Bells & Whistles: Mk.gee has arrived

A snapshot of a singular artist leveling up.

This column was originally published on Nina Protocol on 6/4/24.

Mk.gee. Edit by Tyler Farmer.



A dark room, chattery but calm. There’s no opener in sight; instead, a man fiddles with a DJ controller, abruptly switching between ballroom waltzes, obscure 50s country, and new-gen rap. The venue is sold out but doesn’t feel suffocating. Drops of what smell like sewage drip down from the ceiling. With little fanfare, the New Jersey-born, Los Angeles-based virtuoso Mk.gee and his band of two hit the stage at 9:30 on the dot. They look like Lost Boys. Mk.gee’s slender frame and brown mop of hair are obscured by one of two platinum spotlights that blast upwards from the stage, refracting off of his body and guitar at every movement, projecting a silhouette of him on the far wall. It’s understated yet transfixing. There are no artificial dopamine boosters in sight, just three musicians, two lights, and one set list. 

The artist born Michael Gordon is at the mid-sized venue Elsewhere in Brooklyn, primarily playing songs from his debut album Two Star & the Dream Police, which has been turning the heads of critics and fans alike since its release in February of this year. Sonically, it is like a certain kind of fine French meal: simple ingredients with garnishes you cannot find in just any market. The guitars sound like sweet, melancholic warblings, landing somewhere between sharp and airy. The drums are pounding and purposely synthetic, not too far removed from those in Phil Collins’ 1999 soundtrack for Tarzan. Mk.gee’s tenor is at times a cry, at times a whisper, and at times a broken jolt. This is a big, complex sound for three people to be making, but not in the same explosive way as a prog trio like Rush. Rather, Mk.gee and his band’s sound is at once huge and minimal, not fueled by grandiose playing styles but by precision. The band has expert control of dynamics—they know when to rise and when to fall, and they allow themselves the freedom to cut loose and play off the cuff.  The instruments are not fighting for attention; they are holding hands and walking beside a creek. 

I can’t distinguish most songs on the new record by name, but the landscapes are all familiar. The album has a real backbone. When I hear drums that sound like a boulder tumbling down a mountain, I know it’s that song; when I hear his voice crack while belting a prayer, I know it’s that other song. The focus and apparent awe of the crowd is rare. He has our undivided attention. Phones only go up en masse during “Are You Looking Up” and “Alesis,” the closest thing to “hits” on the album, then are otherwise tucked away. The only non-Two Star songs performed are “dimeback” from his 2020 tape A Museum of Contradiction and “Lonely Fight,” an unreleased song that makes me hope he makes five more albums just like the last one.

 



Mk.gee’s current moment has long been a question of when, not if. His talent was clear to industry purveyors following the release of his 2018 project Pronounced McGee; to me personally after hearing “SI (Bonus Track)” off Fool; and to literally anyone who heard “Untitled” and “cz,” his string of ambidextrous synth-pop singles that came in late 2019 and early 2020. Then came A Museum of Contradiction, a reserved yet highly articulate nine-track tape that cemented his status as an architect. The singles leading up to Two Star arrived over three years later. During that interim period, Mk.gee racked up a writing credit for Drake on “Fair Trade,” and helped Dijon build his sound on Absolutely, which holds the stylistic stems of Two Star. Mk.gee’s singular touch is apparent in the way he handles his mixes. He deploys an unorthodox, at times abrasive palette, one whose defining characteristic is a crisp nakedness that always manages to sound good in an unconventional way.



While it’s said that all artistic ideas are built upon a pre-existing framework, in Mk.gee, I hear something new. Given its programmed patches and at times otherworldly crudeness, the music of Mk.gee does not necessarily sound “human,” but the musicianship at its core irrevocably is. His music exudes the suaveness of Sting, the astuteness of Prince, and the ethereal haze of Jai Paul—all songwriters who fused technology with old-fashioned chops. Through these touch points, Mk.gee introduces a new pocket, a sort of muddy serenity, that, as his sold-out tour indicates, many people have been longing for.

After being fed so much slop by Big Tech and enduring hordes of songs designed to resonate with a particular audience, it’s refreshing to witness someone who worked for years with such intentionality in their craft come out on top. This music isn’t really for anyone; it’s more of a science project that Mk.gee toyed with for years. The manner in which Mk.gee presents himself is equally important: listen to the music; don’t look at me; I am merely its vessel. It’s a far cry from those who hit TikTok first and the studio second, though the wispy image he has crafted certainly adds to his appeal. 

Sometimes art can transcend the strictures of genre, which explains why Mk.gee’s fanbase is so diverse, filling the room with rap fans, indie rock heads, and art scenesters alike, why everyone was there to really listen, why Tyler, The Creator, Eric Clapton, and Kendrick Lamar are big fans, and why I haven’t seen a single person knock his validity. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 1, Mk.gee spoke with conviction about Two Star: “I think the purpose of this record was to make something as alien as possible … something that you shouldn’t understand but that you do understand.” Mission accomplished.

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