If you’ve ever spent too long speaking uninterrupted — teaching a class, say, or reading aloud to your kids — you’ve probably noticed your voice fraying and decaying, reducing itself to a husk more quickly than you might’ve thought possible. That zombie version of your own voice — grainy, creaking, drained of vitality — does not make you want to keep speaking. You have to think of a reason to stop talking, or you have to put your head down and just muscle through it. It’s not easy. But Kevin Gates raps like that. A couple of times on the new Luca Brasi 2 mixtape, Gates delivers technically fluid, emotive intense verses in a voice that sounds like his vocal chords have been rolling around in a vat of corrosive acid for a few hours. Consider, for example, the first verse of “John Gotti,” the tape’s third track. Gates delivers the whole first verse like it’s the middle of the night and he’s just woken up from an exhausting dream. But he gets through it, and he thrives. Rapping when your voice is like that has to be more difficult than doing it when your voice is at its healthiest, but it somehow adds to the urgency and intensity of Gates’ already-urgent-and-intense cadences. And as the verse draws to a close, he lurches into the weirdly perfect bluesy singing voice that he uses for hooks so often. Gates presumably recorded the verse and the chorus at different times, but the effect is that he’s shaken off the cloud that’s been hanging over his soul. And that’s Kevin Gates: The rare rapper who can deploy a sore throat like it’s a special effect.
I mention the creaky-voice thing for a reason: Kevin Gates always raps like he has things at stake. The creaky-voice thing is one way he does that, but it’s one among many. When Gates does the double-time speed-rap thing, he’s not just clustering syllables; he’s screaming them, incensed. His singsong hooks crash headlong into the verses, never giving his voice any room to breathe. Sometimes he does a whisper-to-a-scream thing, starting out a verse doing a weird insular technical rappity-rap thing and absolutely howling his lines by the end of it. On By Any Means, the tape Gates released earlier this year, he sounded like he was actively trying to curb that tendency, to rap like maybe things didn’t mean that much to him all the time. He got 2 Chainz for a feature. He sounded like he was trying to be cool, to relax, to show the world at large that he’s an approachable figure and not a vengeful rap demon. But he’s not an approachable figure. He is a vengeful rap demon. And on Luca Brasi 2, he doesn’t try to be anything else. He just raps hard as hell, sounding emotionally drained and purposeful the entire time, never letting up. It’s almost overwhelming.
Taken together, the first six songs on Luca Brasi 2 are practically a symphony of masterfully executed rap tension and release. Half of these songs — “I Don’t Get Tired,” “Perfect Imperfection,” “Out The Mud” — had made their way to the internet in advance of the mixtape. Heard in isolation, those songs were good. Taken all at once, they’re something else. They’re frantic and fearsome and unstoppable. The intro track is two and a half minutes of unrelenting, pulse-pounding, hook-free rap, and that tension never really lifts even when “I Don’t Get Tired,” the sort of R&B-singer collab that should offer a reprieve, kicks in. Even with August Alsina on board, “I Don’t Get Tired” is a massive and heart-pumping monster of a song, one that’s about thrashing around just to keep your head above water. The four songs that follow are much the same: Towering, anthemic, full of feelings that Gates needs to get off his chest right now. Elsewhere, Gates couldn’t drop that sense of purpose even if he wanted to. He’s too purposeful, too driven. “Thugged Out” tries to be a that’s-the-kind-of-girl-I-like sex song, but it’s about fucking on drug-den couches. A couple of songs kick into paranoia overdrive, warning drug dealers not to talk on phones ever. And when Gates goes into prison-flashback mode on “Don’t Panic,” the stress becomes almost unendurable: “Stand tall on my own, I don’t gangbang / I done seen it go bad on the chain gang / Seen niggas gang raped by they own gang members / Cliquing up with other gangs and they kill they own nigga.” On a song like that, Gates doesn’t sound cool or collected or in control. He sounds like he has things that he has to say, like he’ll explode if he doesn’t get them down on wax.
At this point, Gates is more famous than he’s ever been, which is great. But he’s more famous for eating booty than he is for rapping, which is a problem. In an interview over the summer, Gates talked about how much he loves eating booty, and the thing went viral on the rap internet, as these things will do. Gates doesn’t seem to have an issue with this. On the Luca Brasi 2 track “Pourin’ The Syrup,” he pretty much dives in, promising to “lick all in ya anus.” Good for him. You like what you like, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. But it would be straight-up tragic if Gates’ predilection reduced him to a human meme. He’s too good. He’s great, in fact. He might be the best underground rapper in America right now. He’s got an audience who he understands and who understands him, and he’s not threatening to break out to a wider audience anytime soon. Luca Brasi 2 seems to be the moment where Gates realizes this, where he stops chasing the shrinking rap mainstream and just is the greatest version of himself that he can be. Luca Brasi 2 is the greatest Gates mixtape since the original Luca Brasi Story, the 2013 tape that built his name on a national level in the first place. It’s a ferocious piece of work, and it’ll grow Gates’ audience more than any 2 Chainz collab would. People are going to realize that they need some fierce, high-stakes, urgent rap music like this in their lives, and they’ll find this tape. Luca Brasi 2 is too good not to be heard.
Download Luca Brasi 2 at DatPiff.