Kevin Gates is a lightning rod, a wild card of the highest order. His presence is both enlightening and stupefying, a dual characterization that he invites into all aspects of his life, whether it’s sharing his rigorous workout (and oral sex) regimen with Men’s Health, or rattling off figures of speech the likes of which the English language has never seen. Given his more quixotic tendencies, it’s not difficult to imagine Gates donning designer Renaissance fair attire to recite witty remarks such as “You might try to shoplift some of the ding-a-ling” or “The world full of lollipops, I can’t be just another sucker” between sips of piping hot coffee. Mind you, this is the same gentleman who released a hard-nosed (if delightful) interpolation of Joan Osborne’s 1995 smash “One of Us” in which he reimagined God as “a thug like one of us” who’s simply “looking for love in the club.”

Such is the world for hip hop’s most unexpected crossover star, one who’s refrained from making the more glaring commercial concessions that have beleaguered many of his contemporaries. He’s a gifted songwriter (and a radio-ready one at that) with a splendid ear for singing and rapping, a fluid stylistic combination that has helped define his appeal over the past decade. Beyond the self-effacing splendor of his music, Gates professes a fierce (if sometimes messy) candor that his loyal congregation of fans continues to swallow whole with each dispatch. Every song is a morsel of Gate’s unabashed self, his persona molded by the many masks he wears moment to moment. There’s Gates the amiable goofball, who christened Winnie the Pooh a “drug addict,” disclosed that eating ass is one of his “99 attributes,” and delivered a stirring rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” in what is to this day the funniest episode of Over/Under. Or how about Gates the ruthless street purveyor, whose sprawling and wildly popular mixtape series is named after The Godfather’s contract killer Luca Brasi. That’s to say nothing of Gates the winking Lothario, the devoted paper chaser, the bellowing old bull, or the hopeless romantic. All of these come together to make an emotive shapeshifter with an unwavering melodic conviction. And he sells it all with the same verve.

I’m Him, the follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed Islah, is the latest such character composite. It’s the product of a tumultuous past few years for Gates who, in late 2016, was sentenced to 180 days behind bars following battery charges for kicking a female fan at a show. From there, it only got worse: while processing Gates’ release, authorities discovered an outstanding weapons warrant in his name, for which he was slapped with a felony gun possession that cost him another 30 months in prison. Although he was eventually released on parole in January of 2018, the legal troubles stifled much of the momentum that Gates generated with his bar-setting debut. The frustration of being on the sidelines due to decisions that nearly cost him everything led to Gates penning a jailhouse letter to which his sophomore album owes its title: “A great person is measured by all of the great tests they can undergo and still remain true to who they are. With that being said ‘I’m Him.’”

Those words, an acknowledgement of who he was and who he’s become, marked a turning point, not just for Gates but in the overall tonal quality of his music. After spending the better part of his career worrying about external forces out to get him, Gates is now more concerned with remedying his own self-destructive tendencies, as evidenced by his demeanor in a recent interview with Complex. “I believe the key to happiness is self-accountability,” he told the hosts of Everyday Struggle. “I’m not where I want to be yet. But I’m damn sure gonna get there.”

The “id” that is Kevin Jerome Gilyard is at the forefront of his latest 17-track affair. Under normal circumstances, a project of such length would struggle to stay afloat due to sheer exhaustion. When paired with the absence of features, one might be inclined to think that there would be an unfortunate number of opportunities for solo floundering. And yet I’m Him is remarkably slim, with most tracks kept at a pithy two to three minutes. None overstay their welcome, and the scant misses are quickly drowned out by the gabby and gregarious Gates. His choruses are colossal and genius in their simplicity, gobbling up the available sonic attention until they’re fully marinating in their own juices. There’s a measure of grit that dots every word, whether they come out as belchy croaks or sumptuous rasps. He revels in the opportunity to belt out a tune with the best of them, his gusto oozing forth from every hook. Pain and vulnerability are the muses he latches on to, as if he’s gripping the shower handle in a moment of solitary, let-it-all-out reflection that most are too terrified to share beyond the confines of the bathroom mirror.

Gates’ pacing in moving through the different facets of his existence is impeccable and instinctive. “RBS Intro” sets the album’s tempo, with Gates puffing out his chest and pounding on it with a ferocity that could level high-rises. The song’s punchline (“I’m a real big speaker”) perfectly encapsulates his hulking aesthetic and indomitable will in the pursuit of self-improvement. Second track “Icebox,” a rumbling trap take on Omarion’s hit of the same name, is framed around a startling admission regarding Gates’ early relationship with his mother and how it has impacted his relationships with the other women in his life. Lines are crossed all the time by the ones we love, and Gates has come to understand that he’s as much a perpetrator as he is a victim. 

Instead of dulling the intensity through self-aggrandizement, Gates digs deeper into the psychological forces that beget action. Lead single “Push It,” a brute force, trash-talking anthem on which the rap game’s Kevin Garnett rears his ugly head, breathlessly barrels toward the realization that “my biggest problem in life was overcoming myself.” This gutted self-awareness is particularly potent on the Speaker Knockerz homage “By My Lonely,” on which remnants of Gates’ past life wash over the track in excruciating detail, everything from the smell of cocaine resin to the “texture” built up under his nails. “Walls Talking,” the album’s strongest entry, parlays Gates’ preternatural gift for big, soaring hooks into a therapeutic eulogy for his fallen cousin: “sometimes you gotta relive the past in order to heal from it.”

Even amidst this sincerity and the verbose yammering of other tracks like "Bags" and “Facts,” Gates the aphrodisiac manages to poke through. The lust-at-first-sight of “Say It Twice” finds the “pleasure activist” vying for the heart of a beautiful woman with a serenade that makes his penchant for catchy one-liners (“Tell ‘em that you at Allstate, tell ‘em you in good hands”) pop. Souped-up R&B crawl “Face Down” speaks for itself, as Gates channels his inner Trey Songz a la “Neighbors Know My Name.” He bumps up the BPM on strip club bop “Let It Go” and proceeds to play hide-and-seek with the pockets in a manner that could easily accommodate the likes of Juicy J and his Three 6 Mafia brethren. Even on the rough around the edges “Fatal Attraction,” Gates is in peak form: one minute he’s pondering the delicate powers of “falling under a love spell” and the next he’s “ringing your love bell” with the full-throated debauchery of a juvenile erotica writer. 

“Betta For You” and “Fly Again” round out the album in fine fashion, the former a sentimental relishing of fatherhood in which Gates promises to do right by his daughter, and the latter a staunch love letter to his wife that harps on his desire for companionship and devotion. Gates’ weathered tenderness is the quintessential vehicle for such musings, and he plays up the dichotomy between matters of the street and matters of the heart such that the margins between the two become sufficiently blurred. The collateral damage of his past is internalized through his integrity as a storyteller, lingering through unfiltered representations of the man behind the mic.

In 2019, few rappers are using their voice as well as Kevin Gates does. His emotional nakedness and fearlessness in examining his shortcomings and insecurities brings out the best in his music, and with all that happened in his absence, he’s now better equipped to address it. In taking stock of both outward stimuli and his internal temperature, the self-described “avid truth teller” with “articulation beyond measure” bares the darkest parts of his psyche with little more than a shrug and a carat-caked smile. I’m Him is indeed epic in nature, but forgoes the big-budget trappings that come with the “album” distinction for something more liberating. It’s a welcome addition to Gates’ discography, albeit one that isn’t particularly innovative. Rather, it’s more of a documentation of Gates’ current state, full of inspiration and blunt-force contemplation that enrich his story and herald the return of “his imperial majesty.” The main attraction, as always, is one of hip hop’s most irresistible personalities: a well-oiled, one-man show of clenched-teeth street codes, humble beginnings, and emotional immediacy that doesn’t mince words.