A few days before Los Angeles announced a shelter-in-place order in March, Colson Baker, who raps under the name Machine Gun Kelly, sat down on a sofa with an acoustic guitar. His tattoos peeked through a white tank top. Tousled blond hair poked out of a Cleveland Cavaliers cap.
“Honey,” a woman called to him off-camera. “I’m surprised you’re awake.”
“I’m surprised I’m awake, too,” he said.
Mr. Baker had another surprise in store. Accompanied by a bandmate, he tore into a giddy instrumental cover of Paramore’s “Misery Business,” a song in which a teenage girl brags about the boy she stole. Then he uploaded the video to Instagram — caption: #LockdownSessions Day 1 — where it ran up more than 1.2 million views.
His music, however, is sometimes overshadowed by his tabloid antics, like the time he smoked a joint with Pete Davidson at the Golden Globes, as well as his string of famous girlfriends: both real (Amber Rose, Sommer Ray) and rumored (Halsey, Noah Cyrus).
And his albums compete with a flourishing film career, including, most recently, Mr. Davidson’s “The King of Staten Island.” An unlikely fashion darling — angel-blond hair, bedroom-eyed, 6’4” in socks — he has modeled for John Varvatos and been dressed by Berluti and Balmain.
But in lockdown, with film sets closed and a wardrobe devoted to dirtbag chic, attention has returned to his music. Well, his music and his much-discussed possible relationship with the actress Megan Fox.
In addition to the Paramore post, Mr. Baker has performed impromptu covers of Oasis, Rihanna and John Mayer. The songs — a miscellany of pop, rap, oldies, newbies — are about as hard-core as a squeeze toy.
Filmed on an iPhone in his six-bedroom, Spanish-style house in the San Fernando Valley, the videos make up for what they lack in innovation and polish with antic energy and marijuana-laced intimacy. The #LockdownSessions have drawn as many as 26 million views for each post (there have been about 20) and have cracked YouTube’s Top 10 Songs of the Week.
His label has told him that these off-the-sweatshirt-cuff posts have attracted more online engagement than any of his professionally shot and edited videos. Instead of calling him a fake, a softy, a poser — the occupational hazards of white rappers, perhaps — fans have responded with countless ❤️ and 🔥emojis, and pleas to upload the songs onto Spotify.
“I’m one who’s been driven by a hunger for respect forever, since I was the only white boy in a rap cipher battling to make a name for myself,” Mr. Baker said. “If that doesn’t tell that super-insecure person inside of me that like, ‘Yo, just being yourself is good enough,’ I don’t know what else could.”
That split between Colson Baker, introspective stoner, and Machine Gun Kelly, rap devil, surfaced in early March, when Mr. Baker spent a few nights in New York City promoting “Big Time Adolescence,” a movie starring Mr. Davidson, in which he has a supporting role.
A few hours before a flight to Cleveland to see his 10-year-old daughter’s volleyball game, he detoured to La Biblioteca, an underground tequila bar near Grand Central Terminal, for a mezcal tasting. “I’m just high and in a vibe,” he told the bartender.
He wore a leather trench coat, leather pants, a shredded tank — the outfit of a high-fashion outlaw. With a tangle of chains gripping his throat and pearls spilling from a pocket, he looked like a rangy choir boy gone very bad.
On the drive over, he had smoked a cannoli-sized blunt. At the bar he sipped his way through five shots of mezcal, one of them seasoned with a scorpion. Then he ordered a beer.
“Will they let you on the plane?” a publicist asked.
Leaning back into a banquette with his feet on the table, his eyes went sleepy and his voice slurred. He talked about his forthcoming album, “Tickets to My Downfall,” due out in July, which hurtles away from rap and toward pop-punk, which he regarded as progress. “It took me 10 years to evolve into this sound,” he said.
He then talked about robots (“Dude, robots can’t feel and feeling is all we have left”) and dreams (“I don’t have dreams when I sleep, but when I wake up all I do is dream”). He also discussed his career, which he saw as a breathless sprint from single to single, persona to persona, film to film. He said he found it hard to take pleasure in his success.
“Is it everything I thought it’d be? It should be,” he said. But it wasn’t.
He has realized that he does not want to be Machine Gun Kelly anymore, at least not everywhere or all the time. In 2016, the director Cameron Crowe encouraged him to use his birth name for “Roadies,” a Showtime drama series in which he plays a roadie and occasional barista for touring rock band. And in the past year, he started asking friends to call him ‘Colson.’
“People were like, ‘You have a name?’ And even I was like, ‘Yeah, weird, huh?,’” Mr. Baker said.
About two hours later, in a chauffeured S.U.V. parked on a residential side street a few blocks from La Guardia Airport, with the windows rolled up and another blunt the size of a baby’s arm in his hand, he wondered how long he could keep up with late nights and the hard partying, the driving too fast, the living like he wants to die.
“I’ll just be like controlled at 8 p.m. and then I’m out till 8 in the morning — what did I just do?” he said, with an added expletive.
The adults around him are also concerned. “You just want him to not fall off one of the many ledges he dances on the edge of, daily,” Mr. Crowe said.
Jason Orley who directed “Big Time Adolescence” put it this way: “Anybody that can access a dark side so easily, that’s just who they are. You have to worry about it.”
Mr. Baker worried, too. “When you’re young, you still have the energy to go through all that stuff,” he said, as he took another epic inhale. “Then when you’re grown, you get to a point where you’re like I’m over it. I want to learn how to make roast for my family. And I want to not worry about getting in a bar fight tonight.”
‘Bootstrappy Kid from Cleveland’
Mr. Baker, the child of missionaries, had an itinerant boyhood: Texas, Kenya, Egypt. After his mother left the family, he and his father settled first in Denver and then in Cleveland.
At 11 — scrawny, bullied — Mr. Baker discovered rap and he worked at his beats and bars throughout his teen. “I was just always roaming, the hallways, rapping for everybody,” he said. He would tell his friends that he would one day appear on the biggest stages, that other people would sing his lyrics.
“They were like, ‘Dude, shut up. We’re in math class. In Cleveland,” he said.
Working at an airbrush T-shirt shop at the mall, he emceed for anyone who would listen and released a series of brash, breathless mix tapes that drew a local following. At 19, he fathered his daughter, Casie, with his then-girlfriend Emma Cannon.
In 2011, after a performance at the SXSW festival, Sean Combs approached him and signed him to the Bad Boy Records imprint. The next year, he released his major-label debut album, “Lace Up,” with its cocksure single, “Wild Boy.”.
“He can make that real hard-core dirty trap or an emo rap song that will make you cry,” Mr. Combs said. “He’s somebody that could possibly have EGOT by his name one day. That’s how versatile he really is.”
Before Mr. Baker released his second album, “General Admission,” in 2015, he made his acting debut in “Beyond the Lights,” playing a rapper named Kid Culprit who humiliates his pop star girlfriend. “I was always the one who had a camera wherever I went,” he said. “So I guess I always wanted something to do with film.”
He had several small roles, playing mostly heels and heavies. In 2016, after Mr. Baker made an impassioned call to the casting director, Mr. Crowe signed him to “Roadies,” impressed by what Mr. Crowe called, “this bootstrappy kid from Cleveland.”
He played another jerk in the Netflix chiller “Birdbox,“ and appeared alongside Mr. Davidson in “The King of Staten Island,” and “Big Time Adolescence.” Last year, he co-starred in “The Dirt, a Mötley Crüe biopic in which he played Tommy Lee, mostly shirtless.
“So far he has pulled his characters out of himself, in various sizes and versions of his own personal, passionate chaos,” Mr. Crowe wrote in an email. “He thrives in that mode. But he’s got chops to do much more.”
Is He Dating Megan Fox?
Mr. Baker turned 30 in quarantine. He usually celebrates with a Gatsby-esque event. This time he stayed in, mostly, and partied with his band.
“I was really scared that I was going to have this empty feeling because that wasn’t there,” he said in a phone interview in May. “And ironically, again, man, just me sitting in my house chilling with my closest friends was the most fulfilling thing ever.”
His neighbor, Jeff Lewis, who starred in the renovation reality show, “Flipping Out,” complained that it was rowdier than just “chilling.” “There were at least 14 people in the driveway alone,” he said on his Sirius XM show.
One of those people might have included a former girlfriend, Ms. Ray, an Instagram and fitness model, who had chosen that day to stop by and pick up her stuff. Mr. Baker’s romantic life may not be as eventful as the tabloids suggest, but it’s eventful enough.
Is Mr. Baker dating Ms. Fox, who electrocutes him in “Bloody Valentine,” the first video from his next album. (They met while filming the upcoming crime thriller, “Midnight in the Switchgrass,” and she has reportedly left her husband, Brian Austin Green.) He wouldn’t say. But paparazzi photos and Twitter posts certainly suggest an intimate relationship.
In recent weeks, he has been vocal in his support for Black Lives Matter, holding up a “Silence Is Betrayal” sign at a Los Angeles protest, which he posted on Instagram; telling racist fans “I don’t want your business”; covering Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” a protest song about police brutality.
So is this the older, and mellower Machine Gun Kelly — a man who involves himself in politics, who apologizes to his neighbor with premium champagne?
Not quite. While he clowns and inhales his own smoke rings for the camera, his father, with whom he recently reconciled, has been in the hospital in Denver. (The illness isn’t Covid-19-related.)
“It sucks because I really just want to just scream and cry and sit in my room and just wait for someone to come tell me it’s going to be all good,” he said.
But it’s his job, he said, to suck it up and show the good. So instead of screaming, he sits on the floor, one knee, tattooed with a marijuana leaf peeking out from torn sweatpants, and plays electric guitar to Avril Lavigne’s star-crossed teen anthem “Sk8ter Boi,” headbanging as he slides up and down the frets.
Alongside millions of fans, his father watches.
“He’s so stoked that I’m playing guitar now. He called me the other day and told me that he’s really starting to enjoy my music,” Mr. Baker said. “And he’s super proud of me.”
A couple of weeks ago, he posted a new video, a compilation of fans making their own #LockdownSessions out of “Bloody Valentine,” using his lyrics as a soundtrack for their own passions and confusions in lockdown. “I’m trying to give people an outlet to smile during such dark times,” he said.