In the second installment of his Trappers and Philosophers hip-hop column, Michael Madden profiles Kevin Gates with particular focus on the rapper’s musical and personal themes of depression and senseless death. Also included are new-release recommendations.
The Luca Brasi Story, the 2013 mixtape that propelled Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates to his status as one of the South’s most exciting rappers, was named after the brutal Godfather character. In Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, Luca Brasi is “a man to frighten the devil in hell himself.” True, based on his infamy throughout the Corleone Family’s history, you’d think he’s some goon with horns, a tail, and balloon biceps. In the 1970 movie, Brasi is merely played by Lenny Montana, the 6’6″ ex-pro wrestler who, in his heyday, had a chest as wide as a car’s hood.
Gates, born Kevin Gilyard, admires and identifies with Brasi’s reputation as an enforcer. In his music, Gates projects intimidation when he humorously vows to manhandle anyone who scuffs his shoes and, in a more serious sense, when he looks back on violence he’s seen in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. Just look at the cover of By Any Means, Gates’ project from March. The coloring and his expression, this contorted look of general disapproval, makes him look more like a slab of concrete than a human.
The thing is, though: Just as Brasi ultimately sleeps with the fishes, Gates, no matter how invincible he can appear at times, can be taken down.
Growing up in South Baton Rouge, where he was primarily raised by his Puerto Rican grandmother, Gates tells me he started dealing with depression in seventh or eighth grade (around the same time he started rapping). The battle has never really ended, either, and he partly attributes that to the violence he’s been around since he was just a kid. Gates surprises me when he says there’s little-to-no gang activity in Baton Rouge, because various news reports say otherwise, but it’s like he still talks about his city and Afghanistan in the same breath. Death, unfortunately, is relatively familiar to Gates. You can look at his three teardrop tattoos and figure that much out.
Gates is 28, although he sounds a decade older both in his music and in the way he talks. His speech, speckled with “yaherrdme?“s and other Southern affectations, is slow and carefully constructed. I recently talked to him on the phone while he was in New Orleans, which is about an hour and a half southeast of Baton Rouge. Later that day, after our conversation, he says he’ll do some recording; the man is a studio addict.
Gates isn’t just a candid interview. His tangents go on longer than his responses to my actual Qs. This is fitting because, as an artist, he’s always chasing down different ideas, different sounds. Early in his career, Gates’ music was generally more lighthearted than it is now, what with his springy Southern anthems and his no-details-spared sex raps. Maybe more than his solo material, his recent collaborations with Master P (“Ugly but She Fine”), Migos (“Snake Niggas”), and Ty Dolla Sign (“These Hoes”) show he’s versatile and capable of reaching a wide audience. Sure enough, By Any Means just about doubled his first-week sales record.
We can trace Gates’ focus to his introversion. Not even LSU’s football program, which dominates the SEC with Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium as home field, is enough to get Gates into sports. Instead, he reads: from Nicholas Sparks to Ann Rice vampire novels and religious texts (though he doesn’t claim one particular religion). At the time of our interview, he’s working his way through The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, a nonfiction bestseller from 2000. “The tipping point,” writes Gladwell, longtime contributor to The New Yorker, “is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”
It took Gates some time to get comfortable with his audience, to really vent, possibly because such openness has yet to reach the Tipping Point. These days, he’s as ready as any rapper to talk about his feelings. He actually has a Master’s in psychology, which he earned during one of his several stints behind bars. “I deal with unresolved grief,” Gates says. “That’s one of my issues that I deal with.”
Rappers and their civilian counterparts have different approaches to dealing with struggles like death and mourning. In April, a month and a half after the death of his older brother Treon by police taser, I spoke with Miami rapper Denzel Curry at his tour stop in Minneapolis. I asked Curry about his loss, but while he was a good-humored interview by and large, he didn’t want to talk about his brother. Some artists want the music to do all the talking, which is understandable, although I would’ve appreciated the quote.
On the other hand is Gates. “My way of dealing with my depression is through music,” he says, stressing the words to make it clear that his process isn’t foolproof. Considering that depression has a way of sapping its victims of the motivation to do things they normally enjoy, it’s the only possible statement. Gates needs to make music.
My favorite Gates song, “4:30am”, off last year’s Stranger Than Fiction, seems to traverse an entire lifetime in under three minutes. The intro is the sound of a young boy (around middle school age, judging by the kid’s voice) calling Gates to check up. Then, fast-forwarding the narrative as if to explain what he wants the boy to avoid, Gates recounts being shot and different romantic failures. The music video depicts all this, of course.
Few Southern rap songs across the genre’s history compare to the maturity and scope of “4:30am”. The first example that comes to mind is UGK’s 1996 “One Day”, a comforting and deeply sad song. Its haunting questions of senseless death — posed by UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C, plus Houston rapper 3-2 — are still unanswered by the end of the song. Some might be unanswerable. Production-wise, “One Day” arrives with an ageless Isley Brothers sample (“Ain’t I Been Good to You – Part 1 & 2”), a human touch that stood out when UGK and their peers normally prized pavement-cracking force. The song is still pulverizing, in its way.
In the first edition of this column, I talked about Lil Herb’s Welcome to Fazoland and Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, about the reportage each project presented, and about how the ups and downs of each artist’s environment informed the work. That’s not really what I’m getting at here, because that music is more sociological than psychological when interpreted in a broad sense. Gates is not an Eeyore, but the personal nature of his lyrics is hard to overstate when so many rappers rely on positive patterns (accumulation of money, etc.) to fuel their verses. Gates’ opposite might be someone like ASAP Rocky, who’s never been particularly knowable through his music alone.
Gates does and says questionable things from time to time, as we all do. Middle school “Use Another Word” campaigners, for instance, would be appalled at his liberal use of the word retarded. This rap shit, though, is something he’s deeply serious about. It’s his hobby, his lifestyle, and his 9-to-5 all at once. He seems to write songs to learn from the things that ail him, that would otherwise stay with him without letting go.
My favorite song on By Any Means, at least at the moment, is “Homicide”, which seems to levitate to get a bird’s-eye view of the situation at hand. “Pray that it don’t be a homicide,” Gates advises again and again, and then: “Take one of mine, then I’mma make sure that we all cry.” Bloodshed is inevitable, but the song isn’t dramatic for drama’s sake.
“Whatever moment I’m in,” Gates tells me, “I’m gonna engulf myself in that moment.” It’s pinpoint word choice. Engulf, in the words of Merriam-Webster, means “to flow over and cover (someone or something).” We use it when talking about severe weather and other unstoppable forces.
“Everybody I grew up with, if they’re not dead, they’re in jail,” Gates tells me. His tone is like he’s never heard the sentiment before. Three days after this past Christmas, Hustle Gang rapper Doe B, costar of By Any Means single “Amnesia”, was shot dead in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala. He was 22. “That’s my guy,” Gates says of Doe. “He’s reincarnated. He’s just translatin’ over into a different realm.” We have to hope Gates is optimistic like this about all his troubles, even though, just this once, I’m not entirely sure what he means.
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