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Kevin Gates is a free man: Why he’s one of hip-hop’s most essential artists

On Wednesday, Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates was released from an Illinois state prison where he’s been incarcerated since April on weapons charges.

Kevin Gates has been one of the most intriguing and enigmatic talents in hip-hop since he emerged out of Louisiana in the mid-2000s. Gates’ music is a compelling mix of trappy Southern hip-hop, rap rock riffs, massive peaking choruses, and emotive bittersweet ballads.

Much has been made of the blurring of the lines between rock, rap, and emo in the last year or so. This trend has been felt mostly in hip-hop, where countless artists like Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, even Post Malone, are making music that doesn’t just blend genres, but shatters them entirely.

Kevin Gates, 31, is older than these other artists, there’s less Good Charlotte and more Limp Bizkit in his music. While that statement could seem like a critique not long ago, the new wave of genre-defying hip-hop has refined the super corny era of late 1990s rap rock into something much more fascinating.

Gates’ discography is a wild, diverse collection, including ballads like “Hard For” from 2016’s extremely impressive Islah.

Kevin Gates sings gently to his partner in his syrupy drawl that “You the only one that my dick can get hard for” and it’s somehow not ridiculous… it’s even kind of romantic.

“Really Really”, also off Islah is a triumphant tour de force of rap maximalism. Gates is a master of the hook, his voice thunders above the blaring organs, and “Really Really” is as perfect a chorus that you’ll hear.

Another Gates classic is “2 Phones”, I mean how can you not wil’ out to that chorus?

Or the exultant “I Don’t Get Tired” from 2014’s Luca Brasi 2: Gangsta Grillz.

His latest project, By Any Means 2, released in September while Gates was behind bars and compiled by his wife and manager, was a clear indication that nothing can really stop Gates from leaving his imprint on the game.

By Any Means 2 is vintage Gates. Going from the grimy as fuck “No Love” and “McGyver”, which are Gates’ version of contemporary Bayou-infused Southern rap to R&B ballads like “Beautiful Scars” and “D U Down”.

“Had To” is another of Gates’ massive choruses, sounding like he’s singing from some higher level, his voice has this sense of levitation, bringing the listener up to his level.

For as hard as some of Gates’ more street oriented tracks, like “Had To”, are, his trap ballads make him a truly special and individual artist.

“Fuckin Right” and “D U Down” are pretty explicit, but when Gates sings “That ass is from Houston but that mouth from Chicago” it’s somehow endearingly tender.

And “D U Down” ist some top class buttery R&B.

Gates has a variety of styles, but his lyrical content has massive range as well. From pugnacious bars about serving to sappy, if not ultra-explicit, love songs to rapping about his demons, Gates can do it all.

On “Beautiful Scars” with PnB Rock, Gates raps about his complex interiority:

“In the game going hard, I been misused
Fucked up in the brain, got some issues”

The track is so enjoyable and Gates’ flow so confident that you almost miss the fact that he’s writing about his mental health, a subject he’s been open about before.

In a 2013 interview with HipHopDX, Gates spoke about his battles with depression and using music as an outlet:

“I really deal with depression. I really, really deal with depression. And my only release is making music and getting tattoos. So, I’m not the type of artist that the label has to say, ‘Hey Kevin, you need to be in the studio.’ Nah, you don’t have to tell me that, I’m gonna be there. And I don’t approach things like I’m working on a project.”

It’s clear that Kevin Gates is an artist with unlimited depth, he’s got some issues to work on, both mental and legal, but he’s an invaluable part of modern hip-hop.

Here’s hoping to his long-lasting freedom and some more boundless music.