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The album/mixtape/EP distinction is usually just an exercise in semantics, but it’s different with Kevin Gates, because everything is different with Kevin Gates. The Baton Rouge emcee has dropped stellar, deeply-felt projects over the past few years, like a third Luca Brasi installment and a By Any Means 2 mixtape released while Gates was incarcerated. Even earlier this year, he put out a fantastic collection of songs with Only the Generals Gon Understand, including a soul-snatching all-timer in “Yucatán.” But I’m Him is the album, and on albums, it feels like Gates enters a sanctified, razor-sharp headspace. Again, it’s just different.
This is the official follow up to Islah, the studio debut that went platinum with no features … then fucked around and went double-platinum with no features. Named after his daughter with Dreka (his wife and business partner), Islah occupied a higher ground than his prior discography. Hooks were bigger and more cinematic, confessions more searing and specific. Colors were intensified, and characters became unshakable, with motives darker yet all the more clear. The stage got a lot bigger, but expanding it was a game of inches, every one carefully fought for. On Islah, the man took zero interest in recalibrating his moral compass or toning down that glorious, beautiful weirdness.
How do you accurately render the sheer force that is album-level Kevin Gates? He is Bugsy Siegel with a chalice full of lean and a Nicholas Sparks book by the nightstand. He is a therapy session with the force of a tropical storm, an other-worldly blues musician who just so happens to be one of the best rappers living. If there was any doubt as to how Gates was coming on I’m Him, here’s the opening verse of “Icebox:”
“I‘mma get it all out right here, you heard me?
This my healing process, you know what I’m saying?
First time I ever been disappointed, think it came from my mother/
I subconsciously engage in things that’s makin’ me suffer/
And this in turn has an effect on how I deal with a woman/
I try to turn ’em against their family just to prove that they love me/
I put that iron on your cousin, I put that iron on your brother/
And when they draw the chalk line, pretend that I don’t know nothin’”
It’s shockingly intimate, a weighty narrative delivered with cold rhythm. Maybe it then becomes apparent that, for the Bread Winners Association general, albums are actually testaments, revelations, theses on self. Fuck your black turtleneck, this is not a TED talk, because Gates isn’t offering advice or any transferable expertise. This is a soul decanting and leaking out, in four-minute intervals. Of course there are no features on here. He’s not doing it for us, as listeners or even consumers. He’s doing it for Kevin Gates, and the people that matter most to Kevin Gates. He raps and sings like he will explode if he doesn’t do it. He’s him, a true one-of-one, and this album is a lucid invitation inside the mind, heart and viscera of a sensitive 33-year-old superstar. Take advantage of the opportunity.
“By My Lonely” is the closest thing to a collaboration, in the sense that he interpolates the immortal Speakerknockerz and his breakout hit from 2013. He also brings back a famous line from 2013’s “Neon Lights” during the album’s closing song, a salute to Dreka called “Fly Again.” Kevin Gates doesn’t repeat himself, but he does re-contextualize the memories and feelings that inform who he is right now. His voice cracks, creeks, soars throughout the delivery. The man has been rung through the criminal justice system since the age of 13, and he harbors resentment over time taken away from him. It’s felt all throughout the album, particularly pronounced on “Have You Ever” and the aching, ruminative “Walls Talking.”
He was also considered a black sheep in his family, as referenced on “Funny How.” Forgiving people is challenging. So is forgiving yourself for allowing the influence of others to affect your self-worth. Kevin Gates deals in specificity, because he is a culmination of all his experiences to this point. Emotions don’t connect linearly to single actions or occurrences. I’m Him is a lifetime of compounded betrayal, pride, love and self-realization. There’s so much to share, so much he’s assumed and shouldered. As the fantastic album intro declares, Kevin Gates is a real big speaker.
“Some people feeling left out, I’m grinding all last year/
If you know me then you know ’bout my year before that year/
I was locked behind the fence being discriminated against/
Now I got entertainment women wanna be intimate with the kid/
I been workin’ out on my heart, I’m trying diligently to forget/
Then remember what you did, it’s been difficult for to forgive”
That’s Gates on “Bags,” perhaps the most catchy and haunting song on I’m Him. Last year, Kevin was released from a correctional facility in East Moline, Ill., serving a sentence that stemmed from a 2013 gun charge. While he was locked up, his close friend Mazi was gunned down in Atlanta, something he then somberly explains to his young son Khaza on “Betta for You.” He converted to Islam and went to Mecca for hajj. He got banned from visiting all Louisiana prisons after he brought money to his father, Lee Lucas, who has been serving a life sentence since 2000. Every element of the story compounds. The way he makes music, you would think Kevin Gates carries every last thing that he’s ever felt or experienced. The mythos grows larger with each record, as a great American storyteller finds more stories to tell. That’s a Real Big Speaker.
Like all compelling speakers, Gates keeps you guessing throughout his presentation. The lead single “Facts” is buoyant and big-chested, while “Push It” is an inspired call to shed your dad bod. And like all good therapeutic endeavors, there’s a lot of sexual fantasy and specific things about butts and tongues and whatever. But for what it’s worth, “Say It Twice” is a charming and extremely polite love song:
“How you doin’? My name is Kevin/
I was just comin’ to tell you hello
I hope that I didn’t make you uncomfortable/
With this gesture, don’t mean to scare you/
I was feelin’ your energy when I walked in, psychokinetic/
If you want me to walk away, then I will, I won’t press it/
Allow me to let you enjoy your night, I won’t get offended, no questions”
Your fave would never. Or maybe he/she/they would. It doesn’t matter, because they’re not Him. Kevin Gates is Him, a fascinatingly fluid songwriter with contagious emotional intelligence. His openness is startling, and despite achieving all this success, Kevin knows that rotten memories will still plague his conscience, that melancholic and paranoid feelings will still pop up at random. Worse, he knows that relentless rush of feelings will come for Khaza and Islah as they grow in his likeness, and he can’t do anything to fight it for them. As a musician, he’s fully-formed, but as a father, he’s figuring out his powers and limitations. On the whole, I’m Him is Kevin Gates exercizing all his talents with bravado and honesty. You can listen to it, but it’s probably more important that he just made and released it. Audience isn’t really a consideration. The Real Big Speaker speaks for himself, pacing the room as he unspools the tremendous weight of being, well, Him.