Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates has almost all of the essential elements that of a 21st century superstar. He can sing as good as he can rap,which gives his songs a musical edge that makes them appealing to a large audience. He can be dirty yet romantic, which means that he’s got the ladies on his side. He comes with a criminal past, prison record for drugs and guns, and a few shots taken, thus assuring his street cred. He raps about the streets in both a cautionary way and celebratory way, which gives his tales of crime and violence a moral center that makes them easier to swallow. He’s perfected these elements over a slew of mixtapes that has made him an artist that connects equally to the streets, the club, and the college kids. “The Luca Brasi Story” is another entry in the Kevin Gates story.
Gates’ music has the shiny gloss of mainstream rap peppered with some of the roughness of trap rap. The rough elements keep things from getting too jiggy, and the gloss ensures that his music rises above the deluge of mediocre street rap. Most importantly, Gates can actually rap. He’s equal parts T.I. (to whom he owes the whole Luca Brasi/Kevin Gates concept), Kendrick Lamar, and Drake.
“Paper Chasers” is a good example of Gates’ unique take on trap music. On the surface, it’s a standard drug rap song about selling coke. What sets it apart from the million other songs about the same subject is the fact that Gates sings most of his rhymes over 80s power ballad keyboards. While Gates is bragging about the illicit money he’s making, there is an air of desperation in his voice as he sings lines like “Live the hustle/Probably die/Gangsta and ecetera.” “Weight” is another example of how Gates makes old formulas seem fresh. It starts off sounding like a Waka Flocka Flame track, complete with a beat that sounds like it was lifted directly by producer Grizzly on the Beat from Lex Luger. Gates’ sing-rapping and intricate wordplay elevate the track.
If those two songs offer a new take on Southern rap, “Arms of A Stranger” takes things in completely new direction. The song sounds like an indie R&B track, with Gates singing about the pain of leaving his lover. “Every time the leaves start changing it’s the loneliest time of year” he croons. “Never meant to say those things/Cause you so much pain/Now my thoughts are so confused.” It all culminates in a chorus with Gates singing “Listen to my heart calling out to you/In the arms of a stranger/I’m calling out to you.” He sounds wistful and vulnurable, miles away from the swaggering coke dealer of his other songs.
Gates is aiming for something bigger than hip-hop with his music. He’s not content with doing coke rap over 808s and hi-hats. Instead, he instills his coke raps with the drama and bombast of a Nickelback song, belting the hooks in a husky voice like a black Chad Kroeger. This added musicality fills his songs out and makes them stand out. It can also come off as cheesy and overdone. Nickelback are one of the most popular rock bands around, but they are also one of the most derided. Their cheesy sentimentality is what connects them to their millions of fans, but also what makes their music so easy to make fun of. The 808s and power ballad production wears out its welcome over the course of “The Luca Brasi Story,” although it is effective in small doses.
Gates’ attempts to play the senstive thug feels dishonest at times. The juxtapostion between honest and heartfelt songs like “I Need It” and “Arms of A Stranger” can be disorienting, and it feels like he’s trying too hard to be all things to all people. It’s hard to root for a guy who brangs about being a “Narco Trafficante” on one of the tape’s worst songs. I realize that rappers often have questionable morals, but can’t we all agree that Mexican drug lords are NOT people to look up to?
I’m guessing that as Gates matures as an artist, we are going to get less rowdy anthems like “Narco Trafficante” and “Wylin'” and more pop-leaning songs like “Just Ride.” That song features a hook that is as sweet and hypnotic as the syrup that Gates is sipping on the cover and a guest spot by Curren$y. That’s fine with me. Despite his tendencies towards melodrama, Gates is at his best when he moves further away from Waka/Lil Boosie territory and sounds more like Kendrick Lamar or Drake. There are a million Souther rappers who can slur about bad bitches, but very few who can sing their hooks and make a trap song feel like a pop song. Kevin Gates has the skills to pay the bills, and I’m betting that when he finally gets around to releasing a proper album, he will blow up. Download “The Luca Brasi Story” so that you can say you liked his mixtapes better.