Steven Louis does get tired.
I’ve started to view new installments of the stuff I like as minor miracles. The world is being run into the ground by assholes in such brazen bad faith, making it feel improbable to see things like Beyoncé at Coachella, or a LeBron James triple-double, or any human achievement on such a large stage.
New Kevin Gates music, in 2018, is a goddamn minor miracle. By his own admission, Gates has been in and out of the carceral system since he was 13 years old. He served three years on firearms charges shortly after his career’s inception; he was a two-time convicted felon before Stranger Than Fiction and By Any Means broke him to national audiences. The champion of Baton Rouge—capital of Louisiana, with an incarceration rate that outpaces every other state and most countries—emerged to top Adele in first-week sales with Islah in January 2016. Superhero shit.
Since then: 180 days in prison in Florida for misdemeanor battery, then a 30-month sentence in Illinois dating back to a 2013 gun charge. “I have a prior history, which most individuals from an impoverished environment will have,” Gates told DJ Vlad in a 2014 interview. “They use that to say, well, we can’t hit you with the habitual offender act, but you’re on your way to being a career criminal, let’s give him 30.” At the height of his celebrity, amid new battles with a justice system that has threatened compounded punishment his entire adult life, Kevin Gates was released from East Moline Correctional Center in January. Chained to the City was released last week.
It’s just three songs right in Gates’ wheelhouse, with a curious lack of commercial promotion, but damn does the Chained to the City EP feel special in my ears. It muscled its way to its listener; it found a way to exist. It’s another layer to the mythos that Gates dutifully embodies: The odds stacked against you don’t mean shit if you hustle by your own code and ride life’s oscillations with excruciating honesty.
The songwriting in Chained to the City is fueled by that trademark honesty and all the contradictions that come with it. Here’s how he starts the second verse of “Vouch,” the EP’s soaring middle track:
Still honor Tommy Wraith for everything he did for me, I was loyal
Got betrayed, it came with great disappointment
I thought we was under that law but your nephew’s an informant
Put the folks in my business, gotta set court appointments
Gotta suit up with lawyers, damn, this how we rockin?
They copyrighted my name and wanted one million dollars
The label laughed in my face, I had to pay out my pocket
Young Money closed the door and ain’t nobody wanna sign me
Travis Newman looked out, we in the apartment, we grindin’
If you want ’em wholesale, just pull up and we got it
Over icy keys, in Gates’ emotive croak, these kind of ruminations are haunting. They stay with you. What do they possibly sound like without melody? What shape do they take in the mind of the solitary prisoner?
A dispiriting number of careers in hip-hop have been truncated by the prison system. Bobby Shmurda got locked up months after going platinum and remains in a cell. 03 Greedo was just sentenced to 20 years. Chained to the City is, at least, momentary assurance that Kevin Gates’ run as an entertainer continues. “Making Salat, I ain’t miss a beat/Praise to Allah, made it out the clink/Alhamdulillah, praise be to God,” he begins on “Change Lanes.” He ends “Let it Sing” with a rant against his parole officer and the state-mandated GPS monitor strapped to his leg.
Kevin Gates has often served as a flawed vessel for the most broken parts of society to breed in. He also touches on subjects of lesser gravity, but the ability to even do that right now feels important. He sounds indignant, and humbled, and sensitive. I feel so fortunate to be hearing that all tumble out in real time. It’s the next confession from a challenged man, and it could’ve been erased from existence by the whims of a broken system. It’s three new Kevin Gates songs to listen to. It’s a minor miracle.