I saw a lot of rappers at SXSW this year — according to a few smart people I talked to, this was the year rap effectively took over the festival — but I only saw one who cared about rapping to the exclusion of all else. On a packed rooftop full of industry gladhanders, at a show where nearly every other prominent rapper on the bill no-showed, Kevin Gates summoned something. Eyes closed and face clenched, in a nondescript sweatshirt, with no friends or hypemen on the stage, Gates vented anxiety and anger and fear and joy, and while he was on, the exchange of business cards stopped, and everyone present let themselves be struck dumb. Gates is, by all accounts, a ground-up cult star in his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but everywhere else, he’s another name on the rap-blog circuit, and that needs to change. Because Gates is special. He’s a deeply emotive, scarred, tough, fearsome presence, an unreformed street-rapper who isn’t afraid to express love or terror or regret, whose husky boom of a voice speeds up to double-time Southern-bounce cadences or slows into cracked Future-esque choruses with shocking ease. His voice found its fullest expression on last year’s The Luca Brasi Story mixtape, a messy and fascinating near-masterpiece full of naked feelings and sharp storytelling. Gates is a major-label rapper now, with major-label connections, and on his new By Any Means mixtape, you can hear him attempting to hammer himself into something resembling conventional-rap-star shape. And the best thing about the tape is that Gates fails. Despite what he or his A&R department might be trying to accomplish, Gates remains himself.
Kevin Gates should be a rap star. I firmly believe this. But he should not be the sort of rap star who makes songs with 2 Chainz. Gates’s exposed nerve real talk and 2 Chainz’ triumphal dad-jokes simply don’t make sense on a song together. And yet there they are together on “Bet I’m On It,” trading good-life boasts and displaying less than nothing in the way of on-track chemistry. And there’s Gates again, alongside the rap&B nonentity Rico Love, both doing their best to make a generically pillowy sex-rap and falling flat. Plies, whose wounded-pitbull intensity has only increased since he stopped making hit songs, is a better fit on “Keep Fucking With Me.” But of all the shoehorned-in guest stars on By Any Means, the one who leaves the deepest impression is Doe B, the young Alabama rapper, on “Amnesia.” On his verse, Doe has a likable and clumsy goofiness that renders his sex-brags weirdly charming: “America’s next top model? / Right there in my condo? / And I don’t even know her name? / I just ask her for a condom?” Doe recorded his verse and his appearance in the song’s video before he was murdered in Montgomery late last year. Even when Gates is trying to make a silly song about shaking off past tribulations, he can’t escape pathos.
Even those songs with the guests sort of work, simply because Gates never lets up in his rapping. The husky grain of his voice is just an immensely satisfying sound, and his haunted, repetitive choruses inevitably get stuck in your head, whether you want them to or not. He’s the sort of rapper where every word he says seems to radiate the idea of consequences. On “Keep Fucking With Me” and “Homicide,” he sounds deeply upset by the idea that anyone would want to fuck with him. On “Just Want Some Money,” there’s a back-against-the-wall ferocity to everything he says. He never sounds greedy, and he lets need creep into his voice in a way that few rappers do. “Arm And Hammer,” on the page, is one of many, many drug-dealing anthems, but Gates’s delivery, especially on the hook, carries a rare and unnerving edginess — the sort of emotion you might feel if your job was a thing that could get you sent to prison for much of your life. The production, too, is just few shades darker and more florid than what you’ll find on the average Southern rap tape, and its stormy drama fits Gates’s craggy, blues-hangover singing drawl beautifully.
But the tape really takes flight when Gates leaves behind the stuff that major-label rappers are supposed to be talking about, going for narrative rigor and deep feelings instead. “Posed To Be In Love” is a troubling, disturbing song about a break up — talking to his ex, Gates threatens to “toilet-water drown you,” which yergh — but its risible domestic-violence talk comes with an overwhelming sense of betrayal. That same hair-trigger man-wronged feeling comes back again and again, even on the songs that are supposedly about overcoming those things, and Gates lays out his point of view plainly on a song like “Again”: “I’ve been abused by this cold, cold world.” And then there’s “Movie,” a song where Gates tells the story about his kids being born. It’s the same type of thing you’d come across on the TLC show A Baby Story, replete with details about birth complications and mad dashes to the hospital and that first fleeting moment of eye-contact with your kid. And as a person with kids, it leaves me flat and gasping. The song is a rare ray of joy in a very dark and untrusting album, and it’s a rare sign that Gates can do happiness as well as all-consuming suspicion. And maybe that should serve as a message to Gates’s A&R guy: If you want Gates to sound happy, let him talk about the things that actually make him happy, rather than the things that are supposed to make him happy.
Download By Any Means here.