There is little room for fabrication in Kevin Gates’ music. That’s the topic of “Can’t Make This Up”, the exclamatory fourth song off the Baton Rouge rapper’s latest cracked mirror of a mixtape, By Any Means. Last summer, Gates released the stomach-knotting, intensely vivid “4:30 AM”, which remains his finest moment. But “Can’t Make This Up” spells it all out: his options for a past jail sentence, the week-apart births of two of his children, and other drama. There’s also a genuinely funny moment when he remembers a “Caucasian waitress named Rachel,” who apparently came up to Gates outside her table jurisdiction just to tell him he looks like a drug dealer. His reaction? A pshhh followed by, one would assume, his squad vacating the restaurant after a couple last forkfuls. You can almost see it.
The truth is that the 28-year-old Gates (born Kevin Gilyard) very well could be making some of these things up. Lord knows he’s read enough Nicholas Sparks to know how a fictional narrative works. But at 16 full-length tracks (there are no skits here), By Any Means makes it easy for listeners to take what they want from Gates. Two things that are everywhere here are his shadowy singing voice (like a NASA-engineered version of Tree’s bluesman tone) and the way the hooks multiply inside of single songs. Otherwise, Gates keeps his freshest ideas in active rotation.
The trap rap songs here present the toughened exterior Gates has boasted about since his dreadlocked days. “Just Want Some Money” and “Arm and Hammer”, the second of which references the crack-cooking staple like a grocery item to be checked off the list, are as thunderous as trap rap gets in 2014 without pining for signature ingredients a la Future’s “Move That Dope”. The Dun Deal production “Amnesia”, featuring a posthumous hook and verse from slain Alabama rapper Doe B, is an anthem for hardheads, though ladies are more than welcome. Later, the vengeful “Homicide” ultimately plays like a prayer for street kids from Baton Rouge to Chicago; Gates’ voice curls like the ghosts of his dead friends, some of whom, as mentioned elsewhere on By Any Means, were survived by young children. Empathy isn’t necessarily wrong for our artists to seek, but Gates, on songs like “Homicide”, isn’t looking for empathy. He just wants you to know the story.
And to fill out these stories, he’s constantly thinking about the roles certain people play in his life. He likes to call his long-term partner his best friend — just like that, “my best friend” — and that gives the otherwise ominous “Posed to Be in Love” a welcome innocence. “Wit It”, meanwhile, works itself into a headspace of rare romantic assurance: “All I ever thought about was you.” The frustrated “Stop Lyin”, with its distant touches of EDM rap, is a warning to “own up to your bullshit.” It’s not a generalization. Gates has someone in mind.
By Any Means arrives just as Lil Boosie is getting used to post-prison life, and it’s safe to assume that Gates and his fellow Baton Rouge native will collaborate soon; they’ve worked together before. But Gates’ melodic sense combined with his endless detail suggest his ceiling is higher than Boosie’s. Suffice it to say, By Any Means didn’t need the 2 Chainz guest spot (“Bet I’m on It”) to extend this man’s hot streak, which began with last March’s The Luca Brasi Story and continued with Stranger Than Fiction. We can only hope Gates stays a free man and keeps making this quality, strangely soothing street music.
Essential Tracks: “Can’t Make This Up”, “Arm & Hammer”, and “Homicide”