Brand New Guy
A tireless work ethic and long look in the mirror have turned Kevin Gates into both a selfless and successful rapper.
Interview: Robby Seabrook III
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the Summer 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands soon.
To never evolve is to never truly live. Kevin Gates has been on his journey for a lifetime. From the Baton Rouge, La. native unleashing his first mixtape, Pick of Da Litter, in 2007, around the time he was musically conjoined with fellow Louisiana rhymers Boosie BadAzz and Webbie, to stints in jail in the late 2000s, followed by his rap stardom taking off in 2015, with his motivational hit single, "I Don’t Get Tired (#IDGT)," arriving months prior in 2014, Gates has felt the high highs and low lows. The joy of his successful 2016 debut album, Islah, was tempered by a battery charge that same year after he kicked a female fan at his show, an incident that put Gates in jail for five months. Scheduled to be released after that spell behind bars in 2017, he instead immediately served nine more months in an Illinois state prison for 2013 gun charges, all while he soared up the charts. Gates was surrounded by turmoil, but he never gave up on his dreams nor did he wilt under the pressure of losing time in his rap career, where reigns on top can be fleeting.
Nowadays, Gates’ deeply personal and honest brand of rap continues to live on, free of his previous struggles with drugs, mental health and overindulgence. He is an enlightened man, fully committed to his Muslim faith, his family and his fitness. This version of Kevin Gates understands the value of time, both in how he uses his own and how his music takes off at the perfect moment. With a recent viral moment off his 2013 song, "Thinking With My Dick," and the release of his third solo album, Khaza, Gates’ otherworldly patience and belief in himself is paying off. Here, Gates, 36, gives a peek into how he remade himself, what music means to him and understanding his place within the world.
XXL: When did you know that music was one of your callings?
Kevin Gates: I could say I really appreciated it when I couldn’t do it. I missed it, when I was incarcerated and was away from the music. But as far as me having to do it, my life doesn’t operate correctly if I don’t make music. I don’t feel good if I’m not making music. It’s therapeutic in nature for me.
One of your early career breakthrough moments happened in 2016, when you released your debut album, Islah, which opened at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and solidified you as a name to watch. What was that time like for you?
I felt cheated after the Islah project came out because I was incarcerated. I’m talking about until this date, I was innocent. I didn’t do anything. I did a six-month bid in Florida over a lie. And then I had to turn right around and do close to three years in Chicago over a lie. When I left, it’s like I never really truly ever got to reach my peak and I harbor resentment for that for a long time. I came to peace with it. I was nominated for the Grammys. Just so much momentum was lost, but I never really lost anything. I gained a greater sense of myself.
How did you come to peace with it?
Through my fitness journey. I battle with depression. I used to do a lot of drugs and then fitness became my drug of choice because I’ve never been to rehab. It used to be like, you had to do drugs to make great music. I used to feel like that. I learned how to translate energy, such as sex mutation. That’s when, if you wake up in the morning, instead of me masturbating, I just take that energy and go to the gym with it. Even with semen retention, I don’t release. I just start allowing me to tap into something different. The energy. The strength.
You’ve changed so much over the years, and now one of your older songs from 2013, "Thinking With My Dick," is turning into a huge streaming hit. How do you view the song’s newfound success with who you are now as a person?
It’s beautiful the world’s just now catching up to me. It’s just constant confirmation that I’m on the right path. That’s like when we dropped "Big Gangsta." [It] didn’t do nothing, but maybe five years later, “Big Gangsta” just kept on… That’s like the song I just dropped, "Big Lyfe." A lot of people were like, "Man, what?" Every time, I’m going to give you texture. And the beautiful thing about when I give you texture is that the people, the mere mortals, they may not understand my vision because I live in a realm of supremity. I’m a supreme being, so I’m not worried about them.
A Louisiana man named Steven Barbosa had a viral moment when a video of himself rapping to your old song "Thinking With My Dick" at Mardi Gras this past March blew up on TikTok. That has made your song hot again. How did that happen?
Somebody sent it to me. And they like the White boy. I’m like, "Listen, he [is] from Lafayette. The White boys from Louisiana are different." They’re not your regular White boys. I had my people reach out to him. I was like, "Hey, tell him he got to come to my concert. I want to relive this moment with him." I hugged him. I said, "Thank you brother, for everything." It was just because I love the town that we went to, Lafayette, La. I love that city. It’s maybe not even an hour from Baton Rouge. I hadn’t performed in Lafayette since 2000, maybe ’13, ’14. I love the food and I love the women. They’re beautiful, like the Creole women. It’s like a big orgy. They’re very sexual creatures. You go to New Orleans or something, you listen to the music. You hear the women say, "Come here, bring that dick here." A lot of people think it’s just a song to feel good. We celebrate fertility.
What can you share about your new album, Khaza?
It’s going to be the greatest album in all of the worlds. In all of the universe. See, I don’t live in just this dimension. And I might be saying too much, but I live in different dimensions and different realms. So, a lot of my music is not even gon’ be interpreted right until the next maybe… the world catching up fast.
With everything you’ve been through in your career, did you always believe the effort you were putting in would pay off?
I knew I was going to do something because like I say, coming from the bottom, let’s say places down South, that was real heavy in the slave trade. When you come from the bottom, when you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got no choice but to go hard. I had reached my full potential in the streets, also. That’s another thing that I noticed, artists, they’ll be in a music game, but to solidify themselves a little bit more, they try to revert or convert to the streets. I was already stamped. So, with or without music, I was going to be that.
You’re very mindful of the things you say and are very up-front about your religious beliefs. How did you grow into that person?
My sister made me stop hurting people with my words because [she] wanted to kill herself. And she was like, "Your words hurt people. Anybody could say something to me, but when you say it, it’s different." It made me start thinking about how I affect people with my words in a negative way. I want to start affecting people in a positive way. I hope she don’t get mad and kill me [for] speaking about this, but it is my truth. I wanted to commit suicide maybe two years ago because I just wasn’t happy. I always lived to please others. So, for the first time in my life, I got to make sure that I’m OK mentally, physically, spiritually. I was also too self-indulgent and engaging in social media. I was making comparisons, looking at other people’s highlight films. Nobody’s life is hunky-dory. I just heard the White dude say that.
What led you to wearing a feather in your hair? Was it a part of your spiritual growth?
I was dealing with some Native American people and some chiefs and they picked me. First, he asked me was I Indian, and I was like, "I probably got something in me," but I was just bullshitting. I know what I am. He said, "You really look like our tribe." So, I started going to sit with him and the things that they told, the way that they have a respect for Mother Nature and all of mankind. So, in one of the ceremonies I did, I couldn’t eat or drink for three, four days. I had to stay outside in a little hole. He said, "If it rain on you, if you get cold, if bugs bite you, it’s meant for you." After that, we did some other very sacred ceremonies I can’t speak about, and they gave me a golden eagle feather. You can’t even have a golden eagle feather unless you’ve been gifted by a chief. You have to be indigenous. I earned it. I would die for that. It’s the bravest, strongest, holiest path that you can take.
Considering how long you’ve been rapping and the kind of success you’ve reached, how do you see your own career?
I did a Mike Tyson interview and I talked about me being sexually victimized. And I talked about most people asking me where my competitive drive came from. You took all these different types of martial arts and you boxed and you just a monster. That came from a fear of being vulnerable until I had to come to peace with what happened, even with what I did. This helped me be a greater father to my children because I have an open line of communication with my children. After I did that interview, my DMs went crazy. Different celebrities, just like, "I went through the same thing. Thank you." I go to the gym, I’m talking about real muscles everywhere, just come up to me, hug me. They’ll cry. "It been so many times I wanted to kill myself and your music saved me." A girl walked up to me. She showed me her wrist [and said], "I got razor blade cuts. There have been times I wanted to kill myself, but your music kept me here." Me having the courage and the bravery to show that vulnerability is what put me in a league of my own.
You’ve accomplished a lot and are a veteran in rap, but you still make sure to support newer acts like Rod Wave and Rob49. What motivates you to do this?
I’m in the streets with it. And one thing about me, I’m still a fan. I’m a fan of music. I don’t have no ego. I don’t have no pride. I done got in Drake DM. I done got in Rihanna DM. It was like three years later. She was like, "I’m just seeing this." I was like, "I want you on my album." I got in Meek Mill DM. I don’t have that fear of rejection. When it’s meant to be it’s going to happen. I don’t force anything. Even I see an artist that ain’t even up. That’s just always been me. Whether you was in the air or not in the air, I’m a fan.
On your recent single, “Big Lyfe,” you say, “Ain’t where I wanna be, but it’s payin’ the bills.” So, in the world of Kevin Gates, where do you want to be?
Anywhere but here. I ain’t where I want to be, but it’s paying to be here. I work hard. I’m a full-time father. I like to go fishing and hunting with my bow and arrow. I take pride. I’m a regular person. "What you about to do, man?" I’m about to get in here and cook for these children. I ain’t going to say I’m a world-class chef. I’m decent. I might get in the living room and just do me some yoga, stretch. I love being alone because that’s when my greatest ideas and my epiphany is at. So, I love my solitude. It’s how I process things. I talk to myself, I ask myself questions like, "Is it really that serious, Kevin?" It’s not. "Kevin, you really ready to throw everything away behind that?" I’m not.
Watch Kevin Gates' exclusive interview with XXL below.
Read the 2022 XXL Freshman cover story featuring BabyTron, Cochise, Saucy Santana, Babyface Ray, KenTheMan, SoFaygo, Big Scarr, Big30, KayCyy, Doechii, Kali and Nardo Wick when the Freshman issue hits stands everywhere on July 13. The magazine includes additional interviews with Lupe Fiasco, Pi’erre Bourne, NLE Choppa, Yvngxchris, producer DJ Dahi, engineer Teezio and singer Chlöe, plus a breakdown of every Freshman Class from a numbers standpoint, a look back at what the 2021 XXL Freshman Class is doing, the story of why the 2016 XXL Freshman Class gets so much respect now, a deep dive into the world of NFTs through hip-hop’s lens and exploring rappers’ most valuable collections. You can also buy the 2022 XXL Freshman Class issue here.