“Nothing in the streets happens for nothing.”
-Kevin Gates (Peter Rosenberg interview)
Whether you love or loathe Louisiana hip hop orator Kevin Gates, by now you’ve at least heard of him. He’s the trap rapper with a penchant for melodicism and a grizzly, guttural growl that emerges during his more emotive moments. Indeed, Gates seems to have already earned a place within The Bayou State’s canon of parish pastoralists who moonlight as dope boys, name their albums things like Ghetto Dope and Incarcerated, and don’t shy away from crafting the kinds of brash, gut-wrenching street tales that evoke our most complex sentiments. Gates’ newest offering, By Any Means, is a sophisticated, scrambled collection of lyrical vignettes that defies linearity as strategically as an avant-garde film. At the same time the project’s brute, passionate (and often problematic) confessional poems wage a metaphysical complaint against the hood itself, it operates as a “trillustration” (a term borrowed from mine and Gates’ favorite rapper, Starlito) of the illegible, omniscient culprit that governs the madness of trap life: causality.
Every narrative has a hero, and “Can’t Make This Up” presents Gates as a sort of mythical trap anti-hero who has miraculously transcended the physical confines and very real dangers of the slums but still wrestles with the trap inside him. He subverts the savage “sub-humanness” with which dominant society often associates the ghetto into a kind of superhumanity by declaring: “Step inside the booth, loosen up the tie: Superman is still alive!” At the same time he asserts himself as a mythic figure in this particular track, he manages (quite impressively, I might add) to de-mythologize the overall narrative by focusing on the science of cause and effect. Over the course of the mixtape, you don’t just get to know Gates as an excellent crack cook (“Arm & Hammer”), he also tells you he’s been incarcerated twice and “offered thirty years in the court.”
Nearly every track on By Any Means could be classified as either “cause” or “effect” (some are both), though this is not an exhaustive list of examples. “Posed to Be in Love” is an “effect” song. Its speaker hurls threats of domestic violence at his female antagonist with all the bombastic misogyny of Project Pat in “Gorilla Pimp” (though, to be fair, Gates does issue a disclaimer in a recent interview with Sway: “I’m not sponsoring domestic violence. I was just exhibiting passion”). “Wit it” and “Stop Lyin’” are backstories to “Posed to Be in Love.” In “Wit It,” for example, the speaker displays a boyish, wide-eyed awe at the idea of falling in love. He makes proclamations that sound downright poetic like: “I’m out my mind/ don’t know what to call it / hard to stand and too close to the edge / I think I’m fallin’.” By the time he arrives at “Stop Lyin’” his patience has worn thin and the inflection in his statement “On everything that I love / man I had enough,” sounds as cautionary as it does declarative. The fury into which he descends once he reaches “Posed to Be in Love” is terrifying, to be certain. But it isn’t random.
“Homicide” and “Movie” are the project’s most jarring causality couple. And they aren’t side by side without reason. Gates wants us to understand that there’s a cause and effect relationship between his personality extremes. Furious and Horrorcore-tinged, “Homicide” is a morbid street story that finds our speaker brainstorming about ways to exact revenge on the person responsible for putting him in the hospital and murdering his friend. It’s also clear that much of his anger is predicated on the state in which the tragedy leaves his comrade’s children. In the first verse, he makes the assessment:
“Left my nigga children on this earth to be bastards.”
What follows in the next verse is a shit-your-pants murder scene described in the kind of detail you might expect from a rapper who calls himself Luca Brasi. Let’s just say it involves band-aided fingertips and duct taped shoe soles. In “Movie,” however, the speaker recounts the birth of his kids with a glowing, heart-warming nostalgia. He even says of his daughter: “didn’t open her eyes until she heard me talkin.” Though the two songs appear to be antithetical, they are closely interrelated. The subject of children is a soft spot for Gates, and the idea of children left fatherless results in the immense anger that fuels “Homicide.”
Whether you’re put off by its violent imagery or impressed by its raw nerve, one thing is certain: By Any Means is not your typical trap album. Of course, if any New School emcee is gifted enough to utilize non-linear causality (you know, like really brilliant screenwriters do), it’s Kevin Gates: the guy who studied psychology in prison and reads books like The Celestine Prophecy in his free time. The project is dark, disturbing (borderline Horrorcore)—yes. But it’s also an unofficial memoir of a trap kid who escapes a hood many of his friends have already succumbed to. It’s a decoupage of after images—a reminder that the “Almighty Trap” is more all-encompassing than mere physical landscape. Its effects linger internally, indefinitely. At its most problematic, By Any Means is fiercely misogynist, unbelievably violent. At its most genius, it is a metaphysical dialogue between the trap and itself where causality runs the real show—a metaphilosophy that aims to articulate its own illegibility. Plus, Gates is brave enough to say things on record that most of us are afraid to even think. And you gotta respect a man with that much heart.
Get By Any Means on iTunes!