Kevin Gates has been a rapper to watch for a few years now — last year’s Make Em Believe, in particular, stood out for its totally comfortable combination of emotional honesty and rapping-ass rapping. Like way too many rappers, singers, and even a nu-metal band right now, though, Gates is withering away on Young Money-Cash Money, mostly unacknowledged. On his new mixtape, The Luca Brasi Story, easily the best rap-related thing so far this year, Gates is appropriately alone. Occasionally, New Orleans institutions like Curren$y and Master P show up, but the tape is mostly a white-elephant, artistic assertion of self. It’s an all-hits, no-bullshit plateau jump, eschewing YMCMB knuckleheads and the diamond-studded Ed Hardy rap that’s been slowly defining that clusterfuck of a label.
There’s neon-noir crack rap (the virtuoso-like “Paper Chasers”), lurching 3 a.m. trap-pop (“Narco Trafficante”), medium concept rappy-raps (“Weight,” in which he turns the positive advice of friends and lovers into more reasons to sell dope), and even a bounce-tinged stripper anthem, “Ugly But She Fine,” that bests T.I. and Lil Wayne’s similarly rattling “Ball.” In short, Gates does bendy street rap of the searingly honest and depressive sort, but his ears are closer to the ground, and his heart is open, only bested by Future for shocking vulnerability. Like the Pluto romantic poet, there’s no “for the ladies” condescendion in Gates’ relationship raps. These songs aren’t for the ladies anyway, they’re for Kevin Gates himself, and you feel that.
On “Arms of a Stranger,” he croons “My heart is calling out to you” over melodramatic synth pulses, then confesses on the hook, “Every time the leaves are changing, it’s the loneliest time of the year.” That line transcends its cheese because it’s the kind of goofy-ass honest shit you say when you’re in love and mean it. Lovey-dovey self-doubter “Twilight” references Omarion’s “Ice Box,” Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” and ambitiously tells his girl, “I’d go to war with God for you, baby.” When he raps on “IDGAF,” the rub is that he totally gives a fuck. That’s the power of this tape. Here’s a hard-assed, on-edge rapper who never hedges his sincerity. On “Around Me,” he recalls Miguel’s lothario vulnerability (“I ain’t had sex in a long while, after this you’ll think about me for a long time”) and declares, “I fuck with you, that’s saying something!” How cute is that?
The “fuck the world, I want to shoot myself in the head” song is called “Marshall Mathers,” and it’s maybe some kind of David Bowie “Song for Bob Dylan” moment, in which one artist attempts to pay tribute and radically realign the values of an influence, all at once. Gates is ambitious like that. There’s a beyond-good-and-evil wrestling with religion throughout that tape that isn’t about Illuminati pseudo-transgression but a thinking guy making his way through the world and calling bullshit when he feels like it. Most interesting is how Gates’ auto-didact knowledge pops through. We learn his favorite book is Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook and he shouts out the Venus of Willendorf on “Twilight.” Imagine a heart-on-his-sleeve, curiously well-read Scarface, and you’re close.
Even the mixtape title, a reference to The Godfather enforcer who is best known as a bruiser, but who is also the awkward sweetheart who can’t always get the right words out, makes sense. The first line of the The Luca Brasi Story is “Broke bread in the trenches,” and it’s a vivid, gritty detail. But plenty of other rappers would circle that for the next two-dozen songs. Instead, Kevin Gates seems intent on complicating that struggle boast and digging further into his raw, uncooked emotions. The respect for his own stake in the women in his life and for the women themselves, is unmatched. It is the most romantic, world’s-closing-in record of this year, right there with Toro Y Moi’s Anything in Return. Figure that one out.