Months ago I read a speech by former Def Jam president Carmen Ashurst where she said Russell Simmons believed rap didn’t need to “cross over” to white audiences; white kids gravitated towards hip-hop as a lifestyle, thus making rap’s appeal to whites somewhat built-in from the start. Hip-hop is popular culture. It doesn’t need to be safe; white kids want hard and dangerous.
Kevin Gates has been giving fans hard and dangerous for 10 years now. Born in New Orleans but raised in Baton Rouge, he started as a much more homegrown rapper, teaming up with local legend Lil Boosie for “Get In The Way” and turning heads with bouncing songs like “Head 2 My Toes.” Then, in 2009, he was pulled over with a firearm and sentenced to two years and change in Rivers Correctional prison. When he got out he opened up his style, embracing melody and becoming more emotionally transparent throughout his records. He also picked up a couple ticks, apparent throughout his 2011 mixtape Don’t Know What To Call It Vol. 1 (especially the opening track.) He basically injected dramatic flair into his voice.
After releasing two more tapes in 2012 he caught the attention of Lil Wayne, whose brother Fee wound up managing Gates (with Atlanta-based manager B. Rich) under the Young Money umbrella until at least July 2014.
He’d go on to release critically acclaimed projects like The Luca Brasi Story and Stranger Than Fiction, but after 2013 the quality of his output wavered. His 2014 mixtape By Any Means felt like a collection of leftovers while Luca Brasi 2 came off too forced between the hashtagged single “#IDGT” and the over-emphasis on trap signifiers: “John Gotty,” “Plug Daugther,” “Out The Mud,” etc.
More than anything, Luca Brasi 2 left me feeling hollow, as if Gates was squeezing into cookie-cutter pop sounds without taking the soul of his rapping with him. His heart wasn’t in it.
His heart, in contrast, bleeds all over Islah, his official major label debut album on Atlantic. It’s open and pulsing on the very first track, a standout called “Not The Only One.” The song is a rare instance of a male rapper begging for a female’s love despite knowing he’s not the only one in her love life. (“Say you love me, know I’m not the only one,” he croons.) It’s a beautiful beginning to a diverse 63-minute project that has a heart of molten steel flowing through its core.
He picked the records for the album with his wife and business manager Dreka, which might be a factor as to why Islah has so many love songs. “Pride” is essentially the story of their relationship, told in painstaking detail. “Hard For” is a full-blown pop song, laced with the Louisiana rapper’s signature brazenness (the hook begins “You’re the only one that my dick could get hard for”).
Never does it feel like Gates is overdoing any one aspect of his personality, be it the Shakespearean lover or the tormented street affiliate. He tempers the emotional approach with street singles like “La Familia” and “The Truth,” and the thundering “Thought I Heard” is another obvious standout, immediately conjuring images of New Orleans from the second you hear the flute. He’s also rapping with blistering precision on most of the album, and even hit singles like “Really Really” and “2 Phones” – the two highest charting songs of Gates’ career so far – contain some impressive cadences.
There are also threads to Gates’ old music on the album, like certain lines from his early mixtape Pick of da Litter and “Head 2 My Toes.” Nowhere does it feel like he’s lurching without caution into the world of manufactured major label patterns. Islah holds the heart of his early work with the songwriting sensibility of his newer material. The album is not only a showcase of talent, but curation and balance too. What’s scary is that despite already having singles from the album find tremendous national success, Gates may have even bigger songs on his hands.
At one point in the past I thought Gates was starting to sound like Wayne in his prime. Now he’s starting to remind me more of Eminem at his peak: refreshing, fearless, convincing. After years of fine-tuning, Atlantic should be proud to distribute the first fantastic major label rap album of 2016 with Islah. And this time, they won’t need any controversy or crossover appeal to sell it.