Kevin Gates Islah

[Atlantic; 2016]

Styles: emotional gangsta, melodic rap
Others: Eminem, Future, Young Thug, misunderstood geniuses

Psssssh, bullshit to rewriting all of this Shakespeare nonsense; even Kevin Gates knows you gotta stick to your own story. Besides, when your stories are as fascinating as Gates’s, then you’re probably better off rewriting English sonnets in emojis. Gates’s music is inseparable from his personal life, loaded with as much drama and intrigue as any New York Times best selling tell-all; he has at once (self-)consciously broached serious topics of depression, suicide, infidelity, and religion in his music. He’s also openly admitted to crying to Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook, kicked a female concertgoer in the chest, and when he discovered that the woman he’d been sleeping with is a cousin, no announcements were made to stop “fucking her.” But whether you find him to be honest or repulsive, not once has Gates rewrote his actual persona, refusing to do away with what makes his music so captivating. With Islah, his long-gestating major label debut, the Baton Rouge rapper continues showcasing his vibrant personality, but now within noticeably roomy, melodic sonic contours, which ultimately gives the good, evil, and delightful grey areas of his lyrics some refreshing new context.

All of this, of course, is coming from a rapper whose breakthrough mixtape is titled Stranger Than Fiction — indeed, you really (really) can’t make any of this stuff up. At times, Islah unfolds like an explosive unscripted reality TV show; it’s raw and uncut, with vocal disputes, flaring tempers, unresolved conflicts, thrown fists, behind-the-scenes tears, and even a moment or two for reflection. It’s become evident that after 10 years in the rap game — with a grand total of 14 free mixtapes — music is not only a career worth pursuing for Gates, but also a requirement for his therapy, the studio being a place for redemption and salvation. In turn, “The Truth” is perhaps the most sobering song Gates has recorded thus far, and rightfully so, exacting every detail on the night he harmed a fan at a live concert. Instead of going the industry route, releasing a statement through a publicist, Gates — like all of the best rappers — bares his soul on wax. “Man in the mirror, you way outta order/ Go to jail, who gon’ look out for your daughter?” he surveys, criticizing his behavior that night. Consequences loom heavy over Islah, an album that not only borrows its name from his daughter, but also draws inspiration from her.

With the waning careers of once immovable tough guy rappers like 50 Cent, The Game, and even Rick Ross in full swing, Kevin Gates’s steady ascent to the top is perfectly in sync with the rise of a new breed of alpha male rappers, and right now, hip-hop needs Gates desperately. Contrary to whatever the Tipper Gores think, Islah is so much more than basic rippity-rap about skirt-chasing, random acts of violence and drug use. Sure, he’s still holding it down for his own Bread Winners Association crew and is still as street as you’d think. But Gates is also still one of the most fascinatingly conflicted rappers alive; he can be strikingly sensitive (“Asking where’s my heart/ Tsss, good luck finding that”), overtly bumptious (“Show my ass, won’t pull up my pants/ Let me do my dance”), and completely unreadable (“Don’t mean to be too aggressive, baby/ I go to war with God behind you”) sometimes loaded all within a single three-minute song. Throughout, Gates has enough emotional gangsta tucked away in his shell to more than fill Islah all by himself, and Lord knows he needs the room. Don’t you dare crowd him.

When Rakim first spat “check out my melody” over Eric B’s dense drum loop some 25 years ago, little did he know that it’d be the catalyst for the current rap landscape, where a simple ditty is the name of the game. But from the pocketed flows, endless catchy hooks, exciting wordplay, and tight narratives, Gates is the best rapper, singer, and songwriter Islah has to offer — he’s all the album needs to succeed. Gates never lets up — not even on these ostensibly pop rap songs — and always finds a way to sound inspired. Although “2 Phones,” the album’s highest charting single, is essentially a first-rate flex move, with Gates keeping two cellular devices on his person at all times — because “drug deals” and “side bitches” — he manages to still hit you with his trademark honesty, imbuing the song with clever introverted musings. Not to mention that with “Really Really,” Gates proves that he can kick out the Top 40 jams without sacrificing his signature sound or vulnerability — certainly inspiration for emotionally inundated would-be-clubhoppers all over the country.

For Islah, Kevin Gates largely swipes left on coke rap sermons for insouciant, luminescent swoops — evoking the rush of coming up on ecstasy — and in doing so, links himself inextricably with a new, succinct, energetic-but-slightly-warped vision for rap music. Like Future and Young Thug before him — with DS2 and Barter 6, respectively — Gates establishes himself as a career artist by pursuing uncompromising individualism before sales-shoring safety. Transcending the self-consciousness of his embrace of experimentation, he grabs the collective lapels of the entire pop rap music schism and catapults it into the cumulus clouds, showing Fetty Wap how to do a proper soaring rap ballad with “Time for That” and essentially schooling passive-aggressive gangstas on schadenfreude with the surprisingly exquisite “Ask for More.” Islah is one of the more exciting major label rap debuts in recent years, and one positive to being a Gates fan is that you’ll most certainly never get tired with him. As per the words of an anonymous YouTube commenter: “This man is captivating, he is the perfect combination of crazy and sane.”

Links: Kevin Gates - Atlantic

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