Steven Louis wasn’t invited to Connie Corleone’s wedding.
The environment that raised Kevin Jerome Gilyard was constructed, carefully. It started in 1975, 11 years before he was born. A judge had sided in favor of four Black prisoners at the Angola state penitentiary, and the ruling, Williams v. McKeithen, called for federal oversight of Louisiana’s penal system. New Orleans D.A. Harry Connick proudly flouted any suggested reforms, however, and the state at large responded to the overcrowding jail crisis by merely decentralizing and converting schools, hospitals and other state properties into parish prisons. Both prison populations and per diems for sheriff departments increased drastically under governorship of the craven, bloodthirsty David Treen, who was Louisiana’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
By the time Kevin was a child, Louisiana had become the prison capital of America. He was funneled into the system at age 13, and he’s been in-and-out of jail for his entire adult life. The recidivism rate is now almost a coin flip at 43 percent. The current governor celebrated when the state moved from highest to second-highest in national imprisonment rate.
Kevin Gates raps and sings directly about his experiences in a broken criminal justice system. He also raps and sings a lot about people leaving him, people betraying him, people getting violently snatched away. About solitary loneliness, about artificial judgments and punishments. Loyalty and love and the forces that can dissolve them. About all the things coded deep in his bones, raised in a place where jailing the impoverished and people of color is an economy, and a culture.
Luca Brasi 3 marks Gates’ first full project and tour since his release earlier this year from the East Moline Correctional Center in Illinois. He served nine months of a 30-month sentence for weapons charges and parole violations. Simply put, the project fuckin bangs. The man is still in his prime.
One of the singles, “Great Man,” can contend with all the best songs from the amazing Luca Brasi trilogy. This third installment is 18 songs, zero features. It’s deeply and intensely confessional, though never discomfiting. It’s intimate but far from laborious. And above all, it’s about imprisonment, in its many forms. From the first track, Kevin Gates lays out his tumultuous year in vivid detail — on “Discussion,” he raps:
Thank you God, look what I accomplished
Inside support system awkward
Take time or trial only options
Division nine, no PC in Chicago, fighting drama
My relationship getting rocky
No spousal trust, I was moving unconscious
I was talking with Jay and [redacted] recruited a move that allotted me counsel
Back and forth without representation, embarrassing, ran out of options
Told my attorney go get with the DA, he come with a deal and I’m coppin
Aiming for 36 months but he came with a 30 so fuck it I signed it
He think I’m stupid, fuck what he think, I ain’t fight with them crackers I got out they way
The music is brisk, the soundscapes cold and spacious to accommodate such intense disclosure. Gates has always been a phenomenal rapper from a technical perspective, and this is his most aggressively-paced project since Stranger Than Fiction. It plays with urgency.
Gates’ voice remains a tremendous weapon with endless versatility; on “Servin H,” he starts the hook in a particularly drawling, emotive baritone with, “trap in the trenches I’m selling Hermes, H in syringes with zombies, oooh yeah.” It makes me jump out of my skeleton. The flex lines, the fun lines and the open-hearted lines are all delivered with the same soul, the same flavor. Sometimes it’s all strung together, and it’s up to you & I to make a choice about how it feels or what it means.
No one zone is adhered to for long, and it’s a testament to Gates’ fluidity as a songwriter and a performer that 18 tracks presenting wildly different moods can feel seamless. Kevin Gates’ mind races, and he seems to have a razor-sharp memory, and the listener becomes the confidant as a result.
Sometimes it’s seering, sometimes it’s unabashedly horny, sometimes it’s random — one of my favorite moments in this dude’s discography is still when he started a verse, apropos of nothing, with “my favorite book The Notebook by author Nicholas Sparks” — no matter what, it always comes off as sincerely human. One thing that’s clearly been on Gates’ mind is the evolving relationship with his wife, Dreka, who birthed his children, Islah and Khaza, and was the executive producer of his material during the jail sentence. The hook to “Find You Again” is crushing, a gorgeous piece of American blues:
This is a burden that none of us want
The judge broke us up when I went back to court
Sentenced to time and it tore us apart
Beautiful creature, I know what you are
Prayed no one else get control of your heart
I hold it down, I was built for this part
Been away too long…
What Gates narrates at the beginning of the song, and what he touches on throughout Luca Brasi 3, is how brutally hard it can be to emotionally assimilate back into life after incarceration. His wife, his children, even friends — “look in the mirror, what do you see? I see somebody dealin’ with heartbreak, when I love a nigga my heartache” is how “Great Man” begins.
He divulges further in “God I Trust,” in which an ultra-proud man asks Allah to break him down and build him back together. He’s expressing more humility, without losing his boisterous self-confidence or veering toward the maudlin. It never sounds like a therapy session, the way so many albums about redemption and freedom can, but we do walk away from Luca Brasi 3 with an arresting clarity, an understanding of the man’s recent struggles & triumphs — how inescapable they felt on Baton Rouge’s Carolina Street, how embedded they still are in his blood, and how it might always be that way, a generational anxiety forever in the making.