In the past year, Kevin Gates has attempted to experiment beyond the muddy, bass-slapping sounds of the South, specifically Louisiana. While his influence on a new generation of Southern rappers is evident, some of his recent efforts like “Move” and “Big Lyfe” created more anxiety than anticipation surrounding his next release. The 36-year-old’s attempt at chasing a radio-friendly record felt like an elder statesman at a crossroads in his career, uncertain of where he’ll go next. His vulnerability has remained his strongest suit in his career, though neither singles really capitalized off of it. Instead, it felt like he was experiencing a mid-career crisis in an attempt to earn more validation from the RIAA and Billboard charts than the streets. Now, Gates has peeled back the curtains to his personal life, providing context to both his situation and sound post-I’m Him, grieving the outcome of a failed relationship and embracing the uncertainties of the future.
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If there’s one thing you can count on from a Gates album, it’s an excellent introductory track. The rapper keeps up the tradition on his third studio album where he lays down the foundation for the album’s theme – loyalty. Between his split from Dreka and his ties to the streets, Gates is a man that looks at right and wrong with a black-and-white lens. It’s a return to the days of his Luca Brasi tapes where he channeled The Godfather enforcer with parallels between his own presence in the streets. “N***as started actin’ like big Brasi ain’t the truth ouch’ere,” he viciously raps, sternly reminding his detractors of the weight his name carries. The song’s release followed the revelation of his break-up with Dreka Gates on the salacious “Super Gremlin” freestyle. While his intentions felt far more vindictive on “Super General,” alleging that Dreka cheated on him with her personal trainer, Khaza explores the split in its various stages of grief. “One Day” transforms cries of distress into honeyed, infectious croons that create the solitary atmosphere of heartbreak, while Gates still pleads for reconciliation. “Ups And Downs” summarizes his grief and disappointment with one of the most vivid depictions of his home life on the album. “When you go inside the freezer, ice cubes smell like cologne/ That means someone was at your house when you was not at home,” he raps.
Coming to terms with the end of his relationship with Dreka remains the centerpiece of the project, though it isn’t entirely somber. On “Bad For Me,” Gates battles the feeling of temptation in ways that Celina Powell’s victims can relate to. Meanwhile, records like “Shoot My Shot” and “Mine” add to the bubbly pop-fluenced side of his artistry that paints the feeling of puppy-dog love. Those two records are prime examples of Gates’ ability to adhere to the standards of pop music without compromising his own method of operation. Ultimately, he brings everything full circle on “Free At Last.” The co-production of Al Geno, Mattazik Muzik, and Cozy From Earth revitalizes Gates’ presence as he boldly declares, “Cut off my hoe, now I’m free at last.”
Though he’s shown signs of growth throughout the past few years of his career, shedding light on mental and physical health, flashes of Luca Brasi are littered across the album. On records like “Body,” Gates returns to the role of an enforcer but one that isn’t getting his own hands dirty. Songs like “Body” and even “Steppin” highlight Gates’ menacing presence on wax. The former recycle methods used by Nas, and most recently Vince Staples, in personifying a gun. Though Vince described his gun as a muse over lush vocal samples, Gates’ songwriting slyly describes firearms on “Body” as if it’s an Instagram model he’s flying out to Miami. In a sense, it’s the first glimpse at Gates really embracing life as a bachelor through infectious hooks for a party-friendly anthem.
The release of Khaza feels like it’s supposed to be a spiritual successor to his 2016 debut album, Islah. His momentum died down following his release from prison but it also seemed like he didn’t care. Gates likely won’t earn another #1 album with Khaza but for day-one fans, the unflinching honesty, aggressive delivery, and bold melodies are a return to form for one of Louisiana’s most consistent artists of the past decade.