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Review: Kevin Gates, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’

Ask Kevin Gates about his cavities.
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: July 15, 2013
Label: Bread Winners Association

Kevin Gates’ sprawling February mixtape The Luca Brasi Story ended with “IHOP (True Story),” an Iceberg Slim-style storytelling rap about how even a meal at a busted breakfast chain can contort into a grim setting for revenge. Backed by nothing but a light, percussive smack — presumably, the rapper himself slapping his chest as he aggressively delivers the story — Gates implicates himself in the crime, with a mix of blunt reportage and too-much-to-bear regret: “Back was turned the whole time, little brother ran up and murked him / Issuing him two to the dome and worked him with the chrome / Until this day, I can say I set him up and he gone.”

Stranger Than Fiction, the Baton Rouge MC’s latest pathos-soaked take on radio-friendly street rap, begins with “4 Legs and a Biscuit,” a similarly breathless tale that uses food to ground sudden eruptions of violence in the quotidian. Indeed, the phrase “stranger than fiction” feels like Gates’ thesis statement: These are gangsta raps that employ little details to get to some deeper, weirder truth. On “Get Em’,” he throws in some lines about a foot problem and cavities, which makes the rest of the song both more relatable and more disturbing: “I’m a shit-talker that read books / Plain Jane my best look / Ain’t complaining about my left foot / Fifteen cavities, team in back of me / That will be fixed when the song over.”

Notice how Gates is often moving back over his observations, making sure to clarify or expound on the stuff he spits. He is thinking and editing himself while he raps. The haunting “4:30 AM,” all formless synth swirls and slow-building bounce claps, finds him going back over the facts of a friendship, which serves to underline the tragic betrayal: “Stab wounds from an old friend / Well, at that time we were close friends / They said I killed him in cold blood / We wrestled for the gun but the gun went off.” He just isn’t thinking about rap the way other guys are; he’s far more considerate to listeners, to himself, and to the characters that inhabit these songs.

And though gauging “realness” is a waste of time, Gates conveys a sense of authority that allows him to say whatever he wants and maintain credibility. His propensity for violence and cruelty feel more believable, because he’s also doling out odd asides about himself. On the Luca Brasi track “Arms of a Stranger,” he told listeners his favorite book was Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, which certainly isn’t the sort of thing someone trying to prove their tough-guy laurels would mention. And now, on “Smiling Faces,” he talks astrology with a woman he’s just met; elsewhere, he discusses his tendency to destroy every relationship he’s in at about the three-week mark. On “Strokin,” a mindful, tasteful fuck rap, Gates actually seems interested in pleasing the woman he’s with, and proves it by slowing down the freaky details to croon Valentine Day’s card sentiments —”Looks like I seen you in my dreams or in a magazine” — amid lines that put Kanye’s recent “I’m in It” to shame in terms of ass-eating shock value.

Gates is also getting an even better handle on his truly singular voice. He’s refined his acrobatic ability to jump from half-gorgeous singing to rumble-voiced rapping between couplets, but now he’s also flaunting a wounded, crackling croak that’s truly disturbing. On “MYB,” the grit in his voice evokes a guy who hasn’t slept in a few days, too caught up in ugly thoughts; when he describes the aforementioned murder of his friend on “4:30 AM,” he free-falls into a blind catharsis, lost in a memory he can’t shake. You know the end of First Blood, where Rambo careens into a Vietnam flashback monologue, all mumbles and grunts and inarticulate anger? That’d be the best way to describe Gates’ delivery here.

The Luca Brasi Story was more ambitious, but Stranger Than Fiction does moves Gates closer to a larger audience: Songs like minimalist squeaker “Thinkin’ with My Dick” (featuring Juicy J) and a remix of 2012’s Future-esque “Satellites” (now with Wiz Khalifa) are aiming for street-hit status. “Don’t Know What to Call It” is almost EDM rap, though Gates keeps the content maudlin and frustrated. His vision is wide and open-hearted, and his skills are extensive: a novelistic eye for detail, a snake-like way around atmospheric trap beats, and a low-key ethic that prevents him from presenting hustling as anything but a soul-deadening grind. Quite simply, he’s one of the most sensitive and self-aware rappers around.