You might know Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates for his 2014 workaholic anthem “I Don’t Get Tired (#IDGT)”, his chart-climbing new singles “Really Really” and “2 Phones”, or the notoriety he’s found due to his viral Instagram activity. Or you might know him for the true building blocks to his stardom: the free mixtapes he’s released over the course of the past decade, from 2007’s Pick of Da Litter to last year’s Murder for Hire. Along the way, Gates, now just shy of 30, has refined and reconfigured his sound, placing more and more emphasis on his singing while coming to favor sleeker, more dramatic production from beatmakers like Metro Boomin, Drumma Boy, and Nard & B. It’s a journey now reaching its commercial peak with debut album Islah.
Islah is being released through Atlantic Records and Gates’ own Bread Winners Association label, but even with the major label stamp, it’s undeniably the product of a strong will, delivered without any guests. Autobiography and honesty have always been central to his artistry, and Islah keeps present reality at the forefront with a particular focus on the rapper’s growing fame and how he handles it. Gates’ personal life makes it easy for him to be understood. His music does not. In the midst of a breathless verse on Islah opener “Not the Only One”, he references the aftermath of the incident at a concert in Florida last summer when he kicked a female fan in the chest, provoked by the woman reaching at his shorts while he was on stage. Plenty of artists would prefer to keep the absolute ugliness of that situation out of their music, but Gates isn’t one to shy away from the excruciating details of his personal lows (which also include a long battle with depression and unresolved grief). That openness about his actions, no matter how reprehensible, fills this album with darkly fascinating texture.
It’s evidence of Gates’ songwriting range and consistency that Islah holds together no matter how many stories he tells or how many ways he tells them, whether it’s with fiery rapping, capable singing, or a combination of both. While “2 Phones” gets its name and chorus from the common drug-dealing tactic of using business-specific cellular devices, neon melodies keep the song out of generic trap-rap territory. Elsewhere, the bulldozing “La Familia” and “Thought I Heard (Bread Winners’ Anthem)” elevate the album’s intensity level as Gates describes his “out the mud” career arc. “The Truth” is the heaviest song here, zeroing in on “what happened in Florida,” his experiences in jail, and American society’s perception of his Puerto Rican heritage. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, “Ask for More” and “I Love It” are relatively light and easygoing; along with “2 Phones”, they’re Islah’s most fluid displays of intertwining hooks.
Love and sex inspire a range of feelings in Gates’ music, and with Islah coming three months on the heels of his wedding, romance is on his mind more than ever. More than the shameless lust of “One Thing” and “Kno One”, “Time for That” and “Ain’t Too Hard” find him grappling with the conflict between his romantic needs and commitment issues. But even with those frustrations, Gates — not to be pigeonholed as a “rapper” — sounds assured in the singing and melodic maneuvering that unite those songs. A less natural fit for him is “Hard For”, which builds on an acoustic guitar-based beat for pure pop appeal, but ultimately feels anticlimactic with an awkward chorus that starts with the line, “You’re the only one that my dick could get hard for.” Still, it’s the only song out of Islah’s 15 that really disrupts the album’s impressive flow.
For newcomers to Gates’ music, Islah follows through on the catchiness of “I Don’t Get Tired”, “Really Really”, and “2 Phones”, while adding dimension to the sentiments those songs convey. Like Boosie Badazz’s Touch Down 2 Cause Hell or Freddie Gibbs’ Shadow of a Doubt last year, it’s a showcase of versatility that plays to its creator’s strengths enough to feel like a definitive statement, no matter how many other projects he’s released before it.
Essential Tracks: “2 Phones”, “La Familia”, and “The Truth”