Kevin Gates turns inward, gets super melodic on “Islah.”
In a sea of melodic Southern rappers defined by their contradictions, Kevin Gates easily stands out as the most extreme. Future makes us feel his pain as he’s simultaneously talking about women as if they were a disposable resource; Rich Homie Quan‘s behind some of the best trap love songs of all time, but also the rapey-ist ones in recent memory; Young Thug packs more vivid imagery than a Cormac McCarthy novel into his lyrics, but seems aloof and curt in person. Gates is simply all over the place. He’s emo, he’s violent, he’s depressed, he’s in love, he’s despicable, he’s endearing. He’ll drop a bar about watching Mary Poppins with his kids, then threaten to put yours in the oven if you try him. He’ll do something unforgivable, like kicking a female fan during a performance, and then release a response in which he calls her a queen and apologizes to her and his children.
A few years ago, Gates devised a Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers-style split personality to explain his oft-conflicted psyche to listeners, putting his moral qualms, depression, and romantic side under the “Kevin Gates” umbrella, while adopting the title of “Godfather” enforcer Luca Brasi when it came time to set his more emotional attributies aside in order to survive. With the latter being the focus of two of his most successful mixtapes, his debut album focuses more on the former. Islah is best described by a line on that fan-kicking-incident response track, “The Truth”: “Passionate, I can be extra sometimes, Brasi turn back into Kevin sometimes.”
Gates titled his debut after his eldest daughter, whose Arabic name translates to “To inform, to improve, to make better,” according to the Baton Rouge rapper. “I believe that’s what my first daughter did to me,” he continued, and that really seems to be where Islah‘s focus also lies. Anthems of loyalty, pleas for forgiveness, and pledges of devotion are this album’s bread and butter, with Gates getting even more self-reflective than usual. As always though, mustering the honesty necessary to say these things inevitably dredges up grit and grime, and as someone who been in and around mud his entire life, Gates never shies away from getting his hands dirty. (Some of you jokers might read that as a metaphor for his penchant for assplay, which still pops up once or twice on Islah, but for the most part, the mess he makes is an emotional one).
What’s interesting about the album, especially in the context of previous Gates releases, is how all of this troubled subject matter translates into a consistent set of melodic bangers. He’s been perfectly capable when singing his hooks before, but nearly every Islah track sees him step up and deliver bonafide pop choruses– shit that mainstream hitmakers would pay top dollar for. Early bangers “2 Phones” and “Really Really” feature the type of chorus that’s so simple and repetitive it can’t help but stick in your head– which is really an accomplishment more than something to hate on– but then he immediately gives us “Pride,” a Nate Dogg-level masterclass in thug crooning. Then there’s “Hard For,” a guitar-led stomper that Gates could sell to Hozier if the singer had any interest in singing the line “You the only one that my dick could get hard for.” Nobody would describe Gates as R&B or pop, but Islah shows that he’s just as capable a singer and songwriter as most in those fields.
There are a few harder-edged exceptions– the pulse-quickening slapper “Thought I Heard” has a hook that’s more chanted than sung, “The Truth” is more in the vein of his chock-full-of-bars shit talkers– but every other hook on here has definite sky-scraping abilities. In true Gates form, he never lets this distract from his bars and is still in formidable form, but if there’s one thing his mixtape fans will accuse him of missing out on, it’s diversity. Take a look at the first Luca Brasi Story tape (still my personal favorite Gates project). You’ve got the classic Cash Money bounce of the opening track, the loosely-organized chaos of “Flex,” the muted, moody tones of “Arms Of A Stranger,” the ton-of-bricks impact of “Narco Traficante,” and of course the body percussion-accompanied story raps of “IHOP.” Islah takes the “Paper Chasers” and “Neon Lights” approach (admittedly, a clearly fruitful formula) and runs with it for an hour, never really dipping in quality or catchiness, but lacking in diversity, which has historically been one of Gates’ calling cards. As a full-length project, it’s still among his best, but as a debut retail album, it would benefit from a better sampling of his talents.