I’m Just Trying to Get it How I Live: Kevin Gates’ Triumphant Islah

Doc Zeus explains how Kevin Gates' found mainstream success without pandering to mainstream crowds.
By    February 9, 2016

islah

Doc Zeus soundtracked Peyton Manning’s postgame speech with Luca Brasi 2.

It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the the music business. The winners and losers feel coldly deterministic, as if every prospective artist must scramble to appease some capricious god or risk being ground up by the music industry into a gelatinous pink slime. Like any form of capitalism, success in the music industry is never be completely based on merit. The right co-sign is invariably as important as great music.

The one true talent of the media industrial complex is perpetuating the success of the already successful. There are never many surprises on what artists get to reach the top (and stay there) when you see how the music industry is generally covered by the media that supports it. On Twitter, you can count the amount of fawning fanboyish reviews from “influential industry tastemakers™” the instant Popular Rapper X releases a new mixtape in real-time. After all, what is the hive beyond a defense for its regent?

But a funny thing happened when the weekly album sales report was released last Friday. To the surprise of many rap fans, music journalists, and industry figures alike, Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates’s commercial debut, Islah, sold an astonishing 112,000 records, landing Gates at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and putting him within spitting distance of industry titans Rihanna and Adele. To come so close to toppling two of the most massive artists in entertainment (a mere 502 units separate Gates from Adele for the number two spot) can be seen as a jolt to the entire industry, considering how little hype Kevin Gates received in the weeks before the release of the album—a week that megastar Rihanna dropped a heavily anticipated album ANTI that’s coverage dwarfed the coverage for Islah. 

Kevin Gates has been a genuine cult phenomenon in the south for the last several years, but the closest thing to mainstream notoriety he’s enjoyed was admitting to accidentally sleeping with his biological cousin to kicking a female fan at a concert. These actions ultimately took the focus away from the consistently dope music he’s released in recent years.

Selling over 100,000 albums was a refreshing surprise to many such as myself who thought that Gates’ music was overshadowed by his more in vogue contemporaries, Future and Young Thug. The surprise triumph of Islah can be seen as the fruit of Gates’ devotion to crafting a loyal audience, independent of mainstream hype, based instead on his tireless touring and the consistent release of his popular underground mixtapes.

So what makes Kevin Gates’s music so appealing to his fans that they would show out to support him in such large numbers? I believe it starts with his fearless honesty. Gates has a candid dedication to the truth unlike any rapper working today—he’s a gangster rapper who is equally unafraid to delve into his personal struggles with depression and lack of self-esteem, as he is to admit his unconventional sexual desires. Modern rap is littered with rappers who pay lip service to emotional honesty as a marketing device but unlike the disingenuous, passive-aggressive slut shaming raps of Drake or even Future’s ex-wife pettiness anthems, Gates’ is unafraid of turning a broken mirror inward.

He often raps as if he actually LIKES the girls in question (a novel concept I know), even when he admits that he’s far too damaged of an individual to fully reciprocate the way he knows he should. People can feel that because it’s human.  He’s not just using a falsetto or an alien auto-tune as a proxy for real emotion when it comes to his songwriting. There’s real empathy in his music that can be palpably felt.

Islah might be Kevin Gates’ most accomplished, brazenly honest album to date. Released in conjunction with Atlantic Records and his Bread Winners’ Association imprint, Islah offers Gates’ trademark melodically confessional songwriting but with subtle mainstream play to gain new fans beyond his core base.

Unlike many official major label debuts though, Islah isn’t littered with many nakedly crossover big name guests or songs that read like awkward industry compromises. Nothing on the album forces the issue in its attempt to be broadly appealing. It’s all classic Kevin Gates. In fact, the two biggest tracks on the album, “Really Really” and “2 Phones,” are the most street-oriented songs on the entire album. Instead, there is a stronger focus as ever on catchy, earworm hooks and artful songwriting that deals with the complicated and often ugly relationships that exist in his life.

Gates never shies away from uncomfortable subjects. “The Truth” addresses the ugly incident in a Florida club where he brutally kicked a female fan on stage when she attempted to grab his crotch during a performance (The fan pressed charges with the authorities after the incident.). Gates gives his side of the story, taking blame for his violent overreaction and apologizing.

Other humanizing moments like “Told Me” gives us insight into why Gates is like he is. On the track, he expertly narrates the frustrating circumstances of his life that leads to terrible thoughts of suicide and his struggle with depression. Not that the entire album is all depressive doom. “Ain’t Too Hard” is be a sweetly devotional ballad and the album’s two lead singles, “2 Phones” and “Really Really,” are anthemic street singles of the highest order.

The music might be moody but it’s never melodramatic, employing minor key piano and synths that are typical of his catalog while stil taking the opportunity to throw the occasional curveball. “Hard For” effectively utilizes an alt-rock acoustic guitar and a stomping percussive track to a tell tale of tumultuous but devoted monogamy.  “You’re the only one that my dick will get hard for/I’m confused what the fuck you want my heart for” are classic Kevin Gates lyrics at one moment both charmingly scatological and deeply poignant.

Kevin Gates has one of the most versatile voices in all of rap music. He’s capable of transforming the natural gravelly drawl of his rapping voice into a sweetly melodic singing voice in an instant. His mastery of both cadences gives him a decisive edge over many of his contemporaries, allowing him to seamlessly blend hard-edge technical mastery with a softer side. Islah showcases the versatility of his voice to great effect.

You can easily count Islah as rap’s first great album of the year and it shouldn’t be forgotten when it is time to add up scorecards at year’s end. Kevin Gates has done a remarkable job translating his status as modern cult hero in the South into an artist that can go toe-for-toe with music’s heavyweights on the charts strictly on the strength of a devoted following. The next step is to see if a genuine oddball like Kevin Gates can sustain this success and become a mainstream star. Gates undeniably has the charisma and songwriting chops to make it happen, but it has yet to be seen if all music fans are ready for an artist that doesn’t pander to the worst instincts of millennial ennui. Can you get over on the strength of being really, really real? Let’s see if the next hundred thousand sales say yes.