Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates likes to claim his life is like a movie. He says so all the time. He said it on his booming Stranger Than Fiction single “4:30 AM” and yells it all over the place on his newest tape, By Any Means, which actually features a song called “Movie.” He even told it to the XXL staff when he visited the magazine’s office last fall. Seeing him in person, it’s hard to dispute the claim; massive, covered in tattoos and usually adorned with a proper southern bow tie, Gates looks like an over-embellished character you might see in an old gangster flick. His voice, deep, croaky and seemingly always on the verge of a shout, makes James Earls Jones sound like Truman Capote. As it were, it would be safe to say that he’s a larger-than-life character. But, ironically, that’s not why his die-hard fans like him. Instead, it’s the opposite: They see him as one of the realest MCs in the game right now—someone who’s both genuine and sincere. And on By Any Means, he comes off worthy of the acclaim, spitting vivid street stories that range from gut-wrenching to endearing all while demonstrating a serious knack for songwriting.
The key to Gates’ songwriting lies in his voice. Not only does he have a perfect drawl for going in over instrumentals of all kinds, but he also knows how to utilize it in every way possible. A good example of this can be heard on By Any Means’ thunderous opener, “Wish I Had It,” which shows Gates weaving in and out of the soaring instrumental using a variety of different flows, from a nasally bark to an epic wail. Each flow seemingly adds another layer of depth and catchiness to the song, hinting at a certain degree of pop sensibility. Of course, the song’s lyrics, which include sharp jabs at mainstream mainstays Flo-Rida and B.o.B, say otherwise and demonstrate that much of By Any Means is meant strictly for the street. On tracks like the aggressive “Homicide” and the swagger-filled “Again, Gates paints gritty pictures of life in the trap and is unapologetically straight to the point in describing what happens if you happen to get on his bad side. At points, these boasts come off generic, but Gates usually breaks up the monotony of his street speeches with quick injections of knowledge, like on “Can’t Make This Up,” when he spits, “Caucasian waitress named Rachel / Sayin’ I look like a drug dealer, you ain’t even waiting our table.”
When Gates does try to appeal to a broader audience, it doesn’t come off forced, unlike many street rappers of the past who’ve tried to translate their grit to the mainstream. His success mainly stems from the fact that his talent level allows him to do so. On the velvety “Go Hard,” which features a buttery hook sang by Rico Love, for example, he takes things down a notch, harmonizing perfectly with the muted trumpets of the background. And when the melodic piano line on “Movie” kicks in, Gates alters his flow to bounce right along with it. These tracks show how versatile Gates’ voice is, as well as his willingness to experiment with different sounds. Rather than dread the moments when he steps away from the pulsating 808s and trap-influenced content, you can’t help but get excited when you realize that Gates is using his voice to make his version of, say, a love song or, in the case “Get Up On My Level,” a radio anthem. This bodes well for the consistency of his future projects.
Like most other quality hip-hop releases, By Any Means also succeeds in part because of its quality production. Although the project’s instrumentals may not be as synth squelched as those heard on YG’s My Krazy Life or as blunted and crackly as the ones on Madlib and Freddie Gibbs’ Piñata, two other recent gangster rap releases, they’re large—built to crack your chevy’s sub woofer—and perfectly suited for Gates’ rhymes. What’s more, most of them were created by veteran producers like Jim Jonsin and The Runners, so even when things hit hard and mimic the Lex Luger sound, there’s almost always a catchy melody to sink your teeth into. Gates’ ear for production is just another reason why he deserves to be recognized as one of the most exciting and intriguing street MCs we’ve seen in a while. Get up on his level.—Reed Jackson