If there’s one rapper that more people need to be talking about, it’s Kevin Gates. Born in Baton Rouge, he began rapping in 2007 alongside regional peers like Webbie and Lil’ Boosie. Gates strays from them with his strain of singing, which drew early comparisons to Future. All three Louisiana artists have been arrested at one point during their careers.
By Any Means is the latest Kevin Gates mixtape (an Atlantic A&R made the distinction on Twitter prior to the release), and it comes after Gates’ short stay in the clink for violating probation. All included songs were recorded “before he had to sit down,” presumably either prior to jail or prior to signing with Atlantic. The latter doesn’t make sense, given high-profile features from 2 Chainz and Rico Love that do little to boost the quality of Kevin Gates’ music. That Atlantic constantly feels the need to burden new artists like Ty Dolla $ign and Young Thug with more established artists might worry a newcomer. If the record label signed an artist off his or her own talent, why bog said talent down?
Perhaps they’re afraid that Gates won’t recapture the essence of The Luca Brasi Story, the breakout mixtape that was cut down to EP length and is by far Gates’ greatest achievement to date. It’s a colorful project that exhibits the rapper as a 3D character, able to be wounded by love and resurrected by drug sales in one fell swoop. His mention of the Nicholas Sparks book The Notebook surprised every listener and hinted at the true depth of his personality, beyond what anyone had imagined.
By Any Means doesn’t quite pilfer those depths. Instead of digging deeper into his history, these selections highlight Gates’ melodic development, and the improvement is marked. The first song, “Wish I Had It,” boasts a hook that may be one of his best yet. Other songs on the first half of the tape, like “Can’t Make This Up” (boasting a distinctive cadence on the hook) and “Homicide,” a grittier version of the Wiz song over an extraterrestrial trap beat, booster the argument that Gates has a stash of potent choruses to draw from. The songs still aren’t hitting the emotional cores that Luca Brasi does, but the song structures are more effective than most of Stranger Than Fiction, his last official release.
The outstanding highlight is “Movie,” with a beat by Beewirks that thankfully departs from the stale production that wears thin over 16 tracks. Gates employs a delivery akin to stream of consciousness as he details witnessing the birth of his daughter via FaceTime before darker circumstances keep a second child from coming into the world. “Movie” is everything we want from Gates—manic expression, painful recollection, and the strength to not only carry on, but to depict it all on a record. Gates’ best trait is his honesty. Now the trick is convincing Atlantic he doesn’t need a sidekick on the next big single.
That same Atlantic A&R tweeted some thoughts about what distinguishes a mixtape from an album in today’s atmosphere, but he might have also unknowingly exposed a flaw in the label’s strategy regarding Gates. Nothing has connected with fans as much as songs like “Neon Lights” or “Arms of a Stranger” ever since, though “4:30am” and “Thinking With My Dick” have come close. Fans can’t seem to tell whether By Any Means is an album or a mixtape, and though the distinction doesn’t deter a hardcore rap fan from checking out his music, a continued stream of mixtapes doesn’t make Gates more accessible to people who haven’t heard him yet. There are album quality songs on By Any Means. If Atlantic can cull those together and prepare a full-fledged campaign, Kevin Gates may be our next big rap star. —Max Weinstein