Kanye West wasn’t in the room for the first Kanye West stage-crash of 2016. Instead, a random and stoned-looking young man wandered onstage as the panel from The Talk accepted a People’s Choice award, seizing the microphone and shouting out Kanye West’s sneaker line. In his few seconds of mic time, before Sharon Osbourne kicked him, this young man also shouted out the fearsome, cultishly beloved Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates and plugged Gates’ forthcoming album Islah. It was an incredibly awkward and dumb moment, but it was also, from a certain perspective, perfect. After all, there is less than a 0% chance that Kevin Gates will ever hear his name spoken, through legitimate means, on a People’s Choice Award stage. It just isn’t going to happen. The only way he has any hope of getting his name out there is with the help of weirdo guerrilla warriors like that young man, who later said that he crashed that stage “to inspire people, to inspire the world.” It’s probably the biggest moment of mainstream-media exposure that Kevin Gates will ever have. And it was weird as hell, which makes sense, since Gates is also weird as hell.
Consider the matter of “The Truth.” Last summer, when performing in a Florida club, Gates kicked a female fan in the chest. Footage of the attack soon went viral. Soon after, he was charged with simple battery. As shocking as it was to see a performer brutalizing a female fan in public, there is at least a road map for this sort of thing. The performer apologizes, faces the criminal charges, settles any lawsuits out of court, and then tries to move on. That’s not Kevin Gates. Instead, Gates responded almost immediately afterward by releasing “The Truth,” a song about how he was actually right to kick the girl. In the song, he says that she grabbed his dick over and over, even after being warned, and she should “have respect” for herself. Now: This is all objectively despicable. Men should not be attacking women, and musicians should not be attacking fans. This is all so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning. But to see Gates steering into the storm, angrily and forcefully justifying the things he obviously shouldn’t have done, it’s appalling and fascinating all at once.
The existence of that song is baffling, but maybe you can explain it as something he did in the heat of the moment, when he felt like he was under attack. Or, anyway, maybe you can explain it until halfway through Islah, that new album. Because halfway through Islah, “The Truth” appears. He put that song on his album. He’s not trying to distance himself from the time he kicked a teenage girl in the chest while performing. He’s making it an essential part of his persona. That’s not weird; it’s perverse. Gates has actually been signed to Atlantic for a few years, but his last few records have either been free mixtapes or the kind of self-released albums that exist in some sort of mysterious no man’s land between album and mixtape. And Gates has built up a rabid cult audience. He can pack rooms all across America’s Southern and Midwestern states now, and he’s encroaching on Europe, too. Islah could, theoretically, be the moment when he makes good on all that grassroots work and starts to cross over to a bigger audience. It could be that, but it won’t. Gates isn’t the type to let you listen to his major-label debut without reminding you of the time he kicked a girl.
This isn’t the only time he steers right into it, either. Before the whole kicking-a-girl episode, Gates went viral for saying, proudly and whenever possible, that he loves eating women’s asses during sex. It was a whole thing. So on Islah, during what attempts to be a tender lovemaking song, he offers concrete images like this: “Spit dripping down the crack of your ass, watching liquid drip all in your kitty.” And that’s the tension at work in Islah. Gates may or may not want to be a star, but Atlantic Records presumably wants him to be one. I can’t think of any reason why they’d throw Jamie Foxx, Trey Songz, and Ty Dolla $ign on “Jam,” an Islah bonus track. And while the proper album has exactly zero guests, it still has moments that feel like Gates trying to cross over. He’s always rapped about relationships and tenderly sung his own hooks in a weirdly pretty blues-croak. But on Islah, he does that more than usual. For the most part, he moves away from the visceral, smash-your-face-on-concrete bangers that helped him make his name. But if he thinks he’s going to get famous on that sort of thing, then why’s he including something like “The Truth”?
Still, Islah has moments that make good on the potential Gates showed on mixtapes like the great The Luca Brasi Story. The thundering “Really Really” didn’t make a huge impression when I first heard it, but it’s on its way to being Gates’ biggest song, and I can see why. It’s a grower, a song that sneaks up, forces you to howl its hook along before you even realize that you know all the words. Very few rappers, at any level of the rap ecosystem, are capable of a monster like “Really Really” or like “2 Phones,” another early track that’s taking its time gathering momentum. Gates is an uncompromising underground-rap force with a huge audience behind him, and that’s usually a great thing. But with Islah, he makes bad decisions and dilutes his sound. I’d love to see him get famous without doing either of those things. But one of the few things I can say for sure about Kevin Gates is that he doesn’t give a fuck what I want.
1. Cam’ron – “U Wasn’t There”
My favorite Cam’ron is the one who gets misty and specific about his drug-dealing days, shouting out random associates in random Ohio towns and wondering why he’s even still alive. Cam’s not the vicious presence he once was, but here, he gets that faraway look in his eye and goes into deep reverie mode. And he tells his own life story in the most plainspoken, least mythic way he’s ever told it.
2. Earl Sweatshirt – “Wind In My Sails”
Nobody ambles like this guy. Chance The Rapper says that he wants to start a rap group with Earl Sweatshirt, and can you even imagine? That would be like one of those moments when the Undertaker and Kane would team up and decide they wanted to with the tag team championship. Like, how is any other team supposed to compete with that?
3. AG Da Coroner – “Park Avenue” (Feat. Action Bronson & Roc Marciano)
Hardnosed New York weirdos go in over a vicious psych-guitar loop, and all is right with the world. It’s the length of a Ramones song, and that definitely doesn’t hurt.
4. Chris $pencer – “Supernatural”
Chris $pencer isn’t one guy; it’s a duo. It’s Vic Spencer and Chris Crack, two Chicago rappers who I should probably pay more attention to. Here, both of them talk grimy, virtuosic ’90s-style shit over a lovely little flute sample and a neck-snap drum chop. There’s nothing showy about it, but it absolutely works.
5. Tony Del Freshco – “Galaxies”
Everything on this list sounds extremely ’90s this week, huh? I have no problem this. Tony Del Freshco is a Houston rapper who sounds like Devin The Dude auditioning for De La Soul. Here, he raps about feelings.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
My new album is called 'Kanye'
— WAVVES (@wavves) January 27, 2016