Split-face album artwork typically signifies a positive change in character for the artist in creative control. Other times, this design can manifest a reflection of personality and past hardships (Maxo Kream‘s artwork from earlier this year conveyed a sense of familial adversity). Kevin Gates conjures both of these mindsets simultaneously, using an old picture from the early days to juxtapose a newer, clearer portrait of himself.
These ideas are the basis for I’m Him, the second official studio album from the Louisiana native. Gates puts his turbulent past behind him, and uses this page-turning aesthetic as a catalyst for more soulful, auto-tune heavy music. The faded-out photo from his early days is replaced by a more focused and determined Kevin Gates illustration. Wide-eyed and ready to go, the Baton Rouge rap-crooner facilitates a set of songs that walk a fine line between hardcore street rap and tender love ballads.
The former is explored over tight two-minute bangers courtesy of big-name producers Take a Daytrip and CashMoneyAP. Gates immediately addresses family turmoil on “Icebox,” a melodic confessional about frustration and healing old wounds-“First time I’ve ever been disappointed, think it came from my mother/I subconsciously engage in things that’s making me suffer/And this in turn has an effect on how I deal with a woman.” These admissions are reminiscent of Kream’s stark revelations on Brandon Banks and YBN Cordae’s family assessments on the emotionally-moving “Family Matters.”
Speaker Knockerz’ legendary autotune-drenched aesthetic continues to be a focal point for southern street tales, specifically NBA Youngboy and Alabama’s NoCap. The same can now be said for Gates, as he cleverly interpolates Speaker’s underground classic “Lonely” into a fateful narrative showcasing just how desolate selling drugs can be. The song is also a reminder of how influential the late rapper was on the mid-2000s trap sound.
Gates continues to make his case as one of the best crossover artists the sub-genre has to offer, specifically when he’s exhibiting a delicate side to his already versatile repertoire. Tracks such as “Let it Go” and “Fly Again” would usually be fit for more obvious balladeers like Gates’ own prodigy Rod Wave; but the seasoned veteran makes it work. The riveting finale plays out like a heartfelt end to a clamorous chapter that started at the tail-end of 2016.
Since then, Gates has improved tremendously from a lyrical standpoint. He’s much more mysterious, metaphorical, and surprisingly transcendent. In one scenario, he’s a tough-as-nails drug kingpin rapping about the plug life (“Facts”); a character we’ve seen him play many times before. Other instances however, Gates sends cryptic messages to a long lost love one. Never in a million years did I think we’d hear spellbinding dialogue on a Kevin Gates project. But here we are in 2019, listening to a voodoo ceremony being held on my Apple Music-“She was tryna hit him with the whoop, tryna catch him/She was tryna put it in his food, tryna trap him/Maybe underneath the full moon, night of passion/Thinking he’ll fall deeply in love from attraction.” Now that’s some Romeo & Juliet type shit right there. I love when modern rappers make classic literature references to describe their current lifestyle.
Sometimes, Gates will make awkward transitions into blunt bootylicious vulgarities (“Face Down” and “What I Like”) to oppose the dark and depressive therapy sessions (“Walls Talking” and “Have You Ever”). The vibe gets hindered when Gates steps back into his odd sexual fantasies. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. Gates avidly practices oral sex on mangos and peaches (that’s some Call Me By Your Name shit), so maybe licking a girl’s ear isn’t the weirdest thing in the world. Saying he’s going to choke her during sex is definitely a regressive action though, especially considering his past actions.
Thankfully there’s also moments of appreciation for the females in his life. Aside from the constant gratitude towards his mother, Gates finds time to cherish his newborn daughter on “Betta For You” (“Safe to say I’m flying/smarter by the way I’m raising my daughter/Hope you meet a man/that’s thoughtful that remind you of your father/I take as much of your pain as I can whenever you call”). Gates continues to make a genuine effort, both musically and mentally. And much like its cover art suggests, I’m Him starts to present a clear portrait of an ever-changing artist.