Gates’ major-label debut Islah, released this week on Atlantic Records with few pushbacks and (even more astonishingly) almost no big-name guest spots or features, suggests that no-holds-barred candor is working for him. The album is a sustained and triumphant outpouring, and Gates gives every good, bad, and ugly thing he has.
Kevin Gates does not mince words. It’s his great gift, really. “I look like I’m balling ’cause I’m really balling,” he correctly points out on his radio single “Really Really.” As a rapper, he’s perfectly comfortable reeling off “lyrical-miracle” technical displays, but his best music is rooted strongly in the 2Pac tradition of blunt-force honesty, and all his best songs emerge straight from the gut.
Gates’ major-label debut Islah, released this week on Atlantic Records with few pushbacks and (even more astonishingly) almost no big-name guest spots or features, suggests that no-holds-barred candor is working for him. Someone, somewhere, correctly deduced that the appeal of Kevin Gates is that he offers the maximum amount of Kevin Gates, and they’ve left him alone to turn out as much of that product as he’ll offer. Islah is a sustained and triumphant outpouring, and Gates gives every good, bad, and ugly thing he has. It’s by far the best single release of his career: It’s more melodic and more focused; fiercer and more playful; funnier and sadder. It’s also probably the best pure rap release of the first quarter, and the best-case scenario for how a locally famous rapper can make a great album for a wider audience without getting lost in a corporate ledger.
His music scans unquestionably as gangsta rap, but then he puts in lines like these: “I used to tease you about your feet, we would laugh and we’d giggle/ And having breakfast on the beach, you don’t know how much that meant to me” (“Pride”). The line zeroes in on something important about Gates: In his personal life, he is decidedly not a model of human decency, but on record, he is not just vulnerable, but tender, maybe the rarest of pop-music currencies. “Baby hit this weed cuz it might calm you down/ I rub your feet listening to everything you talk about,” he offers sweetly on the sex jam “One Thing.”
The moody music, full of minor-key piano and delicate synths, feels pitched somewhere between dramatic alt-rock (Gates is a professed fan of Lifehouse and RHCP) and traditional street rap, staggering this way or the other depending on Gates’ weathered, changeable voice. The new age synthesizers on “Ain’t Too Hard” could plausibly be sourced from a Lil B mixtape or a Belinda Carlisle single: “I’m commitment-shy, so when feelings get involved, I tend to run,” Gates admits. He bursts into melody almost as often as he raps, which has led to Drake and Future comparisons, but his closest analog might be Fetty Wap, if he were stuck on an uncontrollable crying jag in the bathtub.
Despite this, you could never call Islah (named after Gates’ eldest daughter, who often appears on camera with Gates in the rapper’s Instagram videos) mournful or depressing. Like any street rapper determined to survive the late-’00s rap-album-budget implosion intact, Kevin Gates has become his own best hook singer, his best songwriter, and the best (and usually only) rapper on his songs. On Islah, his hook-writing is sterling. The chorus of mid-album track “Time for That” has the rhythmic playfulness of Jeremih’s “Pass Dat,” while “2 Phones,” in which Gates struggles with the mobile-phone implications of the “keep your business and family completely separated” Crack Commandment, is deliriously good, the sort of hook you plunk down in front of an A&R rep and immediately collect house-down-payment money. But it’s all Gates.
His emotional appeal, along with his ear for affecting melodies, makes him an odd sort of crossover star. His music has everything hardcore rap fans look for—emotional immediacy, a compelling voice, unimpeachable integrity—but he lacks some things that can reliably be counted on to draw in interested outsiders: a novel style, a flashy or “weird” persona. Gates is weird, yes, but not the kind brands typically attach themselves to. Imagine the chipper associate social media manager trying to build a “strategy” around Gates’ famous admission that he discovered he was accidentally sleeping with his cousin, and feel a twinge of pity and horror.
And yet when you listen to the sure-to-be upcoming single “Hard For,” you start to see it: The unlikely but powerful Gates fan coalition. The song is tremendously unusual—with its acoustic guitar backing and chorus chant “you’re the only one that my dick’ll get hard for,” it’s practically an Uncle Kracker song about erectile dysfunction. But it’s also improbably beautiful: The second line of that couplet is “I’m confused, what the fuck you want my heart for?”, a line that cuts painfully to the core of heartbroken post-relationship confusion. This is the humanity that brings out the best in Gates: His music paints a picture where life is messy, where close friends cross uncrossable lines all the time. Out of love and out of a healthy appreciation for the workings of karma, you massage your temples and forgive them.
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