It starts even before he gets on stage, just as the DJ ends his set but still before the madness really takes hold. Sometimes it’s the DJ who starts it, sometimes it’s someone in his entourage, sometimes it springs organically from the swell of the anxious crowd. But it always happens, building until it fills a club in New Orleans or a theater in Baton Rouge with a singular chant—”Gates! Gates! Gates! Gates!”
Kevin Gates—the southern rapper who has started making monstrous waves in the hip-hop world over the past six months—has Louisiana roots that permeate his psyche in a way that he can’t escape. Born in Baton Rouge, he spent time in New Orleans before returning to the projects of his hometown, picking up the skills, stories and knowledge—and police record—that would help to define him as a rapper years later. But Louisiana also instilled in him a hopelessness and depression that is tough to shake, and that he wears on his sleeve to the point where he begins to sound like a broken record.
“There’s only two things to do here; that’s die and go to jail,” he says. “People here are very depressed. There’s a hopelessness around that really goes on. I didn’t care. And in the midst of me not caring, I would stop and make a few songs. I got serious about music by being incarcerated—you never know how much you love something until you’re unable to do it.”
The hopelessness, the lack of options for kids trying to get by or get out—Gates talks about all of it, and talks about it repeatedly. He paints a bleak story about his life in Louisiana in interviews without getting into specifics, and in doing so crafts a story for himself around that theme. To hear him say it—and say it, and say it again—you start to wonder about the motives behind it, whether he’s pushing this narrative of himself as a way of deflecting the new attention being heaped upon him since his star has kicked into hyper-speed off the strength of his February mixtape The Luca Brasi Story and his latest release, July’s Stranger Than Fiction. Asking him questions is like getting on a carousel—you’re constantly in motion, but you’re seeing the same sights over and over again. He only goes two places—the gas station and the recording studio. His life is not extraordinary. He deals with depression. All he does, all he spends his time thinking about, all he cares for, is making music. Nothing else, he says—and says, and says again—even enters the equation.
But when you sit down and listen to the music that he’s making, it’s hard to even imagine that Gates would be that calculating or manipulative, or even anything less than what he says he is. His music, based around unflinchingly real storytelling and a cadence and flow that are almost constantly in flux, is some of the most honest, gritty and emotional in hip-hop right now. Stranger Than Fiction tracks like “4:30 A.M.” and “Tiger” show off his gift for telling compelling and haunting narratives—first single “4:30″ in particular seems like it could have been ripped straight from a Hollywood screenplay, with its raw imagery relating the story of his life more vividly than he’s ever explained it outside the booth. No two hooks sound even remotely alike, which gives his projects a refreshing feel throughout without anything feeling old or recycled.