Welcome to RESPECT.’s latest feature: “Don’t Sleep” Throughout this series, we plan on introducing you to albums and mixtapes that we may have missed, but still want to write about. For the first edition, we’ll be reviewing Kevin Gates’ debut album Stranger Than Fiction.
Kevin Gates is a new name to many, but he’s not new to the game at all. The 27 year-old Baton Rouge native has been a regional star for the last few years, slowly building up his following with a steady stream of mixtapes that was capped earlier this year with The Luca Brasi Story. When Brasi dropped, Gates become something more than just another name in the large pool of Southern rappers: he became a voice that needed to be heard. He’s now signed to Atlantic Records with Lil Wayne’s Young Money management team behind him. With those strong backings he dropped his strongest to date, his debut album, Stranger Than Fiction.
Fiction has all the makings of a southern hip-hop album: heart thumping 808’s meant to rattle trunks, tensely ticking trap hi hats, and references to seductive women, cooking drugs, the struggles of trapping, and having a good time. What’s impressive is how Gates finds a way to make a redundant subject matter sound refreshing at nearly every turn.
The album opens with “4 Legs and a Biscuit”, a grimy street tale of the fight to survive, and finishes with “Angels”, where Gates sing you off into the night with the words “too many insecurities that won’t allow me to trust/ while I protect us from love if they’re Angels.” In between the former track and the latter, you get 43 minutes of raw and heavily-filtered emotional music.
If you’ve never heard of Kevin Gates, there’s some familiar faces for you. Juicy J and Migos both show up, along with Nashville’s Starlito, to add some other voices to the tracks, but it’s not completely necessary. Juicy J keeps the ratchet levels as high as ever on “Thinkin’ With My Dick,” and Starlito’s scene-stealing verse on “MYB” is one of the higher points of the entire album, but Migos come and go without much notice on “Snake Nigga.” The reason that the guests seem trite is because of Gates’ astonishing versatility. His vocal abilities fluctuate from a growling snarl, which he demonstrates on “MYB”, to a Futuresque (that should be a real word) auto-tuned assisted warble sing-song flow that he summons on ‘Don’t Know What to Call it.” Sometimes Gates will give you a traditional rap; he’ll be on the beat, rhyme for rhyme, bar for bar, but the next second he’s switching to a Mystikal-like snap that forgoes all syncopation and bends the beat to his will. There’s not a better example of this then on “Smiling Faces,” the standout track of the album’s latter half.
The album has it’s moments where things get stale and repetitive. He brings his crew members along for the ride on “Change On Me,” but the threat of his friends not staying the same, which is a very real possibility with his increasing notoriety, gets old very fast. The chorus of calling names out to “not change” on him isn’t quite the thing you want to yell in the club. He has a phenomenal penchant for storytelling, with great details that can really draw in the listener, but every track feels like an individual story that, sadly, doesn’t connect to the next. With all the similar production – every track is full of woozy synths, hard hitting drums, and faders constantly taking those two elements in and out of focus – you would expect the album to have some continuity, but sadly there’s hardly any.
“4:30 AM” is the highlight of the album. The production, by REQ, doesn’t differ much from the rest of the album and Gates doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table, neither in his vocals nor his lyrics, yet it contains the perfect mixture of everything that’s right about Gates. He uses those lush sounds behind to switch from a normal rap, to a sweet singing voice, and then all of a sudden he snaps into his Mystikal yelp and thunders off line after line of compelling rhymes. And his storytelling is beyond on-point. Both verses tell two separate stories, providing the continuity that you’d like to see in the rest of the album. It’s a very strong contender for rap song of the year.
There’s so much that Gates brings to a track that it’s no surprise that he’s been featured on tracks with the likes of Pusha T, and backed by the powerhouse that is Young Money. He’s reminiscent of so many other artists, but he packages it all together to create something completely unique. There’s room for improvement – and with the skill set Gates possesses, we expect it – but if you’re looking for an introduction into one of hip-hop’s most diversely talented upstarts, Stranger Than Fiction is a good place to start.
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