As an artist, you've got to know yourself and your own vision first and foremost. Kevin Gates certainly does. The Baton Rouge-based rapper doesn't pull any punches, and his honesty fuels everything he does. More importantly, you can get to know him very well just by listening to what he's got to say on tape.
Rap felt like destiny for him from a very young age. In a house with stacks of records and CDs, he became engaged by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and The Notorious B.I.G. as a child. Watching music videos religiously, the burgeoning MC would then perform for his aunts and uncles during family gatherings.
"I'd emulate what I saw on TV," he recalls. "I'd pretend like I was a rapper for my family. I just knew that this is what I was meant to do. I never questioned it. I felt that for as long as I can remember."
In 2004, he entered a local studio for the very first time and started professionally recording. Three years later, he dropped his breakout debut mixtape, Pick Of Da Litter. As he passed out thousands of CDs around the area, his buzz started to spread like wildfire and he began playing multiple shows per week. Shortly after, he unleashed the 2008 hit "Get in the Way" featuring Lil Boosie, developing a devout national following in the process. However, in the aftermath of the track's success, Gates faced incarceration until 2011.
"When I got out, my fan base had strangely grown," he admits. "It was so crazy to me. Once I came home, I knew that I had to just focus on the music. I practically never left the studio after that. It was all about recording and making more songs."
Gates also took the opportunity to found his very own record label, Bread Winners Association, in 2011. As a banner for his movement, the company touts an important ethos for the artist that courses through all of his output.
"Bread Winners Association was always an idea," he says. "I got serious with it upon being reinserted into society. This is the way I see it. If you’re making money and supporting yourself or your family, you’re a Bread Winner. It’s not about how much money you make. It’s about hustling to survive for a better life for yourself and the people you love. It also means, 'Be what you are'. The biggest quote for me is Shakespeare's 'To thine own self be true'. That's my philosophy. If I'm in a situation, it has to feel like me."
He upheld that even when offered a deal with Young Money Entertainment in 2012. Gates respectfully (and famously) passed, having been inspired by Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman's own story of "taking twenty years" to build a brand. He took it to heart and wholeheartedly pursued his own path. 2013 saw him make waves a few times with The Luca Brasi Story, which Rolling Stone dubbed "One of the 20 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013", and an incendiary feature on Pusha T's "Trust You". That year, Stranger Than Fiction put Gates on the map once again, boasting cameos by Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J and garnering unanimous praise from Pitchfork, The Fader, Complex, and Spin.
However, 2014's By Any Means raised the bar even higher for Gates. Unflinchingly real, he delivers razor sharp verses with intricate wordplay as well as hard, yet hypnotic hooks. Once again, he attracted everybody from Plies ["Keep F****** With Me"] and Rico Love ["Go Hard"] to 2 Chainz ["Bet I'm On It"] and the late, legendary Doe B ["Amnesia"] to the studio. About the latter, he goes on, "When I met Doe B, we had instant chemistry. It's like I had known him my whole life. It was immediate and so real".
Meanwhile, "Arm & Hammer" swings from ominous production into rough rhymes before colliding on an anthemic and gruff verse. Simultaneously, "Don't Know" showcases his penchant for a powerful and passionate melody. "People can get different things from it," he explains. "It's like a movie. You can picture it and get your own story. When I listen to music, it captures a moment. I hope it's that way for everybody else."
By Any Means also solidified him as a 21st century heavyweight. Upon release, it nearly doubled the first-week sales of Stranger Than Fiction, landing at #17 on the Billboard Top 200 and #3 on the Current Rap Albums Overall Chart. With his partnership between Bread Winners Association and Atlantic Records in place, Gates sees even bigger things in store.
"This alliance between us is great," he continues. "Atlantic allows me to embrace new challenges like stepping outside of myself and out of my comfort zone. That's encouraged me to be a better songwriter and artist. Having my own label, I wanted to learn how to successfully run a label. Why not learn from one of the most successful in the game?"
Ultimately though, it always remains about the same thing for Gates—the music. He leaves off, "It feels good when people appreciate my art in its entirety. That makes me feel great. I want everyone to experience this in its entirety. Other than that, I don't have any complaints. As long as I can record, I'm okay. That's all that matters."