Kevin Gates sounds like a storm brewing overhead. Think downed power lines, thick branches in the streets, broken windows, total devastation and only the far-off promise of a silver lining—that’s the sum of Gates’ sonic playbook.
The Louisiana rapper’s career has been, of course, equally tumultuous. In 2016, Gates saw the release and rise of his Platinum-certified street opera, Islah, but the following year, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for felony gun possession. While in prison, Gates released By Any Means 2, a project curated by his wife Dreka Gates. This past January, after serving nine months, Gates was released from prison on parole.
Though a free man, Gates has been forced to cancel multiple performances, barred from leaving the state of Illinois by his parole officer. From this ire comes Chained to the City, a knocking nine-minute tour through Gates’ hopes and woes. The project, which his label is calling a "three-track single," opens with pain and a prayer, perfectly illustrating the lines Gates’ music walks from drowning within its own vexation.
Gates' brand of booming, transcendent pain music is effortlessly visceral. One of his best tricks is compounding his emotions with shattering drums. “Change Lanes” begins tearful and quickly balloons into a snarling declaration. “I was bein' quiet but got a lot to say / Unique chains on a freeway, don't need reigns,” he croons before delivering iced-out verses about all he’s worth. Rattling percussion makes the opening track Gates’ announcement of freedom, and given the circumstances surrounding this release, the song rings ever truer.
After being swept away by a tidal wave of bass and earthquaking melody, listeners are treated to Gates rapping his ass off. For all his talent belting notes into the void, when Gates rides a beat, we remember that he is a rapper’s rapper all the same. His steady and despondent delivery in “Vouch” and the biting flow of “Let It Sing” give this bitesize effort the same peaks and valleys as a full-length Kevin Gates project. Thematically, too, Chained to the City delivers Gates’ standard talking points but with a fresh conviction: bitterness, forgiveness, freedom, paranoia, spirituality, and admitted exhaustion on “Let It Sing.”
As easily as we can sink into the familiar, there is that gnawing want for more. Gates has always been adept at seeking out and crafting soundscapes that are cavernous enough to house his cinematic delivery. Chained to the City is a perfect fit for Gates, but does not necessarily reveal a willingness to grow. In the format of a three-track release, though, thriving in your comfort zone is a positive.
Gates' next full-length album will demand a concerted step forward on all fronts—sonics, rapping, writing—but Chained to the City is a potent distillation of what Kevin Gates does best.