson Baker, takes the opposite approach, fearlessly spitting double-time flows in the face of the audience. When his rapid-fire delivery fails to spark the crowd, MGK keeps a battering ram of a single in his back pocket.
"The crowd is so cool," Machine Gun Kelly, or MGK, said. "They don't want to move. But when 'Wild Boy' drops, it's like, 'Oh [wow], that's the guy that does it?' Usually we win them over after the last song."
"Wild Boy," featuring another hyperactive rapper, Waka Flocka Flame, serves as the perfect introduction to MGK: It's a chest-beating, foot-stomping anthem that finds MGK comparing himself to "Jackass" star Steve-O, Missy Elliott and Kurt Cobain, all while proudly representing his overlooked hometown.
"I don't think it's much different than Baltimore," he said. "The sun rarely shines on us. It's a blue-collar town. They always say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, but I say that about Cleveland."
That scrappy, me-against-the-world attitude can be heard all over "Lace Up," MGK's major-label debut, released in October. The album, executive produced by MGK's boss and Bad Boy Records founder Sean "Diddy" Combs, may have debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, but MGK remains focused on earning the respect he believes he deserves.
During a freestyle on New York radio station Hot 97 last month, MGK cut to the point with his opening bars: "Look, when you're mentioning [J.] Cole / why aren't you mentioning Kells? / And when you talk about greats, better put me up there with Drake." Weeks later, MGK seems surprised that his debut LP — which features appearances from Bun B, Young Jeezy and his hero, DMX — hasn't gained him more credibility in hip-hop.
"I have so many accomplishments under my belt," MGK said. "I just won a European Music Award. I beat Big Sean, ASAP Rocky. My single just went gold. You know how many [people] are going gold these days?"
Becoming more impassioned, he starts to sound like an undersized athlete reminding scouts of his stats.
"And I'm nice! I sell out shows. My performance is top-tier," he said. "I don't understand it."
One person who recognized MGK's appeal — which has grown wider, as evidenced by MGK jumping from this summer's punk-based Warped Tour to the star-studded MMG Tour — was Diddy, the superstar rap mogul. MGK says his label boss plays a mentor role and does not interfere in the creative process.
"People have to understand that my relationship with him — it's not musical," MGK said. "Puff's just here to make sure I don't go crazy and blow my brains out, because I'm a bipolar young man. I'm a kid from Ohio in an industry that drives people insane. He's been where I'm at."
Now, MGK seems focused on further expanding his place in hip-hop. He says one of the biggest benefits of touring with MMG is getting into the studio with his tour mates. After the New Orleans stop, he met Ross at a recording studio in the wee hours of the morning.
"I took a cab there at 3 o'clock in the morning and laid a verse that was more his type of song, which is what I wanted to do," MGK said. "Nowadays, I think you have to work with who's hot right now, and this tour gave me that outlet."
Sharing songs with a lavish hedonist like Ross might concern longtime members of the "Lace Up" community, the die-hard MGK fans who happily compare themselves to a cult on YouTube videos. He hopes his "hardcore fans" will appreciate the honesty he continues to put in his music, even as the subject matter changes.
"I have so many different moods, and I'm growing up," MGK said. "I'm finally making money. They need to know and respect that, and be willing to mature with that."
Still, the familial "Lace Up" community — whose name has a somewhat nebulous meaning, but ultimately encourages fans to persevere in the face of adversity — weighs heavily on the decisions he makes, whether he realizes it or not.
"Since we're all the same [in 'Lace Up,'] it's like when I make something for myself, I make it for them."
If you go Machine Gun Kelly opens Saturday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Rick Ross, Meek Mill and Wale will also perform. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39.75-$59.75. Call 410-347-2020 or go to baltimorearena.com.