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 Gates' 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.
Gates has released three mixtapes in the past two years. Two of those might as well be called albums -- not just for their quality but that both By Any Means and Luca Brasi 2 charted in the top 40 on Billboard despite being available for free on all mixtape platforms. He's also managed three headlining tours and has another, in support of Islah, around the corner that will take him to Europe.
While discussing Islah, his focus is still on the work and not the reward. "If I wasn't doing this, I wouldn't be able to provide for my children. So I would be laying down on them...it puts things into perspective, like, if I ever want to go buy a chain, I gotta be like really, really rich."
"It's coming. Sooner or later," he said with a sigh.
Islah will likely earn him more money than any of his previous projects, but, really, it's just another product of his endless hustle. He didn't even know if "Kno One," his most successful single this year, would make the album. "I make too much music to know -- to stop what I'm doing and worry about 15 or 16 songs."
"It's just constant, a continuation of what's already understood. We don't get tired."
His work-over-reward mindset was reiterated when, at the end of the interview, when he was probably supposed to give an album "pitch," he offered some final words on Islah. "I'm supposed to be promoting the album, but I feel like, you can get it if you want to. If you don't want it, don't get it. I don't care. I don't care if you go get it or not. I'mma continue to make great music."
Many great rappers constantly market themselves as great rappers. Though Gates doesn't lack business savvy, in the rap game, he's an artist -- not a promoter of his own artistry. For that he has his longtime partner, Dreka, the mother of Khaza and Islah, whom he just married, on October 18. Dreka, who runs Gates' imprint, Bread Winners Association, likely knows how to sell Kevin Gates to the public better than he does.
Of course, sitting down for an interview is a form of self-promotion, which he'll do, as long as it keeps him moving forward, but even then, he's reluctant to open up about his music. He's found a way of making sense of his experiences by turning them into raps. And though he's allowed his fans to be on the receiving end of these gripping stories, he still holds his painful memories close to his chest -- and guards them closely.
"Half the time it's hard to talk about the music because you gotta think: I might've just made a song about death in the family, or the woman I really loved not being where she was supposed to be for me, you know what I'm saying. But that's the way I vent. So I could be normal in society. I punch on my punching bag, and I vent that way."
Gates' biological father died of AIDS in February of last year. His grandmother, the woman who raised him and the woman whom he calls his mother, died this past March. He's dealt with depression throughout his life, but it's not as though his recent success has kept him free of tragedy.
If his depression ultimately stems from his experiences, it manifests itself internally. Rapping has provided him with a medium to express his innermost thoughts. In his natural gift, he's found a therapy that also happens to be a means of providing for his family. Those who suffer with depression, though, know that one's coping mechanism can be a double-edged sword.
"Anybody that's borderline brilliant -- they're gonna suffer with depression. Cause you don't see the world how other people see the world. You see it for what it is. You see it different. And because I see it this way, I don't have a lot of happiness in my life. I have happy moments. But I'm not about to say I'm a happy camper."
The irony is that his grief, his sadness, his rage -- and the brilliant stream through which he expresses it all -- has (almost) made him a part of a society to which, because of those same emotions, he inherently feels alienated.
"People relate to it because I guess I epitomize what it is to be a human being. I make mistakes. I have my up times, my down times, and, you know, the world gets to witness it. I put it all on Front Street."
As listeners, we recognize his authenticity. It often takes an anti-hero, a "perfect imperfection," to bring such humanity to our ears. Let's not forget that the place from which it comes is just as real as the music itself.