What has been rap’s lowkey biggest moment this summer? You know, the moment that doesn’t involve the impressively hyped Yeezus and the album/marketing machine Magna Carta… Holy Grail. Maybe it was Run The Jewels—arguably the genre’s best of the year—but let’s scale it back to a seconds’ long instance. “4:30 A.M.” is a strong contender for the moment, in which Kevin Gates yells, “Where were you when I was slumped over/Gums hurting from an old bullet, in front of the toilet hunched over.”
It’s a bit of a shock; not just because of the lyrical content, but its delivery. In the middle of this intimate, nocturnal production, Gates switches up his drowsy performance and grabs the listener by the neck with this cathartic, heartbreaking roar. It’s a horrific detail, but at the same time it was gripping. That’s storytelling done right.
Some of Stranger Than Fiction’s highlights doesn’t quite reach the level of “4:30 A.M.”, but they do follow a similar course. One of Gates’ bigger strengths, as seen on The Luca Brasi Story, isn’t just how solid he is at creating vocal melodies, songwriting, and crafting those street-cooked verses; it’s how he combines those skills. He’ll give you something catchy to listen to, but it can be a façade that hides a closed fisted point of view.
The husky-toned Louisiana native uses this trick to switch from mournful to nefarious and a lot of places in between. In “MYB”, the third track on the album, Gates’ voice lowers to a plodding croak that’s backed by an ominous production. His flow remains solid, but it slows up a bit when he spits, “When I got his bitch pregnant bet it broke his heart/Go ahead and get some get back or fuck my bitch/I let you in on a little secret n***a she not shit” near the song’s end. Ouch.
“Change On Me”’s gives this malevolent beat that carries its own weight, but it isn’t long before Gates manhandles it. He strangles that beat to a domesticated growl as he spits, “Not a friend for fame, don’t like to be out on camera/Possibly fun and games till somebody kidnap your family/Duct tape em’ beat em’ with hammers demanding you send a ransom.” On “Die Bout It”, Gates’ flow slowly builds up tension until he devolves into straight id: “Shoot to kill, Don’t discuss that/Done that, fuck that, fuck that, fuck that.”
But where Gates succeeds lyrically, the production falters in many more places. The satisfying and at times radio-friendly style of The Luca Brasi Story has been scaled back quite a bit in Stranger Than Fiction for a more trap house feel—with a few exceptions including the steady exhale of “Don’t Know What To Call It” and the bounce of “Careful”. Sadly, a lot of these beats feel recycled and thin. Sure, the bass on “Get Em” is cool, but you’re going to get that feeling you’ve heard that beat in some form one too many times before. “Tiger” sounds outright amateurish, and the grating hook doesn’t help much either.
The mostly forgettable guest spots hold back Stranger Than Fiction also. Out of the seven guest spots, there’s only about two worth mentioning: the decent verse by Starlito in “MYB” and the too-absurd-to-be-questioned energy of Migos in “Snake N***as” .Juicy J’s performance on “Thinking With My Dick” is memorable, but not in a good way. I won’t quote his lines, because it’s a bit uncomfortable how he treats female’s mouths. Surely there must be a better way.
It turns out there is on “Angels”, in which he raps “Being logical gave me a reason to doubt.” It turns out Gates mentality on “Die Bout It” is a defense mechanism in Stranger Than Fiction’s belligerence. Self-deprecation (“My sex drive has been at an all-time low/Could barely get it up”), world-weary vocal melodies, and a series of bars showing genuine desperation follows in the next two minutes. It encapsulates Gates’ persona at its best: a steely eyed storyteller grasping for his humanity. Gates is particularly interesting partially because of how he doesn’t necessarily have to choose between lyrical detail and accessibility; he already has the complete package. Figuring out how to deliver that package is what’s proving to be the tricky part.
3 out of 5
Purchase Stranger Than Fiction on Amazon.