One of the first things Kevin Gates says to me is that a lot of people he encounters are "not from the same walk of life that I am, so my life is super interesting to them.” The Baton Rouge rapper speaks freely and at length about his depression in interviews, something many musicians in promotional mode wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot dinner fork. For some, Kevin Gates’ complete openness may prompt recognition. For others, it's a fascination with a particularly compelling portrait of a different life.
In his music, Gates is even more revelatory, offering searingly personal narratives that include bleak, wounded looks at relationships and grim depictions of a life heavily marked by crime, poverty, and general horrors that should be wished upon no man. His story has a redemptive, movie-like feel to it: Sent to prison for three years on a gun charge just as he was starting to gain some traction for his music, he didn't fade away but rather emerged a local star. Given his distinctive, powerful backstory and his tendency toward confronting everything he raps about with total emotional honesty, Gates connects with listeners in a way that resonates deeply.
On Stranger than Fiction intro "4 Legs and a Biscuit" he spirals through "baby mama problems" and prison sentences in a few short bars, noting "the devil living in me I'm contemplating to end it." His subject matter includes everything: dark street narratives, dissections of romantic relationships, discussions of growing up poor and being made fun of for it in school, drug use, frustrating business relationships and treachery on the part of everyone from lawyers to close friends. Gates spits his rhymes in a hoarse, heavily accented croak and switches freely between straight rapping and a more sing-song delivery. His verses are gut-wrenching and head-turning; his singing feels emotionally pure. Unlike rappers who drop a hot 16 bars and get out of the way of the beat, Kevin Gates songs are holistic, immersive experiences.
During our interview, he's adamant that I ask him whatever I want. But there's an underlying tension: the total fascination surrounding his music can easily drift into a type of voyeurism, and at points in our conversation he becomes defensive, making me feel as if I'm overreaching. On "Smiling Faces" from Stranger than Fiction, Gates' intensity builds to a fever pitch, culminating in him screaming, "Reason I can't quit syrup, my anxiety be fucking with me!" However, when I ask about his relationship with the drug, he clams up, diplomatically asserting, "Right now where I'm at in my career, it really doesn't coincide with what I have going on." It's funny how the more open an artist is on record, the more we come to expect in person.
Gates spoke with me frankly and thoughtfully about his grandfather, airing out arguments in his music, tattoos, Nicholas Sparks, and more. Other subjects prompted more guarded responses and an insistence that I listen to the album more. Kevin Gates gives a lot in his music. Here's what he had to say about everything else.
Noisey: How does promoting yourself right now contrast to when you were starting out?
Kevin Gates: I came in the game with a different attitude than I have now. And I had to grow. I had to mature. And in that growth and in that maturity, that point of maturity I realized that ay, the people that interview me, we really only having a conversation. And they not from the same walk of life that I am, so my life is super interesting to them. And the respect that I have for individuals, they don't have those same morals and principles because we were raised different. But all I can do is be as understanding as possible. You know, to help give insight.
Do you think there are other ways you've matured in the last couple years?
My mentality, I guess. I used to deal with things totally differently than the way that I deal with things now. And I believe that comes through growth and maturity. And when you grow, your way of life changes. Everything changes. The things that were interesting at one point, they're not as interesting now.
How old are you?
How do you feel you got your foothold in Baton Rouge, and what kind of things do you think helped you get noticed locally?
I really was just putting out music. Going everywhere, passing out CDs, passing out CDs, passing out CDs. And, you know, it was good music, so we developed a small buzz. And as we developed a small buzz we started doing shows. You know, a thousand dollars, six hundred. Whatever they had I was taking it. Then, I end up being incarcerated, so the music just spread organically because it was good music. And absence makes the heart grow fonder. So once I came back, the music had spread and it grew. So I guess they had a chance to catch up to where I was at. 'Cause I was so advanced and I was so ahead because I've always lived life at such an accelerated pace. The youngest person in my clique right now is probably like fifty-some years old. I never hung with anyone my age. So I was ahead of everybody. I was always more advanced. Was it a good thing? I believe so. You learn fast or you die young.
How did you end up surrounding yourself with so many older people?
You got a dad?
And he got a brother? So you got an uncle. Instead of me hanging with my younger siblings, I'd be hanging with my uncles. So their friends were my friends. I just always liked older people. I never really got off into hanging with people my age. It's just who I gravitated toward, I guess. And I guess me and my grandfather spent so much time together, so a lot of his ways rubbed off on me. So that's how it happened. It wasn't something that I just tried to make happen. It was just a natural, organic process.
When you say your grandfather's ways rubbed off on you, what kinds of things do you think you carried along from him?
The respect I have for individuals. If someone was to ask me something about somebody, I'd probably tell you it was none of my business. He was a firm believer in minding his own business, and I'm a firm believer in that. I will not get in any other person's matters. It's not my business. If you was to ask me, “What you think about such and such?” That's not my business, so I don't have to think about that. There's other things that I probably grabbed from him subconsciously, but that's one thing he was real firm on. Like: “Mind your business. Your mouth is the most dangerous thing on your body. It'll put you in situations that you never want to be in.”
What kind of things do you think you took away from being in prison? What were your thoughts on that? Were there lessons you took away from the people there?
You can learn from a dummy. You can watch a dummy and learn what not to do. I've always been an observant individual. You don't know how much you love something until you can't do it. That's one thing I can say that I learned. I learned how much I love music.
You've talked before about confronting depression.
Music's the most therapeutic thing for me. Because I suffer with depression, and it's my only form of releasing it. Juch as you do with your recorder, I record my thoughts. I vent. It's a channel. I'm an introvert when it comes to displaying my emotion. And because I'm such an introvert, the best thing for me to do is to talk to the mic. It's a diary for me. It's like a journal. Whatever I'm going through at the time, I get it out. So it's a great vice. But it's what I love to do. I would do it if I wasn't getting paid or nothing. It's just what I love to do.
In hip-hop there's often this idea that you have to project this invincibility.
I'm not made out of concrete. I'm a real person. And I've got real feelings, and they get hurt. I get annoyed, I get everything. I go anything any other individual would go through, but my way of dealing with that is music. Some people don't have a vice for dealing with that. And you know, when they speak about those certain situations, it makes them seem unstable. They have a fear of appearing to be unstable or vulnerable. So that's probably why people don't really display that or put that on front street. But as far as me? I could care less what somebody thinks about me because just me saying how I deal with depression may help someone else out there find their way through whatever they're dealing with.
"Satellites" was kind of your breakout moment. Was there something specific you were talking about in that song?
Yeah, I was being super specific in that song. You listen to the song? It's all there. It's super self-explanatory. The things that are most difficult for me to put into words and speak about, I put into my music. I'm just super passionate about my craft and super passionate about what I do. I'm a super sensitive individual also. The smallest thing might stand out to me. I might go make a song about this interview. I live life then rap about it. Who knows what I may say? I just really say what I feel. When I'm in the moment, whatever I'm feeling, I get it all out. So I mean, that song is super self-explanatory. Which, all of the songs are. If somebody wanted to know anything about Kevin Gates, I'd tell them "go get Stranger Than Fiction." It'll tell you everything. It's all there.
Do people ever get mad at you for the way that you talk about them in your songs?
I mean, I assume that they do. But I really live in a box. I'm always locked away in the studio, so I never get to see those people anyway. And if I do see them, I don't even think—to be honest, I'm so focused right now I couldn't even see myself encounteringthose individuals that I spoke about from my past. Unless I'm at home doing a show. And I'ma be onstage. And then when I see them it's probably going to be love because most people that know me know that I speak my mind. So they know it wasn't nothing derogative or anything of that nature.
It seems like you've had these strong relationships that fizzle quickly. How is your life romantically?
I'm single right now. I am interested in somebody, and I pray that that person's as interested in me as I am in them. That's all I can hope for. I guess that's all anyone can hope for that's in a relationship. But I love being in love. It's good while it's good. But it's bad while it's bad.
What does love mean to you?
If you listen to Stranger Than Fiction, it's all there. I talk about how much I love love and everything on Stranger Than Fiction. It's all there. As I was telling you, I'm a super passionate individual, so it's all there. That's where it's at.
Do you feel like people have been ignoring Stranger Than Fiction? You got a lot of attention for Luca Brasi.
They both two different bodies of work. And Luca Brasi, it was a classic in its own [way], but Luca Brasi is more my alter ego. That's the individual that I turn into. So Luca Brasi was the Luca Brasi Story. Stranger Than Fiction was Kevin Gates. See what I'm saying? I know it's a name for it, but I don't know what to call it. I really don't know what to call it.
You have some very personal details on Luca Brasi too. One that really stuck out is that you talk about growing up and going to school and how you felt like you didn't fit in socially.
What poor person fits into society socially? You seem like a great person, but you're not going to leave out of this building and put one of those homeless people in your car. You treat them differently than I do. When I finish with this salad here, you can eat off my plate. That's just the individual that I am because I've walked in those shoes at one time. And just imagine going to middle school with a bunch of middle school children who aren't aware of how hurtful their words can be. That'll really make you want to get money.
How do you continue to maintain that attitude now, when you must have so many people coming to you wanting stuff from you?
I don't really have people asking me for things because of the way that I carry myself. I don't brag about what I have. And then when you see me, it pretty much is you see what you get. And most individuals, they don't want that from me. They want what I give, and I give love. I've got a heart that's full of love, with so much love to give. So me giving you a hug might have been all you needed. Me giving you a handshake, looking you in your eyes, telling you I understand, us connecting. That's worth more than money to me.
Wealth is not of the pocket. It's of the heart. It's of the mind. I live like that. You could give me a fish and feed more for a day, but if you teach me to fish, you've fed me forever. So that's really my philosophy with it all. And then, I'm so analytical that if someone's to tell me, “Kevin, I need help with my rent,” then I'd be like, “That's not the problem. You have a spending problem. You have to get that problem out of the way first. And then you'll have money for your rent. But if I pay your rent this month, I'ma have to pay it next month, so I'm really crippling you. I'm really keeping you from reaching your true potential.” So that's the way that I give. I might not give you anything physical or tangible, but I might give you something that'll change your life. That's the type of individual that I am. I don't like to say it, but I've always been a wise person.
It means a lot more to give someone the attention or the thought.
Or help them get to the root of the problem. Or help them find out what the problem is. Because the problem lies with self, and a lot of times we don't look inward as individuals. We always look for something else as a substitute, as a pacifier. You have to look at self first.
I know you're into tattoos. What's your most recent one?
I don't know what my most recent tattoo is because I go get work done. I think, most of my chest. I got the people from Street Fighter tattooed on my chest. That was a game I was always interested in when I was younger.
Are there any games in particular you're a big fan of right now?
I love Tekken. I've got some of the Tekken fighters tattooed on my chest too. I love Tekken. That's my favorite fighting game. Whatever I have a natural love for or respect or admiration for, I tattoo it on my body. My next tattoo is probably going to be Muhammad Ali. I've got Bob Marley. I've got Elvis. I've got Malcolm X. I've got so many tattoos. It's crazy. I'm really running out of space. But when I go get tattoos, it's therapeutic for me also. When I'm undergoing the pain of the needle, whatever pain I may be going through emotionally or mentally, it dissolves. That's why I'm so into tattoos.
What does this one on your ear mean? N-U-K?
It's personal to me. I'll answer any question in the world, but it's three subject matters I really don't speak on. That's the personal, politics, and religion. I just stay away from those.
That's cartilage. Face and ears, all that's cosmetic. I think the worst spot was under the armpit and my elbows. I'm tattooed up. I got shit everywhere … under that armpit, I've never felt that sensation in my body.
You talk about Nicholas Sparks on the Luca Brasi Story.
Yeah, he's an author. Like a lot of movies like Dear John and The Notebook were written after books that he's written. He's not my favorite, but he's one of my favorite authors. I really enjoy a lot of Nicholas Sparks, a lot of his writing because it's very simplistic. It's very true to my character, as an individual. Or how I'd say the things that I want for myself as an individual. He writes very true to that. It's nothing far-fetched, and it isn't fictitious. It's beautiful, really. He's a beautiful writer.
Are there specific stories or characters that you connect with?
The Notebook. I connect with everything on there.
In what ways?
Everything. I connected with the character because he said "There will be no monuments left for me when I'm gone. There won't be any red carpets rolled out for me or anything of that nature, of this I'm sure. But I loved a woman with all of my heart." And that's as self-explanatory as it gets. How much more in-depth can you go? It's already so simplistic. So to fish you'd just be fishing. And then that'd be considered extra. And then that'd take the simplistic values away from it because it'd complicate everything. That's one of the most beautiful quotes I ever heard in my life. And it just hits so close to home with everybody. "There will be no monuments for me when I'm gone. Of this I'm sure. But I loved a woman with all my heart." Like, wholeheartedly. No insecurities, just all of my heart, just everything. I trusted. I gambled.
And you've felt that way?
Me as an individual, any man. No one wants to be betrayed. And no one goes into a relationship feeling that they will be betrayed. What happens when you find out your best friend been tapping your old lady? It wouldn't really sit well. Or if you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, whoever. A girl that has a boyfriend and you find out that she's with your best friend? No one wants that, but it's a thought in everyone's thought process: What is this person really with me for?
Kyle Kramer lives in Brooklyn, ain't shit to do but blog. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer