Kevin Gates will probably never become a big star. He’s too rough and raw, too wild and passionate. His presence is forceful and chaotic, and it’s hard to imagine corporate interests ever aligning behind them. Gates can sing and knows how to put together genuinely catchy songs, but he’s just as likely to rap furiously for four minutes with no break. He never seems to politic or strategize. He throws practically any moment from his life up on his Instagram, without worrying about how mundane it is. These are not things that rap stars do. It’s possible that Gates could ascend to somewhere near that Drake level someday, though it would take serious changes within the genre. Stranger things have happened, I guess, but Gates’ career right now appears to be exactly where it should be. The Baton Rouge rapper has a massive and rabid cult audience; he can sell out a decent-sized room in many, many American cities right now. Every once in a while, he’ll score a minor radio hit or turn up on a bigger rapper’s song, just as long as that other rapper doesn’t mind being totally overwhelmed on his own song. He’s also a constant threat to go viral in some way or other, thanks to his willingness to frankly discuss his own sexual freakiness, and thanks also to the entertaining and weirdly mesmerizing shit he throws up on Instagram all the time. That’s a fun lane for a rapper, but it’s not the same thing as stardom.
Here’s the thing, though: Gates can outrap anyone, at any time. There are lots of different ways to measure how good a rapper is. Some, like Drake or Kanye West, can create entire sonic universes that seem to belong entirely to them. Some, like A$AP Rocky or Drake again, are expert curators of rap trends, building sounds out of whatever’s floating around in the atmosphere at any particular moment. Some, like Killer Mike, carry enormous blustery authority with them. Some, like Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples, are masters at putting together dense and intricate lines. Some, like Kendrick Lamar, seem to crackle with energy and possibility, to carry the promise that the things they’re saying might matter. Some, like Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, are restless stylists, constantly playing around with flow and meter and melody and the way rap might be able to sound. Some, like YG, bring street-level personas that feel entirely lived-in and convincing. Some, like Nicki Minaj, bring a world-bending charisma, a personality big enough to transcend genre. Some, like Chance The Rapper, just make you feel good. Gates doesn’t do any of that. He can do some of it. He has his own sense of authority, he toys around with his delivery, and his drug-dealer character feels entirely real even if he also comes off as a deeply strange human being. But what Gates is is a bar-for-bar monster, a guy who puts enormous force and energy into every line that comes out of his mouth. Even if you can’t tell what he’s talking about, you can tell that he means it.
Gates belongs to a street-rap tradition that also includes current destroyers like Lil Boosie and Meek Mill. These guys are all capable of incredible moments of insight, or of storytelling power. (See Gates’ “IHOP” from a few years ago for proof.) But that’s not what they’re about. They’re also not formal innovators, and they’re not always songwriters, either. Instead, where they excel is in the urgency department. They sound like they’re grabbing you by the ears and screaming things directly into your face. There’s an intensity to those guys that none of the rappers in the previous paragraph, save Killer Mike at moments, can hope to touch. There aren’t too many quotable lines or memorable hooks on Gates’ new mixtape Murder For Hire. My favorite lyrical moment on the whole thing is a sort of humble offhand line: “Everybody sleeping on me, finally got it popping / Wishing I was with my children, watching Mary Poppins.” (Least favorite moment is the moment where I’m afraid he’s talking about me: “You tall and you can’t dress / Really, you annoying.”) Most of the time, his lyrics are dense and arcane criminal-culture stuff, lines about specific drug-dealing exploits or specific acts of violence he’s prepared to commit, things so far outside of my experience that they’re virtually impenetrable. But you don’t need to so much as speak the same language as Gates to understand the breathless energy he brings to everything.
There’s no sense of pacing to Murder For Hire, and a few of the songs don’t have anything even resembling a hook. And with this tape, that’s a good thing. Even more than on older tapes, Gates isn’t even remotely concerned with songwriting or with capturing a larger audience. Instead, sounds like he has things to get off his chest, whether or not they mean anything to you. He starts off songs sounding like he just woke up, his voice all craggy from sleep, and by the end of them he’s screaming. He’s all over the beats — staying in the pocket but still projecting the idea that he’s willing them to move faster, pushing them forward. On a song like “Khaza” or the tape’s intro, he sounds like he’s running from demons. When he locks in completely, he summons some hidden force, and it’s just mesmerizing. The one time I saw Gates live was at a badly-organized SXSW show where just about everyone on the bill failed to show up. At his allotted time, Gates came into the club through the crowd, came onstage without accompaniment and to no fanfare, and just started rapping his face off. For 20 or 30 minutes, he held that room in his fingertips, shutting up a crowd of industry vampires and tapping deep into his own internal sense of drama. Then he finished up and was gone, again to no fanfare. People were shaking their heads. Murder For Hire Feels like that show. It’s over in seven songs and something like 24 minutes, and that’s a good thing. Those 24 minutes are so bracing and intense that I feel exhausted by the time they’re over. And I don’t think there’s a single other person in rap right now who can do that.
1. Meek Mill – “Check”
In the new FADER cover story on Meek Mill, there’s a moment where Meek and his girlfriend Nicki Minaj are arguing over which of two songs should be the first single from his forthcoming album. They’re both apparently melodic pop songs, which seems ridiculous, since the Meek songs everyone likes are songs like this one, songs where he’s just rapping like he’s Jason Statham in Crank and his heart will explode if his adrenaline dips below a certain level.
2. Key! – “Cried In The Trap”
You’d have to imagine that a lot of people cry in the trap, right? Like, that can’t be a happy place. It’s not easy to walk the line between hard and weird, but this song does it enthusiastically.
3. Junglepussy – “You Don’t Know”
Junglepussy is doing a show at the Brooklyn Museum Of Art this weekend, which says weird things about the art world’s fascination with super-raunchy rap music. But she raps way harder that someone who should be rapping at art museums. The world may treat her like a gimmick, but she doesn’t carry herself like one.
4. Lil Durk – “What Your Life Like”
Durk sings so beautifully.
5. OG Maco – “Movies”
Maco supposedly hates “You Guessed It,” his flukey viral hit, and wants to make music that doesn’t sound all intense and screamy. I get that, but he is good at intense and screamy.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
We got new Boosie, Gates, Lito, and Rocky in under 72 hours on a short work week. pic.twitter.com/5Exo8Y9Zgp
— Ernest Wilkins (@ErnestWilkins) May 27, 2015