Kevin Gates remains one of the most fascinating personalities and talents on this return to his longstanding "Luca Brasi" series.
In places where most rappers opt for flexes or highfalutin bars that offer little in the way of emotionally revealing honesty, Kevin Gates always chooses to put his psyche on full display. There's no filter, no curation of thought in his music. On Luca Brasi 3, as usual, this results in self-improvement goals ("I'm trying better ways of living decent") as well as uglier, more selfish sentiments ("The minute you hurt me, you gotta leave"), and nonchalant oversharing ("I done fucked my wife with you, that's just how that shit is"). Coming out of Gates' mouth, none is more sincere than the other. All of it feels 110% sincere. The most seemingly mundane details are treated with the same heft as life-and-death situations and heartbreak. He says some wild shit, then turns around and says some Hallmark card shit.
In an op-ed entitled "The Morality Wars" that was published last week in the New York Times, writer Wesley Morris questions criticism that confronts art and artists' "moral correctness" more so than it reckons with the actual art therein. "It can be hard to tell when we’re consuming art and when we’re conducting H.R.," he writes, citing the now-frequent dismissals or "cancellations" of problematic artists. Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, he's right that more criticism than ever is based in ethics and less in aesthetics. Reading Morris' piece the same week Luca Brasi 3 dominated my listening habits, I could think of very few recent artists whose work is more inherently linked to problematic behavior than Kevin Gates.
If you know Gates' name, you know a mildly to severely fucked-up story about him. He's "What about black-on-black crime?"-d the Black Lives Matter movement, (joked?) about doing heroin, claimed to have kicked a woman out for not sucking his pet dog's dick, (again, joked?) about fucking his cousin, and you know, kicked a female fan in the chest. For the last incident, Gates served time behind bars and offered up apologies that vary in their admission of guilt and repentance, and it's completely understandable if some former fans still remain unable to enjoy his work after the fact. At its worst, Gates' behavior rivals that of the most abhorrent celebrities. What makes his case unique is how without fail, he never hides even his ugliest faults when making music. Part of the shock about Bill Cosby's sexual assaults was his history as TV's wholesome family man. The Louis CK stories were also surprising given how many comedy fans viewed him as some degree of "woke." You'll never hear Chris Brown offer a detailed account of beating Rihanna in his music; the only time Dr. Dre's ever addressed his assault of Dee Barnes on-record was with a playful "I'ma kill you, motherfucker" after Eminem mentioned it on "Guilty Conscience." Kevin Gates never plays down his mot indefensible actions, and in fact, one of his main uses for his music seems to be exorcizing these demons. This doesn't make him more defensible than the next guy with his rap sheet (then again, who on Earth shares Gates' very singular rap sheet?), but it does make his art a fascinating emotional and ethical battleground.
Luca Brasi 3 has plenty of signature Gates moments you almost wish weren't there. He says "Bitch, I'm really retarded" in at least two songs, and while he has thoughtfully examined his own mental state in the past, doing so this bluntly and inaccurately cheapens his more studied self-reflection. There's the odd spoken word intro to "I Got U," where Gates exclaims, "I ain't got no family!" amid several other songs about how much he cares for his family. Most glaringly, Gates titles a song that has absolutely nothing to do with outing male predators, "Me Too." On one hand, this guy seems so aware of his every emotional flare-up; on the other, he's often ignorant of his most obviously offensive behavior.
This would all be inexcusable if Gates' open-heartedness didn't encompass more positive emotions. "Me Too" may have an utterly tone-deaf title, but it's a fairly sweet love song. This dude clearly cares about those close to him, and for every overly protective "Pray no one else get control of your heart," there's five moments that show how deeply Gates feels everything (such as "When I love a n**** my heart ache"). He's passionate to a fault, and that results in a display of emotions few other musicians opt to (or are able to) tap into.
So many rappers in the post-Skooly era seamlessly switch between rapping and singing, but what Gates does better than pretty much everyone outside of Future is parallel those switches with transitions between sensitivity and toughness. He shows that the two aren't mutually exclusive. Luca Brasi 3 is a departure from the more uniform Islah and a return to the more varied emotional territory of the two previous installments of the mixtape series. Trap talk is interspersed with love songs a regularly as Gates' flaws are interspersed with his admirable traits. Gates is a work in progress as a person— to some degree, everyone is, but Gates might be more so than your Average Joe— and he'll willingly admit that, but at this point his career, he's figured out a way to depict that on-record that makes his music anything but transitional.