Everybody is telling me to Vote, but I remember living up here, in the Valley, where there is no God and no one watching––certainly no Congressman––where middle-aged women caked in dust walk for miles on the side of the road between places to panhandle, where there are neon BAIL BOND signs grafted onto neat aquamarine bungalows, where my grocery store, which was beside a dialysis center as big as an airplane hangar, was closed for 18 hours after a tattoo artist was murdered in its entryway.
The Valley is dotted with idyllic pockets that beckon retirees and Interscope acts and “consulting producers.” These are not those. These are the wasteland stretches with grey industrial blocs and good teriyaki and massive tarps welcoming BAD CREDIT without specifying what those with BAD CREDIT will be allowed to buy. I’m on Vineland, a north-south thoroughfare that runs from the Hills up to Sun Valley, and I’m looking south, at a fluorescent sign for RAPID DETOX: IV DRUG & ALCOHOL, which shares a one-story building with a State Farm office, which has been tagged in depressingly tidy letters by someone who goes by Lil Valley. A block north is a cramped building on a corner lot. This is where Kevin Gates is on a Wednesday.
The 32-year-old rapper, his buoyant wife, Dreka, and a handful of Bread Winners’ Association staffers have flown here from Gates’s most recent tour stop (Charlotte, as far as I can tell) to launch an escape room based on a Louisiana trap house* Gates used to work out of. An escape room is a place where a group of people work together to solve riddles and physical puzzles in an attempt to flee from an elaborately-locked room, or solve a mystery, or save a kidnapped princess, or etc. Sometimes, there are paid actors embedded in your group who claim, at first, to be other escapers thrown into your party. The other room here at Hollywood Escape House (which is nowhere near Hollywood proper, which itself is home to at least five competing escape room establishments) is called “Woman in the Attic.”** People come here for birthdays.
Gates’ room, “House on Carolina,” which is supposedly modeled after that spot on said street in Gates’ native Baton Rouge, was a collaboration with the Escape House people and some combination of those on Gates’ teams at BWA and Atlantic Records. No one seems to know for sure who is in charge, or who got the ball rolling, and some of the principals in the arrangement are meeting for the first time tonight. But enthusiasm is high: an Atlantic publicist tells me that, during Gates’ recent incarceration, Dreka got very deep into escape rooms. She’s done so many that the people she brings with her––the publicists and video directors and friends and hangers-on––will start to tell stories about Dreka slipping out of a jungle-themed room, only to realize they’re mixing up the details with the time she ran out ahead of zombies, or made it off of the moon, or whatever. The room, which opens to the public this week, is not a pop-up––it’s supposed to stick around indefinitely, a quasi-permanent promo for LB3 and for Gates writ large.
Dreka, in a black Luca Brasi 3 hoodie, is holding court with those she knows or has recently met, while Gates gladhands a variety of photographers and owners of the building in front of a black step-and-repeat. We’re all in this little backyard space, just east of the Escape House, under permanent white Christmas lights on a modest lawn near a tiny sitting area with a single bottle of tequila and some paper cups. On the edge of the lawn is a single stretch of velvet rope dividing us from a gravel parking lot, which right now houses a couple of SUVs and a black Tesla. There’s a fake front porch setup for pictures, complete with “HOUSE ON CAROLINA” signage and faux siding that’s been painted pink. We––that’s me, Dreka, et al.––talk mostly about the cities they’ve recently been through on tour, but stray shards of the Gates conversation drift over, like when he booms that “THE BIBLE CONFIRMS…” something.
We’re waiting while a group, the second or third of the day, finishes its test run of the room. This advance group is comprised of fans and a couple of reporters, including a woman from a respected, very earnest hip-hop website, and another from the terrible, rotting carcass of the local alt-weekly. When they emerge from the house, the fans––unaware that Gates would be on the premises––practically collapse in his arms. They pose for pictures and make an orderly exit to their cars, up and down Vineland.
Our team is as follows: Gates and Dreka, me, two Atlantic employees, a guy from WorldStar who’s been tasked with “capturing” footage for Instagram, and the veteran New Orleans rapper and BWA signee OG Boobie Black, who has one arm, and who is using that arm to introduce nearly everyone in the yard to his extremely nice fiancee, who has dialed in via FaceTime, and who is (Boobie, I mean) rather mesmerizingly wearing two chains that each say his name.
I’ve been asked by the people who work here to avoid saying too much about the room itself, so as to avoid giving away the answers to its puzzles, and so I won’t, but I will say that Gates was jarringly sincere when he apologized, while the seven of us were crammed into a tiny foyer at the very beginning, to one of the Atlantic employees for losing his temper on a music video set a few weeks prior, and that he was ecstatic when the (confusingly functional) original-run PlayStation in the staged living room came preloaded with Tekken. Throughout the room –– really a series of three rooms, please don’t send men in desert boots to find and kill me –– songs from Luca Brasi 3 play at a low volume.
The best Kevin Gates music is sort of supernaturally good. As a confessional songwriter, his only peer in this decade is Starlito, the genius from Nashville. But where Starlito’s work strips away all extraneous elements to put the focus squarely on a sort of linear, relentlessly naturalistic songwriting, Gates makes his songs dynamic: He’s one of the weirdest and most captivating singers in rap, able to bend his voice and squeeze it into sonic corners that are out of reach for nearly any traditionally-gifted vocalist. An early mixtape run at the turn of the decade made him a regional hero; the first Luca Brasi and Stranger Than Fiction broke him to rap fans nationally, and by the end of 2013, he was at least a known quantity to anyone who followed the genre.
Speaking anecdotally, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the influence and importance Gates holds for a certain generation of rappers from places like Georgia, Florida, and especially Louisiana, where he’s a demigod at worst. One of his first songs to cut through the internet din, in 2013, was “4:30 a.m.,” which is harrowing and horrifying and recounts things very close to death. That song opens with a phone call –– and an iPhone ringtone that’s taken on a Pavlovian quality for me and presumably anyone else who’s ever listened to Gates –– that he ends, kindly but quickly, with the explanation that he has to record some vocals real quick. As we were crowded in that makeshift foyer, Gates fielded a FaceTime call and dismissed it almost identically: “I’ve gotta do this real quick, I’ll call you later.”
His crossover to the mainstream music world has come in fits and starts, though. Gates’ Atlantic debut, Islah, opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in January 2016 and was certified Platinum that August. But that October, two months after the plaques arrived, he was convicted in a Florida court of battery, after video showed him kicking a female concert-goer, who can be seen pulling on his shorts. (Gates contends that the fan had groped him during his performance and that he was acting in self-defense.) He was sentenced to 180 days in prison. On the day of his release –– think about that –– he was re-arrested on an outstanding weapons charge, and eventually served nine months of a 30-month sentence in another prison, in Illinois.
Gates is out now and, to borrow an expression, the music still sells itself: With practically zero press, no radio, and a lukewarm Pitchfork review, Luca Brasi 3—released in late September—moved nearly 80,000 units in its first week. This is in line with the reliable hype that every Gates tape for the last half-decade has generated. And like the first Luca Brasi and Stranger Than Fiction (or, like the Brasi sequel or the razor-toothed By Any Means), LB3 is pensive and tightly wound and occasionally lashes out. There’s no question that Atlantic still sees him as an ascendent star, and maybe, hopefully, that’s in the cards for one of the era’s most consistently excellent, most ruthlessly uncompromised rappers. But it feels, at least to an outsider, like Gates increasingly exists in a world parallel to the one that Billboard can measure with any accuracy. He’s a street rapper with great pop instincts and, evidently, some business sense, but the industry is fickle and impatient. Plenty of rappers, including and especially from the South, have carved out long, lucrative careers that run parallel to whatever the majors are occupied with in the moment. There are Bun Bs and Curren$ys. And that’s where Gates might end up. For now, though, he’s somewhere in the middle, left with the choice of either bending to or barrelling through radio’s rapidly shifting tastes –– and for now, he’s giving a deliberate, dramatic reading of directions from a MapQuest printout, trying to lead us from the living room to the kitchen.
Standing around in the yard, after the escape, we explain to the guy from WorldStar –– who is very quiet and seemingly nice, and who has just moved here from Connecticut –– that a good number of the Industry Events he’ll be invited to will take place up north, in some city he’s never heard of, but which is only about 20 minutes away, and which he’ll probably never be able to find again if/when he wants to recreate the experience for visiting friends. A publicist wonders aloud about throwing one of those events in this very yard, with a small open bar under the permanent white Christmas lights and groups of six-to-eight filtering through the escape rooms, and then gamely keeping their secrets to themselves when they emerge, but we agree that the neighbors’ windows are much too close and it would be better to not disturb them.
* At one point, one of the room’s designers, who is wearing desert boots and a dress shirt tucked into blue jeans, interrupts himself during his practiced instructions to say, sheepishly, to Gates: “Obviously you guys know what a trap house is.” But, surprisingly, the idea of tourists escaping from a “trap house” is not as garish in practice as it sounds on paper. The experience is so frantic –– there’s a ticking clock and virtually no direction, at least until the proprietors start sending cryptic clues to your phone, and so you might as well be in the jungle or with zombies or on the moon –– that you don’t take time to meditate on the surroundings. And there’s no forced slang or caricaturish twists; there are faux bricks, but they’re referred to as “contraband,” and etc.
** A partial synopsis: “ Blanch Monnier [sic] hasn’t always had the best relationship with her mother. They disagreed often on many details, but today was no different. Blanche, after many months of courting the struggling lawyer, she has decided he was the one for her. After a lovely stroll in the mid-afternoon park in a small town in Paris, Blanche returned home to find her mother and brother, Marcel, waiting for her. Marcel had seen the two and came home to inform Mother. Despite the many warnings, Blanche refused her mother’s restrictions to meet the struggling attorney. Thus, well known socialite Madame Monnier had no other option but to discipline her darling daughter the old fashion way. Two days locked in the attic and Blanche would come to her senses.
However, much to her surprise, Blanche refused to be set free, claiming her love to be even stronger.”
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.