The best way to understand Kevin Gates is to simply listen to his music.
“Whatever I’ve been through or I’m going through, I’m putting it out there in the songs,” the Baton Rouge rapper affirms. “If I tell the truth about me, what can the world say? I’d love to be accepted, but I’m not seeking acceptance. If you are a fan, it’s because you’re a fan of who I am psychologically, emotionally, and individually. The world can relate to a human being more than it can relate to a superstar.”
Chances are, you’re going to relate to his full-length debut album, Islah [Breadwinners Association/Atlantic Records], because of that honesty. The title—properly pronounced ees-la—is also the name of Kevin’s first-born daughter, and in Arabic the word means, “to reform.”
Since releasing his first mixtape Pick Of Da Litter in 2007, Kevin’s rise to success has been organic. Following his release from prison in 2011, he doubled down and delivered with a hyper focus that yielded 2012’s audience favorite Make ‘em Believe and 2013’s mainstream breakthrough The Luca Brasi Story, building one of the most dedicated and diehard fan bases in music. Upholding that impressive grind and capitalizing on this inspiration, 2014’s By Any Means bowed at #17 on the Billboard Top 200, moving over 17,000 copies upon release. Only nine months after that, Luca Brasi 2 entered the Top 40 with 26,000 units sold first-week, touting his biggest hit to date, “I Don’t Get Tired (#IDGT)” [featuring August Alsina]. XXL named him part of the revered 2014 “Freshmen Class,” and he received praise from Rolling Stone, Noisey, Pitchfork, Complex, Spin, The Fader, and more.
Given that success, it’s surprising that he might acknowledge any need “to reform,” but he does nevertheless.
“If you go back to my old mixtapes, I was wild and out of control,” he admits. “Now, I’m trying to be better and grow. My daughter did that for me. As a kid, I became introverted. I didn’t have a lot of the things that the popular people around me had, so my self-esteem was low. My daughter looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘You’re so beautiful, daddy.’ She was the first person to ever tell me that. It just changed the way I look at myself in the mirror. That changed my life. It was never about me, but now it’s really no longer about me. It’s about me being able to provide for my family and the people I love. I’ve got to go harder.”
Islah represents that mindset and the culmination of his work thus far. The single “Really Really” balances cinematic production with an unshakable chant, while Gates delivers autobiographical verses, recounting his own story.
“It’s about really really being who you are as an individual and not apologizing for it,” he goes on. “That’s what it is. I can feel the growth from my first mixtape to now. On every song, I want to give you a piece of who I am as an individual. ‘Really Really’ does that.”
Elsewhere, “The Truth” sees him confidently confront a controversial incident with conviction and clarity over an ominous soundscape.
“It was so crazy for me at that time,” he sighs. “I never felt more alone or betrayed, but I had to realize the people who love me stuck with me though that. The world kicked me when I was down, but they couldn’t destroy me. I had to address what happened. I told the truth. No disrespect, I don’t see color when it comes to people. There are only two types of people—real and fake. All I have is music, so I have to do this. It made me look at things from a different perspective.”
Islah begins with a personal favorite of Kevin’s, “Not the Only One,” which once again sees him doing what he does best: telling the truth. Breaking from typical tradition in hip-hop, he made a deliberate decision to include no features on the tracklisting.
“The reason I don’t have any features is if I win, I want to win by myself,” he exclaims. “If I lose, I want to lose by myself. This is up to me.”
As Kevin continues to personally grind, his label Breadwinners Association exponentially grows in tandem. In addition to housing his projects, the brand gives a home to artists including OG Boobie Black. It’s gone from as he puts it, “Two people in an Infiniti coupe doing shows to a whole team.”
Ultimately, Kevin Gates has one goal.
“When people say my name, I want them to feel a certain way,” he leaves off. “Everybody walks around so numb. They’re not in touch. In the technological age, we become coldhearted. I’m going to provoke you to feel. That’s what Islah does.”