Chronicles: Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story

Everyone needs to get familiar with Kevin Gates right now; happily he’s abandoned the awful ‘KVN’ moniker and has reverted to the bravely-boring ‘Kevin’. The Baton Rouge rapper has been putting out quality, persona driven mixtapes for a couple of years now and this latest, “The Luca Brasi Story“, is his best yet. Apparently there’s a bidding war escalating between Atlantic and YMCMB over Gates and listening to this is a terrific explanation as to why; it’s a polished, excellent statement which could easily be pressed up and sold as an album. The production is varied, innovative and detailed and Gates is entertaining and honest. He is mostly unconcerned with trends and is a rapper who deserves to succeed because of the quality consistency of his product not because of carefully managed PR or affiliations with fashion mags and new media.

Gates is a studied rapper, un-showy and earnest in an workman-like way. His verses lack onetwo twitter quotables but never to their detriment; Gates treats them as entire statements, layering idea upon idea, line on line, weight on weight until the best of them crest in a summit of force (See “Hold Ya Head” for a great example of this magnetic charisma.) Lyrically Gates is a match to his everyman persona, he is rarely ostentatious but consistently effective.  He’s not huge on oblique metaphors, preferring instead to approach topics with a quick honesty; this line from “What’s Understood” says a huge amount with a practiced potency of language: “Obama just been re-elected. Who gives a fuck when the coke dry?”

Vocally he’s impressive; entirely comfortable manipulating his congested southern mouth in any way he chooses. From the stilted clipped shout of “Narco Trafficante” to the tumbling melodies of “Neon Lights” to the succession of changing emphases of “Around Me“, Gates understands the power of matching flow, tone and pitch to the music. He’s one of the current flock of hip hop artists who exist in the increasingly spacious ephemerality between rapper and singer. He frequently revisits melodies and sung phrases across songs and projects and has a penchant for tune driven verses and bridges and choruses; sometimes their definitions are fluid and unclear. He is quite a technical rapper and has a habit of running squashed lines together and switching into a different flow with zero notice but he never uses shrouds his message with technique.

Stream: Kevin Gates – Hold Ya Head

Though the two are not tonally similar, it is impossible not to hear Lil Boosie‘s influence in Gates’ music. Boosie, along with Z-Ro, is the rapper who is most concerned with maintaining a visible hurt to his art. There’s an unconcealed element pain and suffering and vulnerability; a constant nearness of collapse to his fragile success. Gates, although less paranoid and damaged than Boosie, still retains an upsetting but endearing core of insecurity.  “Marshall Mathers“, although it suffers from a slightly uninspired conceit, gives good example of Gates’ as a character driven rapper: “Good heart but prone to fuck up. My family hate me. Emotionally I’m scarred and what I love has betrayed me.” And throughout his music, Gates raps a childhood of lack and of rejection. The opening few lines of “IDGAF” are a powerful example:

In a rain storm in the blizzard, expressing all of my feelings

Paps never took me serious, Mama never wanna listen,

Stomach hurting, my pockets empty, how dare a nigga wanna tempt me,

In a dark room, all prayed out, ain’t never sat in no Bentley.

Musically, “The Luca Brasi” is as engaging as its lyrics. It’s mixed and mastered to a high standard and there’s an inviting depth and weight to the tracks. The leading brass and vague jangled guitar of “Just Ride“; “Counting On You’s” swelling, great chugging synth dropping into a slow, submerged coda in its finish: “The Luca Brasi Story” is set with crafted songs from talented producers. The flute on “Around Me“, the chanting on “Hold Ya Head”, the darting Neon on “What’s Understood”, the harps on “Paper Chasers“; there is so much Good on this tape and it bears repeating. “Ugly But She Fine” is either incredible or terrible depending on your affinity towards vintage No Limit bouncers (the correct answer is incredible fyi). The strongest recommendation I can give to the production on “The Luca Brasi Story” is that an instrumental version of this album would be compelling but in an entirely different way.

It suffers, like with most good-to-great mixtapes, from an over extended running length. “The Luca Brasi Story” is 22 tracks long and the gently culled version that now sits in my iTunes is shorter, more thematically consistent and feels even more like an ‘album’. Gone is the gruff titanic of “Weight“, whose chorus stands out as a rare moment of terrible songwriting. Gone too is “Hero” and its played out to hell take on a-coward-dies-a-thousand-times-a-soldier-dies-once; and “Talking Stupid“, though not exactly bad is made worse by its relation to some of this tape’s successes; it goes too.

If there’s any criticism to be made regarding Gates it’s that he rarely stuns. He is dependable and talented and often a very good songwriter but he is only infrequently surprising. Before listening to this tape I had a pretty good idea of what it would be and how it would be done, especially lyrically. Like Curren$y, Gates knows what he can do well and does it well consistently, but a little experimentation would be welcome. Tellingly though, he is confident enough to finish the album with a beat-less track; Gate’s voice and lyrics alone carry “IHOP (True Story)” and their isolation expose his strengths. It’s a fantastic way to end the album, a song that affirms Gates in the end as deservedly self-assured. He doesn’t need to conceal his voice, it sounds good enough on its own.

Stream: Kevin Gates – IDGAF

Kevin Gates’ The Luca Brasi Story is available now.

Ian Maxwell