One obnoxious aspect of Twitter is its privileging of over-determined narrative “arcs,” those moments where Dr. Twitter User tries to diagnose the patient (an artist) like a political talking head, completely oblivious to the fundamentals, unwilling to look outside of their own myopic social media bubble. (Not that I’ve been immune to the temptation.) A recent example is the common-sense argument that Kevin Gates has, “unfortunately,” let the noise and spectacle overwhelm his music. This argument had particularly strong legs in the trenches of Rap Opinion twitter, an area where takes are expressed w/ the intensity of a thousand suns, yet maintained w/ the consistency required of an anonymous avatar for whom nothing is at stake. Some held this position even after Gates sold 112k his first week, shifting the goal posts to tackle his relative lack of media attention (he performed on no late night talk shows, graced the cover of no major magazines), to rationalize the press’ failure as one of his own making.
But it’s much more likely that, without the viral spasms around Gates’, um, unique personality, he would have received even less press. The fundamentals for his rise were based in large part around his relentless national tour schedule over the last four years. It’s hard to say if records like “2 Phones” and “Really Really,” his first forays into the Hot 100, were simply the first Hot 100-worthy records he recorded, or if his snowballing fanbase finally had enough momentum to simply propel the right records at the right time—neither feels substantially more “pop” than earlier iterations of his sound, in the way one might compare “Hard Knock Life” with earlier Jay records, or “Lollipop” with earlier records from Wayne.
That said, Islah feels more focused and refined than its predecessors; certainly it’s his most potent since Stranger Than Fiction or the first Luca Brasi tape. Frankie Tha Lucky Dog, for whom I have tremendous respect, captures the complete inverse of my position on the record: the only “pop” song he shows a weakness for (“Kno One”) is to my ears one of those roll-around-the-rim almost-not-quite-there records. In one sense, it’s the most archetypal “pop” song on the album—it lives or dies by its success. Because it has none (it predated “Really Really” and “2 Phones” but hasn’t charted), it’s more difficult to look past the ways in which it veers sentimental, an emotion approximated. It’s the opposite of “2 Phones,” which doesn’t advertise itself as “pop” quite so blatantly, but which gains intensity through its success, its hook becoming as ingrained in the culture as the “Bonebonebonebone, bone, bone” Thugs-N-Harmony shoutouts I’d hear in 6th grade hallways.
All the other “pop” records Frankie laments on Islah, on the other hand, are balanced enough to exist with or without a drop of airplay. It’d be nice to hear “Hard For” on radio coast to coast, of course, if such a thing is possible in 2016 the way it almost certainly would have been fifteen years earlier. But even if it doesn’t make it, “Hard For” works perfectly as the album’s creative apex, a gift for the album-consuming true fan, at once a precise distillation of Kevin Gates as only Kevin Gates will sound, and a cross-format, broadly-appealing, intergenerational gesture submerged in music history.
If we can really talk honestly about what “pop” means in the context of this album, we’re talking about the shift towards Kevin Gates, romantic. Some have identified “Thought I Heard (Breadwinner’s Anthem)” as the album’s obvious standout, but tales of his relationship turmoil are much more effective. Other than “The Truth,” which speaks directly to the circumstances of Kevin’s recent struggles, records which veer from this mean end up feeling a bit inconsequential, although their gloomy aggression brightens the colors of the records they surround. Although it’s easy to see this move cynically, Kevin Gates has always had an ear for these records (“Dangerous” “Satellites”); that they’ve taken over as he’s shifted from the streets to the tour bus is no surprise.