Louisiana may never really get the full-blown renaissance that ‘90s New York, 2013-14 Bay Area, or 2013 Seattle has. Its sports teams are stuck within overpowering divisions, its nearby state Georgia is also dominating in the mainstream level, and its regional heroes aren’t going to be shoe-ins for any Grammy anytime soon. It does have plenty to be proud about though: Anthony Davis is that dude, Lil Boosie is out of jail (all is right in the world), and Kevin Gates exists not just as the region’s star, but also a graveled-voice champion of gangsta rap. Although he hasn’t reached the trap wanderlust heights of The Luca Brasi Story and “4:30 AM,” Gates has gained a reputation for being consistent. He’s the southern companion to Freddie Gibbs, except he filters his hard knock tales with melodic catharsis.
I did a short interview with Gates at the tail end of SXSW, and he unintentionally summarized the appeal of By Any Means. He was fresh out of prison and wasn’t at all interested in any of Austin’s festivities: “If I’m not on stage performing, I’m recording. If I’m not recording, I’m probably shooting a video or looking at the edits of a video.” That’s pretty much the gist of this project. It carries itself with a little-room-for-error focus on structural, sticky songwriting — sometimes even to a detriment. While Gates doesn’t reach out of his sphere, By Any Means shines by how effortless and unforced he sounds within its parameters. He’s cozy in the studio instead of wired on Red Bulls, and it sounds captivating.
That sort of attentiveness is a blessing for a listener sitting through a 16-track mixtape (which is roughly the same length of his prior two mixtapes). Every track has a distinctiveness and purpose. For example, there are a lot of malevolent threats, but none are interchangeable. On “Homicide,” Gates raps over-the-top in what sounds like trap-meets-The X-Files: “Up it, spray it to the pavement you a blood donor.” His voice breaks with aggression when he’s at his trunk-rattling, anthemic best on “Arm and Hammer” (“You other n****s had your turn you play your face then get ate up”). Even if you don’t like either, you’ll definitely remember them for what they are.
What puts By Any Means on a higher echelon than Gates’ previously released Stranger Than Fiction is how it shows a willingness to venture outside of urban aggression. Gates doesn’t hit home runs in these spaces like in The Luca Brasi Story, but he’s definitely at least hitting doubles. The rapper plays the clichéd movie life/urban strife analogy with poignant, mournful mastery over Beewirks’ aquatic instrumental on the autobiographical “Movie”. Gates as a persona has a presence, but do not forget he’s a damn good storyteller (“Perform a c-section, doctors gotta go in and get it/But that’s alright I held her tight, while under operating lights, umbilical cord wrapped around his neck/He came out and was fine”). Gates’ shouts on “I Can’t Make This Up” is the type that will be chanted along well past closing time at the bar.
Again, the constant hook-verse-hook structure throughout drags the album back from greatness to goodness (particularly on “Bet I’m On It,” which features a very weak verse from 2 Chainz), while the constant trap-isms of the instrumentals disallow By Any Means from reaching the bigger, more cathartic peaks. As it stands, By Any Means is a solid continuation for Gates’ streak. Unfortunately, it was released the same day (and overshadowed by) Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Pinata, where Gibbs traverses the dusted, cinematic production with a similar precision. He also looks ready to lead Gary, Ind. to its own renaissance. In the meantime, Gates continues to chase satellite status.
3.5 out of 5
You can buy By Any Means on Amazon.