Kevin Gates continues to put it all on Front Street with his upcoming debut album, “Islah.”
No rapper conveys pure feeling like Kevin Gates. There’s the free adrenaline rush of “Paper Chasers,” the song that first got me hooked. There’s the less invigorating, but equally visceral, “Posed to Be in Love,” on which Gates’ jealousy almost manifests into violence — directed at the woman with whom he’s supposed to be in love. Fans cringed, myself included, upon seeing footage of Gates viciously kicking a teenage girl in the chest during a concert in Florida.
A few days after the alleged assault, Gates released “The Truth,” on which he addressed the “man in the mirror,” regretting his violent impulses while being careful not to eschew all blame from the victim. Of course, Gates made the furious confessional for his fans, but he knows the power of forgiveness lies not with them.
The controversial single will appear on Gates’ upcoming debut album on Atlantic Records, Islah, named for his two-year-old daughter, his firstborn (biological) child. In Arabic, her name means “to make better,” an effect she indeed had on Gate’’ life. After our interview, Gates laughed with several members of his team, likening the wait for his album to the nerves he felt while preparing for Islah’s birth. While talking with me, though, he didn’t make the upcoming project seem like a particularly significant achievement.
Two colleagues who had interviewed Gates warned that he might come across as “morbid.” Indeed, I wasn’t expecting him to smile for the camera. There was a stillness to the room as he sat and waited silently for the questioning to begin. The monotone dryness with which he answered the first few questions stood in stark contrast to the emotional outpourings found in his music. I soon began thinking differently about his signature motto, “I Don’t Get Tired.”
“I know a lot of people who didn’t want to get up and come to work this morning” — himself, most likely, being one of them. “Whatever you are, you know, you get sick of the repetitiveness, but you understand that it’s part of the conditioning phase, in order to get to the next level. And once you master that level, you go on to the next level of life. People who allow themselves to stay stuck or stagnant — they got tired. They didn’t keep striving. I don’t get tired of striving for what I believe in. I’m kind of self-motivated. I get it done, no matter what it is. Let’s just get it done. Planning ain’t gon’ solve nothin’.”
In this way, Gates’ brand is more blue-collar than a signifier of non-stop victory. Like anyone, Gates is susceptible to boredom, to apathy. Perhaps more than most, he’s prone to addiction and depression, both of which he’s forthcoming about in his music. His ability to keep working, despite his internal demons, and notwithstanding those that have been very much external for most of his life, is what makes him such a prolific artist. For better or worse, he accepted this life a long time ago.
“I got partners that got life sentences at a young age, and I had to step up to the plate and take care of their children. I’ve always been a caretaker of young people,” said Gates, speaking on his unspecified number of non-biological children. “Wishin’ I was with my children watching Mary Poppins,” he raps on “Khaza,” named for his one-year-old biological son, a particularly gruesome track on his latest mixtape, Murder for Hire. A few lines later, he imagines coming home to find that his daughter has been killed. Without a second thought, he goes eye-for-eye by putting his enemy’s child in an oven.
Why would he include such a horrifying tale on a song named after his son? It’s impossible for Gates to separate his infant children from the world in which he’s spent most of his life. Of course, his non-biological kids — in his mind, equal extensions of his person — have been with him before rapping led to a certain measure of security. He still, in part, sees Khaza through the eyes of Luca Brasi — the consummate protector, the “Godfather”-inspired character embedded into his persona, whom he’s portrayed in great detail on two of his most acclaimed projects.