In 2011, I rubbed shoulders with a future girlfriend. One of those rare times where I approached her at work, struck up a conversation, and later found out she was in a relationship. However, I found her on Facebook through mutual friends and just went on about my business. At the end of 2012, I found myself back in conversation with her and it turned into a date, then another one, then a relationship. Something I wasn’t expecting at all.
This is essentially how Kevin Gates stepped into my iTunes, minus the romance of course. At the beginning of 2013, he released The Luca Brasi Story. I can still remember clicking play and not being blown away. We brushed shoulders, basically. It wasn’t until the summer when Stranger Than Fiction came out that I could declare myself a fan. That album went on to be my favorite of the year. Kevin was a musical wizard that wasn’t afraid to experiment. Sometimes he gave us a very gravel tone (“M.Y.B.) or morphed into what I’d imagine a racist Southerner who rapped would sound like (“Careful”). What made this album special was that these experiments all worked.
In the two and half years since, I’ve remained a big fan. Kevin Gates hasn’t made anything that tops Stranger Than Fiction as a complete and total package, but he’s made countless songs that are on that level. “John Gotti” would make the man himself proud to be the subject of the song. The intro to Luca Brasi 2 taught me that if a woman is super bad and super thick, you can whip it out while she’s talking. Okay, so that's not an actual life lesson any of us should try, but it’s part of Gates’ fascinating personality, and that's why he also routinely takes over social media. He branded “I Don’t Get Tired” as a catchphrase. He started the eating booty revolution. It gets, well, stranger. He’s made Instagram videos saying he’s slept with his cousin and even posted a photo of his deceased Grandmother. It was bad. Kevin’s genius was overshadowed by these antics.
To this day, I can’t tell if his personality has helped or hurt his musical career, and now he enters the fray once again with a new album, Islah. And because I know many of you might be too wary of Gates' controversial reputation to check out Islah on your own, here's your Cheat Code. Everything you need to know about the album on one page.
Kevin Gates is signed to Atlantic Records, but you wouldn't know it looking at his career. He’s one of the rare cases where the label has literally no influence on his music. Publicly, it seems like Atlantic has never stepped in and tried to turn him into a Lupe Fiasco Lasers artist, or overloaded him with big guest names a la Ty Dolla $ign.
His retail mixtapes work as experiments for the label for the sole reason that every single one, since 2013, has slowly increased in first week sales. It shows that Kevin has consistently grown on his own terms. Luca Brasi 2, his last retail tape in 2014, did 22K in its first week.
Islah is an actual full-length album, but the music and promotion still feels like Atlantic hasn’t been overly involved. It’s become a double-edged sword. The freedom to create and put out what you want vs. not getting the right promotion for your debut album. It worked fine for the tapes, but if the album is getting the same amount of attention, is it really different? Ah, the blurred lines between mixtapes and albums comes up again.
Going into Islah, Kevin Gates released five singles. Usually that volume of pre-release records is a sign of desperation, hoping at least one song sticks, but none of those singles were aimed at trying to be a radio hit. It seemed more like creating awareness. The album even suffered a push back from December 11 to January 29. Was it more promo? Sample clearances? No clue.
One last fact to mention: The album is named after Kevin’s daughter. “I treat the music as if it were my child,” he told DJ Smallz. “It means to reprove and to make better. My daughter did all of those things for me upon her arrival.”
“Not The Only One”
During the aforementioned interview, Kevin broke down this song, saying it's about what happens when you make a successful transition from the streets to music and how it affects those around you. “I can’t be the one you love” now has a much deeper meaning as he writes it to those who want him to be the same person he was in the streets.
“Time For That”
This is not a bad Kevin Gates song. In fact, it’s melodic enough to ignore the occasional cheesy line. One theme in Kevin’s love-inspired songs is the fact that he’s been hurt and had people change up on him, so loyalty is huge.
“Thought I Heard (Bread Winner’s Anthem)”
You’ve heard BWA shouted out on Gates’ past projects. Now the Bread Winners Association has their own theme song. It’s much more energetic than turning “I Don’t Get Tired” into a forgettable song. This is due in part to the production standing out among Islah’s material. It’s the type of banger that I’d dab to if I followed trends.
Oh, and if you hate this song, you’re probably not a bread winner and Kevin would tell you to get your bread up. Since he’s not here, I’ll tell you on his behalf. Don’t come back around until you have a loaf. (Am I coining the term loaf for the first time? Why haven’t any rappers done this? How much would a loaf represent?).
Any rapper could’ve made “Hard For.” And almost every single rapper would probably deliver the surface level-like rhyme, “You know the only one my dick’ll get hard for.” Kevin Gates is not your typical rapper, though, so he added an additional layer to represent his well-guarded heart. “I’m confused, what the fuck you want my heart for?,” Kevin asks over a beat dominated by guitar sounds. If there’s one idea that’s unique to Kevin it’s love, and even then it’s hard to find where his mind is.
Many artists will release an album this year, but I am not sure any of them will leave me as conflicted as I've become with Kevin Gates. Islah is a good album, but it’s not much different than his retail mixtapes. It’s missing something. The more I listen, the more I wonder if I’m settling, but the melodies are astounding. Do I sound confused? Good, that’s the point.
Islah has flaws. Kevin Gates has flaws. I have flaws. But the flaws are what make us, and the music, real.
[By Sermon, who is still flawed like us all. Follow him on Twitter.]