words by Jack Spencer
photos by Adam DeGross
Kevin Gates carries an immensity with him that's hard to fully realize until you're in the same room as him. It's certainly present in his music, a consistently weighty and emotionally-charged powder keg of pain, triumph, and willpower seasoned with Actavis and a Southern snarl. The Baton Rogue-bred rapper has honed a particular skill since 2008's "Get In The Way" with soul-baring, gravelly-voiced hood lyricism, not unlike his early career cohort Lil' Boosie, but there's few rappers you can reasonably compare Gates to, as his approach is defined by its distinctiveness. Combining raw, unflinching honesty with an unmatched attention to detail and uniquely gritty pop sensibility, Gates is able to transcend the material that inspires his work and create a style wholly his own. It simultaneously pulls from the grimy detailing of trap, the lyrical immediacy and emotional baring of Tupac-era gangsta rap, and the solidly-crafted earworm hooks of auto-tune-driven radio rap, yet manages to not quite fit any of these molds. It's harsh and catchy, stirring and difficult, club-ready and isolated.
His physical presence - the gruff and tattooed frame, the menacing sneer, the emphatic gesturing - really drives home his power as a performer, adding dimension to the already larger-than-life music. Kevin Gates demands attention, at times literally: At one point during the Fine Line show, he threatened someone in the front row, if they didn't keep their eyes on him he would "give him the hands." He'd interact with the audience often, and the aim was to forge a real connection with the listeners. He opened up about depression, tribulations with former friends, and his experiences growing up in poverty and bouncing between prisons. Emanating the stress, eroticism, and bombast of every lyric, the tricky dance between attraction and intimidation defined his performance. It's compelling and repellant, highlighted by the raspy harmonics of his world-worn voice.
Coming off the rising success of his latest mixtape Luca Brasi 2, Kevin Gates seems to only be getting more prominent as he refines his rough-around-the-edges anthemic trap. Nearly every Kevin Gates song claims millions of views on Youtube, highlighting the crossover potential he's locked into the blueprint of his songwriting, with hits like "Satellites", "Neon Lights", and his personal hustle theme song "I Don't Get Tired" being among his best known work. But every song he played in concert felt like a national hit in terms of audience reaction, showcasing his ability to connect with ears. Tinged with an aggression and an at times uncomfortable openness, the music is often ugly but always captivating. He played a wide range of songs, often cutting the beat to nothing but his voice and booming bass drums to emphasize the weight of the words. In this sense, he's a traditional sort of lyricist in a way few rappers today can match, using specificity and personal experience over dull brags and tired retreads. He's referred to his life as a movie, and there is indeed something cinematic about his live set: Gates heightens drama and intensity as he dips between songs about dealing drugs, being shot in the face, downing lean, and emerging from adversity. The music itself bleeds, and the concert felt more transcendent than simply a performance of songs.