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Whether you believe the claim or not, it was a huge piece of publicity for Gates. Music outlets who would otherwise ignore the staunchly underground star wrote about it. Even huge publications that dredge their supplemental music coverage from the Sidebar of Shame took note.
I’ve been listening to Gates for a while now. In that time I’ve learned that the Baton Rouge native’s lyrics are often as brashly absurd as they are achingly vulnerable. He can move from bars about cooking crack and trapping his best friend’s girl to bars about depression and poverty, all in the same song. Both sensitive and fearsome, with an ear for an top 10 hook, Gates is the most complex mixtape warrior to appear in a long time. At the root of his stories is an urge to be totally honest, largely because he behaves as if he’s still speaking to an audience as underground as he is - not one that also includes content-hungry bloggers and internet rap nerds like me. Despite some radio play and an inclusion in 2014’s XXL Freshmen list, he exists only in the Southern crucible that made him, chasing credibility above all else.
So when he uploaded the Instagram video detailing his forbidden relationship, I didn’t believe he was seeking attention. He was just doing what he always does: Telling it like it is.
I just got back from SXSW, where I had the good fortune of seeing Gates. Halfway through his set he went on a brief rant about relationships. Namely, how no one should care how you’re fucking or who you love. It was pretty clear what he was referring to. What was even more obvious was the genuine hurt he was feeling at having been ridiculed by the media for divulging the truth (he deleted the post in the wake of the coverage). I was quite drunk by that point, but I even thought a tear might be forming over the tattooed drops at the corner of his eye.
When his speech was finished, he launched into an acapella of ‘Posed to be in Love’, an account of a failed relationship. The song features him being kicked out of his home by his girlfriend, who he proceeds to beat up before attempting to drown her in the toilet. In terms of a lament for lost love, it’s not exactly ‘Chelsea Hotel’, but the performance was fraught with so much pain and riddled with even more subtext that it was easily my favourite of the festival. Before me - decked out in a tracksuit riding well below his butt, with a crucifix inked between his eyes - was one of the most bizarre characters in hip hop.
After seeing him live and listening to much of his music, it’s unfair that Gates is now better known for his unusual behaviour than anything he’s put down in the booth. Unlike a lot of his peers, who churn out mixtape after forgettable mixtape, Gates’ back catalogue features a number of tracks that are legitimate bangers. With upwards of seven millions views on YouTube and its own hashtag, his tune ‘I Don’t Get Tired #IDGT’ even has the chance of being a veritable mainstream hit. Despite this, he just can’t restrain himself from doing the sort of things you’d find on a seized hard drive.
Along with the admitted incest, he’s gone on a radio show and defended drinking his lover’s piss. He vented his anger on Instagram when his current squeeze wouldn’t fellate his dog. His actual barking, four legged dog. Recently, he uploaded a picture of his dead grandmother in an open casket, his hand over her mouth as if to extinguish her final breath. He is, in short, on a different fucking wavelength.
You could say that this is nothing unusual given the genre’s current taste for the eccentric. Kanye ruffles polite decorum every time a mic is shoved in his face, which is all the time. Even rappers like Riff Raff manage to look otherworldly by dressing like they’ve attacked an ice cream parlour while high on PCP. But dudes like Riff Raff are little more than catalysts for social media dissemination, just as Kanye’s excesses seem curated for column inches by his internal PR machine.
With ‘Ye, every interview, outburst and conspiratorial rant serves to further establish whatever ‘brand’ he’s gunning for. It’s a sales pitch, buy into it if you want. It might be inappropriate to bum-rush the stage at an award show then criticise Beck on the E! Network, but it’s not the action of a man who goes home and drinks his lady’s piss before demanding she blow his pet. He may be divisive, but you’d rarely describe anything Kanye does as weird.
Gates, on the other hand, is exactly that - in an inherent, unflinching, instinctive way. When he reveals an unorthodox aspect of his private life he does so with a certainty to suggest he knows no different. Just watch the clip of him talking about his love for water-sports. He can barely contain his anger when he realises the hosts are grimacing. Nothing about Kevin Gates is an act.
It was raining during his set at SXSW. I was in a portable toilet kicking the flush handle with my heel when the DJ dropped his first song. Like a giddy idiot, I fell backwards out of the muddy cabin to find Gates hadn’t taken the stage yet. For some reason, he emerged about halfway through the second verse and started to mime along. Even though his mic was on, the distinction between his voice and the backing track was imperceptible. It seemed that for all the press surrounding his life off the stage, he couldn’t be fucked to perform when he was actually on it.
When he told the world about his odd relationships, he obviously didn’t expect it to care that much. Laugh, maybe, but not recoil in disgust. Now that Gates was miming at a major festival, it became clear that he might not be the best judge of people.
After queuing for an hour to see him, it was a real disappointment.
Even if Gates’ voice wasn’t delivering, at least his physical presence was enthused, as he peppered his mouthed bars with flailing limbs and simulated gun shots. When he rapped about sex - which was often - he’d glide his fist in front of his crotch like a pornstar finishing up a facial. Yes, it was that crude.
When he finally bothered to do it live - during ‘Posed to be in Love’ - the sting of his real voice was strong enough to silence the crowd. If you haven’t heard it, Gates’ drawl sounds as if it was carved by chain-smoking untipped Lucky Strikes during a bout of bird flu. His rasp is arresting but languid, and if he lived in a different era and sang in a different tune, he’d probably be signed to Stax. Whether his mic was broken or he was just lazy to begin with, the remainder of the set was comparatively riveting.
Before his closing number, he spoke candidly of his battles with depression following the death of his friends and his grandmother. For a man with songs called ‘Homicide’, ‘IDGAF’ and ‘Break the Bitch Down’, it was incredibly vulnerable - in a subgenre that definitely isn’t.
As he left the stage, he thanked the crowd. He claimed we were his “last form of income.” Given his troubled background and his tendency to reveal too much, this statement was undoubtedly true. Above all else, they were the words of a man who couldn’t be anything but himself, who looked like he didn’t belong anywhere but the stage. That’s a rare thing for an artist these days.
“I’m a two-time convicted felon. I can’t do nothing else.”
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