Photo by Jeff Forney, courtesy of Atlantic Records
Kevin Gates doesn’t have an elevator pitch. That’s not to say he can’t sum up his appeal in a few short words—he’ll readily offer a statement like “I exemplify what it is to be a human being; I display emotion” if asked—but Kevin Gates isn’t an artist who makes sense in the cut-and-dry terms of business and marketing. You can’t focus group a Kevin Gates. You don’t bring Kevin Gates a hit single. To believe in Kevin Gates is to buy into him completely, to follow the weird, winding path of his career with resolute faith. That, he will tell you.
“If a person isn’t familiar with who Kevin Gates is an individual, then how could I give you an overview of the album?” he challenged me as we began our brief interview last week at the New York offices of his label, Atlantic Records. Which, fair enough. Gates has built one of the most passionate fan bases in hip-hop through years of persistence and a total lack of pandering, writing songs that lay his thoughts and feelings out in plain, inescapable terms. There is no one big Kevin Gates song—I mean, technically there are several very big Kevin Gates songs, but there’s no crossover hit with a teen pop star, no get-rich-quick viral smash. His two current entries in the Billboard Hot 100, “2 Phones” and “Really Really,” both sound much like many other Kevin Gates songs—which is to say that even though both are excellent, with hooks that will be stuck in your head for days, the main reason those are his biggest hits yet is that Kevin Gates is the most popular he’s ever been.
For fans and tastemakers, this breakthrough moment feels long-awaited: Gates has been tapped as one of rap’s next big stars for three or four years, although, depending on your definition, he’s already been one for that whole period, particularly in his home state of Louisiana and across the South. Although he’s had some legal setbacks along the way, he’s pretty much continued to execute flawlessly, cranking out project after project of richly composed, soul-baring melodic rap to critical accolades, steady sales, and massive, growing grassroots appeal. Gates is upfront about battling depression and speaks candidly about the psychological effects of poverty and prison, and fans respond strongly to the fact that, as he says in one of the hooks on his new album, Islah, he “ain’t too hard to tell you how I feel.”
As skeptics will quickly point out, that candor can get a little too real for some: The two things many people first bring up about Gates are a) he once revealed on Instagram that he’d discovered a woman he’d been having sex with was actually his cousin and b) he is one of the most high-profile advocates of analingus. But he is so open in laying wild shit out there that there’s not much to be said about it. Jhené Aiko said her famous “eat the booty like groceries” line was inspired by a Vine of his on the subject; he boasts about this accomplishment on “Really Really.” Nothing is off-limits with Kevin Gates, at least once he decides to talk about it, and that’s his greatest strength: There’s a reason he named his 2013 album Stranger Than Fiction.
“I already got the hard part out the way by telling you all my flaws, so what could you say about me now?” he tells me as we sit down to discuss Islah. The album, named after his daughter, that he released last Friday. It’s his official debut after years of mixtapes and “street albums,” and it’s reportedly sold around 100,000 copies in its first week. As usual, it’s been getting good reviews, although, also as usual, Kevin Gates has been pretty clear that he could not care less about how anyone but his fans receives it.
But just so we’re clear: It’s really good, maybe his best ever. The music fits a familiar formula, but it’s more refined. It’s still mostly sing-song, confessional anthems, although many of the street stories that defined projects like Stranger Than Fiction and The Luca Brasi Story have been subbed out for songs about relationships in the vein of his first major breakthrough song "Satellites." Much like everything Gates does, it’s gradual forward progress. He tests out more of a smooth singing voice that, in contrast with his normal gravelly delivery, gives him the ability to inhabit several sounds even on the same song. Just take the opener, “Not the Only One,” where he sadly croons “say you love me, yeah, say you love me, yeah, know I’m not the only one” before veering into a more desperate timbre for the verse, which goes: “ain’t be having no dreams / don’t be getting no sleep / how could someone call me those things / they don’t even know me / I lost everything I love a week ago.” Kevin Gates, as usual, is steadily getting better. And, as he tells me, he knows it.
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine, courtesy of Atlantic Records
Noisey: I one reason a lot of people connect with your music is your fearlessness. You say a lot of things that a lot of people wouldn’t even be comfortable putting into music, or even saying that to their friends. How do you tap into that?
Kevin Gates: It ain’t really nothing about tapping into it. I mean, I deal with self-esteem issues, I deal with depression and things of that nature, so it’s like I already got the hard part out the way by telling you all my flaws, so what could you say about me now? I just put all my flaws on front street. That’s it. That’s my approach. I hate when people try to dissect what it is that I do because it’s art. Appreciate it for what it is. If not, then maybe you don’t get it. I’m not trying to force anybody to get it. People that get it get it. People that don’t, they don’t.
Is there other art that you look to that you think is an example?
They got this dude called Space Invader. And he, like, invades everywhere and he leaves his paintings everywhere he go. Since I became familiar with who this person was—a famous street artist, a famous unknown artist—I look for his painting. I look for his work now. If it’s a man or a woman—I don’t know. You always see like a little alien-looking, martian thing, and that was the Space Invader. Like, when I was in Brussels, I was looking at the famous sculpture of the little boy taking a piss, and you could see where Space Invader had been there. He graffitied a piece of art right above this, like, ancient monument. And I’ve seen some of his work in New York. All around the world, he leaves his mark.
What about that appeals to you or do you connect with?
It just catches me off guard, like I wouldn’t expect to see his paintings in certain places. Like, is it just one person, or is it a group of people that do this? I’m just like ‘wow’ when I see it. And then, with my art, I look at it the same way because some of the strangest places you wouldn’t expect to hear my art, I hear it. Overseas. Places I least expected to hear my art. I hear people putting it to [EDM] the electric-type sounding music, or whatever it’s called. I didn’t know it brought me way over here.
You often talk about how much you like to read.
Yeah, I ain’t really been reading a lot of like novels lately. I’ve been reading, like, literature about, not really about anything, but if I have a question, I go get literature about whatever goes through my head. I’m a big skeptic about a lot of things. So I always try to go get me some literature about whatever it is I’m skeptical about to give myself insight. I don’t really like asking people because most people give you an opinion and not a fact. And I don’t just go for the first opinion I get. I like to get two or three opinions. Just small things I’m interested in. I want to know as much as I can know about it. I’ve always been that type of person. I want to know why. How come it’s gotta work like this. How come it can’t work like that. I just look at everything. I analyze it from different angles.
One of the things that I think is more apparent on your newest album is that you have more of a traditional singing voice on it.
I matured a lot. But I’ve also—I didn’t have a singing coach then. I’ve had this lady teach me how to sing. Monica, the singer. And she’s really been like teaching me, coaching me how to sing and things of that nature. So my singing has improved. It’s gotten better because of her.
What prompted to you to seek that out?
I mean, I want to master my craft. And it’s like: People say that Jay Z was the best artist in the world, but he didn’t believe that. He believed that he could always get better. He always had room to grow and improve. That’s what he believed. And I believe the same thing. The world might tell me ‘Kevin, you’re great,’ but I haven’t maximized my potential. I haven’t reached my full potential yet. And I’ve got to keep working and keep striving to get to that point. I’ll be there one day.
I feel like a lot of people don’t consider the value of having a coach once they reach a certain level.
Yeah, I like being challenged. I like to learn. So as long as I’m in a situation where I’m learning, where I experience growth, where I experience evolution. I like to evolve. The last time I noticed I got better was when I was in Hawaii. After I made five or ten songs, I stepped back and was like ‘say, bruh.’ Or when I found a new melody. I don’t give myself a pat on the back, but once I find something that’s different I take that, and I try to maximize it. I try to do it as much as I can do it. I try to master that, make it the best possible, the best ever. And that’s just always been my mindset, for life really.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.