Whether it’s by kicking a female fan at one of his concerts or admitting he’s sleeping with his cousin, Baton Rouge rapper and Atlantic Records artist Kevin Gates (Kevin Gilyard) sure knows how to make himself look like a douchebag in the public eye. And for those two revelations to surface close to the release of Islah, his debut studio album, means an even more severe blow has been dealt to his likability and career-longevity. Gates has released several mixtapes since 2006, worked with many notables in the game and was inducted into XXL’s 2014 Freshmen Class, something the popular hip-hop magazine might be regretting now. Islah (released Jan. 29) is just what you’d expect from Gates and nothing more, as he positions himself comfortably in the dual role of gangster and lover in this precisely unimpressive first major label LP of his.
Islah actually starts off decently, but it doesn’t last long. Gates holds hip-hop’s pupils’ attention for the entirety of the first song, “Not The Only One,” with its ordinary but nice low-key beat and the good kindhearted intentions of its contents, and Gates also has some solid flows in there, but after track’s end, the ADD is likely to flare up for wildly anxious listeners. All of the rest of the album proceeds in the exact same predictable way, showcasing Gates as either a hard product of the trap or an experienced romantic, and he takes really no chances anywhere.
“Really Really” and “Two Phones” attempt to establish authenticity and rally up support for Gates’s cause and brand, and “Pride” shows his softer side as he misses his ex-girlfriend and carries on in that way. He then goes back and forth between the streets and his relationships, song for song between the hood and his love life, the ghetto and the game of love. This two-way structure is pretty obvious to make note of if you map out the whole tracklist. Gates switches from one to the other so regularly and consistently that the pattern is really conspicuous to just about anyone who gives Islah a good hard listen, and the issue isn’t in the skeleton or outline or the number of topics presented but rather in the nature of the topics herein. The sensationalization of the dangerous black “gutter” and emotionalized intersex relations as they are presented here are such trite rituals for rap in these times. Accurate reporting from real black communities is always useful, but here it’s exaggeratedly characterized and dramatized so that it’s no longer in a useful context.
Bars-wise, Gates is up to snuff based on his prior standards, but lyrically he hasn’t challenged himself greatly. His scratchy low voice and occasionally funny side remarks and hooks are unmistakeable, but it’s all in the service of his and his label’s agenda and image-advancement. The music doesn’t make a great impression or step forward either, and for all the different producers involved in making Islah, the beats all sound too similar, a little too consistent from one to the next, all using the current trap style or some pop variation, like in “Kno One,” a universally appealable slow jam engineered for the people. And besides Trey Songz, Jamie Foxx and Ty Dolla $ign in the bonus “Jam,” the non-deluxe version is completely guest-less. For a debut, Islah is disappointing, and considering who and where it’s coming from, people shouldn’t be surprised. Kevin Gates may care more about getting major “paper” in the game than being a major player in the game, based off this new offering.