"I don't know what to call what I do," says Kevin Gates of his rise as a leader of Dirty South striver's rap. The 28-year-old Baton Rouge, Louisiana, artist raps, sings and harmonizes, often alternating between vocal modes within a verse, exuding a gritty earthiness that sets him apart from contemporary crooners like Future and Rich Homie Quan. He writes lyrics with passion and humility and speaks honestly about a rough life that has included multiple stretches in prison, testifying that "I'm ready for love" on one song and riding around his hometown rueing, "Out my window, I see everything I dream about and wish I had it" on another. With the just released By Any Means cracking Billboard's Top 20 albums chart, it seems that Gates is poised for stardom. But in an interview, he sounds circumspect as he tempers expectations about his bright future.
What kind of rap did you listen to growing up?
I always gravitated towards up north music. I always loved the lyricism, and I loved that it was witty. And I always loved down south beats. Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Big L, Tupac. That was, like, my top five, generally. If you asked me right now what artists I listen to, I listen to Starlito, Gucci Mane, a little bit of Maino. I listen to realistic rap. I listen to artists that are really talking about something, you see what I'm saying? I listen to artists that are believable.
There are two phrases you use: "Life is like a movie" and "I don't know what to call it."
I don't know what to call what I do. It's no genre of music that you can put my music in. It's no one word that you can say that would be definitive towards what I am as an individual. So, I know there's a name for it, but I don't know what to call it. And my life is a movie. I just don't do no acting. I just consider myself an artist. If someone was supposed to pick up a paintbrush and paint a picture, do you consider them a painter? You'd consider them an artist. A poet is an artist. So I just consider myself an artist. Maybe other individuals like to dissect and put it under a microscope. But those who get it get it, and those who don't get it won't ever get it.
Were you surprised at how well By Any Means performed on the album charts?
I don't allow myself to pay attention to charts. I don't allow myself to look at that, because if I do, it could ultimately affect me from being humble. I just want to continue to make great music.
You have a college degree in psychology?
Yeah, but I never went to college. I went to Baton Rouge Community College for a little while. I came home from prison when I was 17, and I went over there to BRCC. It was for a semester or two. I don't really remember because, aw man, I was just awesome then. I don't even know how to describe it, I don't know what the name [of it is], I don't even know what to call it. I was just in my prime then. But I never went to college as far as attending a university. I attended college in prison. I was in jail, so there ain't no going to no classes. They have programs in certain facilities where you can earn good time and then you get time taken off your sentence. But as far as going to classes, it's not like that. You study and then an administrator gives you a test. I got a Master's in psychology. But really, I already had my Master's in psychology. I just didn't know it. It was things that I already knew. Coming up in the streets, I had to learn how to read people early on. I'm a very analytical person. I observe a lot of the things that people don't notice.
What's Baton Rouge like?
For people who haven't been there, they'd have to just go visit, because my perspective and perception of Baton Rouge would be very different from another person's perspective. That's like if I was to come to New York and only come to the tourist section. I say that as an illustration because I'm from a very poverty-stricken neighborhood. But I have a lot of family in that neighborhood, and I have a lot of love in that neighborhood. But nobody's going to just come to that neighborhood. For what? There's nothing there. So they'd probably go see the State Capitol or something. But if I had to describe it, my experience is being different than what another individual may experience or encounter. I can say that there's most certainly Southern hospitality, good food and things of that nature. There's also a lot of crime.
Why did you decide to sign with Atlantic Records instead of Young Money Entertainment, even though YM manages you?
I sit around with Birdman and listen to him talk, and I listen to how he started his own record label. He inspired me to start my own and do my own thing [with Bread Winners Association]. I don't really feel that I would have been a good fit. That's a mainstream record label. We've got a different audience. The way that they started out, that's the way that I want to do it. I wanna allow my brand to grow.
You say that you're not mainstream, but you've had two projects reach Billboard's top 40 albums: Stranger Than Fiction and now By Any Means.
Yeah, but I didn't do that intentionally. It just be what it be.
Do you feel like you have a chance to expand what's popular in the rap mainstream?
Yeah, my music has no choice but to go global. People hear it, and they're moved by it. But I just wanna enjoy it at this level for as long as I can enjoy it at this level. This is just the breakfast part of it for me.
Your projects have been described as both mixtapes and albums. Do you have a big major label album coming soon?
I don't know. I just want to keep making music. I don't really care about an album. I don't care if I ever drop an album, to be honest. I just want to keep making music. I know that it's gonna come a day when I have to drop an album.
You have a song, "I Wish I Had It," where you say "Out the streets, stay in the streets, all I can do is be me/ With Flo Rida, nothing in common, I'm not a B.o.B."
Yeah, you can compare me to them artists, but I'm not them. I'm me. They're talented, though.
So it's not like you're dissing them.
You took it like that.
Nah, I'm just clarifying, that's all.
Yeah, but that's not how you took it. I wouldn't take it as a diss if somebody say, "Me and Kevin Gates got nothing in common." I wouldn't take it as a diss. He just has nothing in common with me. That's just me. I feel like if they say, like, "Kevin Gates is a fag," that would be more of a diss than "Kevin Gates and I have nothing in common." Like, you and I have nothing in common. Would you take that as a diss?
Of course not.
Then you have to re-evaluate yourself psychologically on why you take that as a diss. You have to re-evaluate who you are as an individual because the problem lies within, it doesn't lie without. Everything comes from within. Within is the reason why we lash out violently to different forms of expression. But it's like that for different people. They hear different, they see different things from whatever it is.
Well, you know how the rap game is…
No, I don't know how the rap game is because I'm a fan of reality, and the rap game's entertainment.