Pusha T’s new Wrath Of Caine mixtape is a cold, impressively clinical thing. Its straight-faced drug raps might be a few qualitative steps up from everything else Pusha’s done in the last couple of years, but it remains harsh and spartan and unlovable throughout. The one moment where the tape comes alive for me is “Trust Me,” the love song, mostly thanks to a berserk raw-nerve Future-style hook elastically moaned by the Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates. Gates is a name I’ve seen in tracklists a bunch over the years (often getting him confused with the Californian journeyman joker Kevin McCall), but on “Trust Me,” he absolutely pops off. And as luck would have it, Gates just released another mixtape, and every song pops like that. Gates has been around for a while; turns out I’ve got four-year-old songs of his deep in my iTunes. But The Luca Brasi Story is the tape that’s forced me to sit up and pay attention. The tape addresses old ideas, but it does so in an openly emotive, melodically exuberant way that I’m still wrapping my head around.
Gates’s story is a familiar one: He’s a poor kid who sold drugs, went to jail, and tried to find a way out through rap. He’s released a bunch of mixtapes, built a name for himself in his home region, started a group with perennial Young Money hanger-on Gudda Gudda. None of that qualifies as a hook, a reason for you to pay attention. But The Luca Brasi Story is the sort of mixtape that takes its time, sinks slowly in, gradually reveals all its different facets. The first few tracks are solid Southern street-rap, but I didn’t realize I was dealing with something special until maybe halfway through, or something outright great until the final song. At 22 tracks, the tape is arguably way too long, but there’s not a single weak one. And Gates mostly just sticks with the old and possibly tired topics of selling drugs and attempting to claw your way out of poverty, but that ends up not mattering. The beats are well-chosen, the choruses stick, and the verses are all exuberant clumped-up bursts of ecstatic rhythm.
Gates has a strong but generic voice. His Louisiana drawl isn’t too pronounced, and his delivery somehow triangulates T.I.’s ridiculous words-on-words forever-flow, Cormega’s dense thickets of crime-life verbiage, and Juvenile’s melodic snap. When he’s rapping, he’s having fun, playing around with word-sounds for verses at a time and taking evident joy in the connections he finds: “Shittin on you bitches that wouldn’t lend me a penny / Smilin every time I’m sticking my dick in one of your women.” (That Louisiana accent, mild though it is, does come in reason; it’s the reason he can rhyme “penny” with “women” and not have it sound weird.) And his amped-up delivery of complicated lines is worthy of Young Dro: “Never! Throw! The towel! Women steady! Screaming! “Wow!” / Cashmere ostrich interior, Pirellis! On the! Ground!” But Gates can also sing, and his melodic sensibility and his propensity for suddenly depressive real talk both feel decidedly post-Future, as when he considers a particular ladyfriend: “Let me slip and head back to jail, watch how many niggas she fuck.”
Gates also seems to have a whole ton at stake every time he raps. On a pair of tracks near the end of the tape, he weaves breathless narrative tales that vividly depict everything he’s got going on. On “What’s Understood,” it starts with a small and finely observed domestic scene: “Saturday, a few missed calls, with the TV on but I’m not watching / My brother reading car magazines, really into cars, like rim-shopping.” But a second later, he’s showing what’s going on now, how he’s constantly having to choose between rap life and criminal activity: “Obama just been reelected but who gives a fuck when the coke dry / Getting less for shows, gotta branch off into different markets.” Then, a song later, he absolutely blacks out a capella, urgently belting out a story about a deadly IHOP altercation, keeping time by slapping his own chest; it’s an absolutely staggering display of rapping-ass rapping, and it’s a perfect way to end the tape.
But through the tape, Gates also proves that he’s unafraid to try a bunch of different things, or to look like an absolute herb. “Marshall Mathers” is sad real-talk rap about knowing that you’re tearing your own family apart, Gates looking at Eminem as some flickering spirit of commiseration. “Narco Trafficante” is searingly catchy space-rap with a Spanglish hook that’s going to stick in my head every time I read the word “narcotrafficante” in The New Yorker or whatever. “Just Ride” has a Curren$y guest verse, and it perfectly interpolates his dazed skull-full-of-smoke style without forcing Gates to tamp down his fired-up delivery. “Ugly But She Fine” is ridiculously catchy old-school New Orleans bounce with a Master P guest-verse.
And on “Twilight,” I swear to fucking god, Gates spends a chunk of the song rapping from the perspective of one of the lovesick teenage vampires from Twilight: “Skin gleamin’, labeled a demon because I can’t even die / The curse of eternity, God created me but why?” Think about that for a second. How many rappers would even consider that? There’s an entire subculture of terrible nerdcore rappers, guys making livings talking about Star Wars and HTML code, and I don’t think even those fucks would try this. It’s Weird Al territory, if anything. And yet here we have a hard-as-fuck Baton Rouge rapper, a guy with teardrops tattooed on his face, doing this with absolute crushing sincerity and wringing a very good song out of it. The degree of difficulty there is nearly incalculable, and Gates pulls it off, like he pulls off everything on The Luca Brasi Story. This guy is something special.
Download The Luca Brasi Story at DatPiff.