"If you don’t believe in determination, you will be exterminated," says the Baton Rouge rapper, returning from a prison stint with new music. "This is the game we play, and I’m all in."
"Can I pray first?"
After sitting down for a Billboard interview and receiving my first question, which is about his religious faith, Kevin Gates cuts me off, and takes the time he needs to recenter before our 20-minute sitdown. These days, Gates' motor runs on self-discipline: he refuels his positive energy with affirmations, self-talks, physical activity, prayer. Prior to the interview, he had parked himself towards the corner of the room and easily knocked out 25 diamond push-ups, "just because."
After receiving a 30-month prison sentence stemming from a 2013 gun charge -- which halted the upward trajectory of his 2016 debut album, Islah, and its top 20 smash "2 Phones" -- Gates was released on parole in early 2018, and addressed the feelings of self-loathing that surged through his body. Rather than allow his demons to cripple his confidence, the 33-year-old quickly doled out two EPs upon his prison release. Chained to the City and Only Generals the Gon Understand both highlighted Gates' bruising delivery and cinematic storytelling as previews of his forthcoming sophomore album, I'm Him.
"I'm watching Kevin Gates grow," says the rapper of himself. "I'm proud of it. He's starting not to make excuses. He's starting to hold himself accountable. I'm proud of him. It took a little longer then it took for most people. Women mature faster than men, but I'm proud of him."
This summer, Gates rattled off two singles, "Push It" and "Facts"; the former is a motivational anthem that encourages people to go beyond their limits, while "Facts" finds Gates stifling his opposition with hard-nosed lyrical punches. Despite his previous hardships, Gates isn't dwelling on the past, as he continues to unlock the ultimate version of himself for a brighter tomorrow.
Billboard spoke to Kevin Gates about his newfound growth, his upcoming album, falling in love with his wife again, and being ready for fame this time around.
Throughout your music, you’ve always been open about your relationship with a higher power. How did your faith intensify over the years?
I believed that my faith has gotten stronger through all of the hardships that I endured. Being able to come out on the other side, it makes you have a greater belief and appreciation for God. It also makes you have a greater belief and appreciation in your own capabilities. Adversity builds character. He who faints in adversity is not strong.
When did you realize the importance of self-accountability, and how did that contribute to your growth?
What made me start taking accountability for myself was me self-reflecting and realizing that I have a fear of not being in control. Realizing the power that I have in my words and my actions, they really hurt people. It’s a sad world when people look at such a great person and you place your fears and tramuas on others because of what you’ve been through. Everybody has not walked the same life that I have. Taking accountability is saying, "What can I do to make myself better?"
I no longer want to be the television in the room -- I’d rather be the sofa. I don’t want to be the center of attention any longer. I use this analogy: When you walk into the weight room and you see them weights, they never talk, they never see anything, they only exist, but you respect that weight because you know one thing: That’s heavy metal.
Your wife, Dreka Haynes, played a huge role in keeping the fans updated with your progress during your time away. Has your relationship strengthened since you've been home?
My relationship was severed when I went to prison, because I severed the relationship. I had a fear of having any weakness or being vulnerable. I quote Beanie Sigel: "I walk the tear that no tear should ever fall / I'm forever hard / give me whatever charge." Anything that would compromise my upright independence while I am in the belly of the beast, I cut it off, because it’s considered a weakness and we are gladiators and we are in a gladiator camp.
The warrior's greatest goal is peace. That’s why I made the song "Find You Again." I had to learn to love her again after so long because I pushed her away. This is a burden that none of us want. [Starts rapping] "The judge broke us up when I went back to court / I pray no else gets control of your heart / beautiful creature I know who you are / but I'll find you again."
That’s why I made that song, because I will find you again. And it’s beautiful, because you realize and you appreciate qualities about a person that you might’ve overlooked at one time. It was like going through the dating phase again. It was like one of those movies, like 50 First Dates, but in a really romantic way. You gotta make this person fall in love with you again because they have no memory or recollection of who you were at that time. Because you’re a different person every time you come home, you grow. Most epiphanies are guided through one's solitude. Self-reflection is the best reflection.
On "Push It," you speak about bouncing back from your losses. Which loss were you able to bounce back from that made you proudest?
I won’t speak on it in its entirety, but I’ll say this: I met a group of people, like four people. Beautiful souls. They already had money. They were already beautiful people. They already put life in their body. They already had intelligence. They were already philosophical in nature. These people were like a focus group, I guess -- just great energy. They just get together and they share energy with one another. It's like the power of existence.
I happened upon this group of people. Naturally, I was hiking. I’ve never been hiking -- I've never went on a trail before, but I did this. I end up engaging with these people and kicking it with them. It was beautiful in nature, but I noticed something about them. They didn’t care about my money, they didn’t care about my looks, they didn’t care about my celebrity, they didn’t care about my fame, they didn’t care about my eloquent speech or articulation being measured and my supreme verbiage. None of those things mattered to these people. They were only impressed with my intellectual property, my spiritual qualities, and my emotional and metaphysical attributes. That steered me into the direction of saying, "You know what? I want to share my intangible wealth with the world instead of all this swag." I quote Kevin Gates: I know in one of the songs that Kevin Gates said on "Time For That," he said, "Insecurities get covered with designer fabrics." I’m no longer that person.
“What’s taking so long? I don’t remember this taking so long.”
Talk about that line.
That is as specific in nature that I can be. I’m asking my killers, "What’s taking so long? I don’t remember this taking so long." If I say I don’t remember this taking so long, it must mean it could lead one to assume that things take effective form rather quickly, in the past as opposed to now, but when you have greater principles in place, sometimes, you have to exercise patience.
Your sophomore album is titled I'm Him.
[Starts rapping loudly] "His imperial majesty/ big timer, Benz driver, bread winner anatomy!" I'm sorry, everytime somebody says Him...
Who is Him?
I am H.I.M. I am H.I.M. [Starts rapping again] "His imperial majesty/ big timer, Benz driver, bread winner anatomy!" Yeah. H.I.M. I'm Him. His imperial majesty. I'm Him. Without a doubt or contradiction and with all due respect, ain't gonna be no killing, without no killing. Yes sir. With all due respect.
What was your headspace creating I’m Him versus IsIah? Clearly they're coming from different perspectives.
I’m growing. I’m watching Kevin Gates grow. He’s growing. I’m proud of it. He’s starting to not make excuses. He’s starting to hold himself accountable. I’m proud of him. It took a little longer than it took for most people. Women mature faster than men, but I’m proud of him.
Why is Kevin Gates referred to in the third person?
Kevin Gates is a great, great feeling. When I listen to that Kevin Gates, I just get fly. It just makes me [feel], "Oooh bitch," and have that sense of accomplishment. He came from nothing. Everybody talked about him. He was fat at one time. He’s been everything you can be. He’s been a black sheep, he’s been fat, he’s been the guy that didn’t get the girl, he’s been the guy that had all of the girls in the room want him, but he’s not interested because he’s only focused on one. It wasn’t about the sex, it was the one that just gave him that spiritual connection, that metaphysical connection. When you love from the soul, it’s different.
Kevin Gates has no obligations to anyone but his self. He's going to pick his self first. I got to make myself happy first. Happiness comes from within. It don’t come from external things, pacifiers. I noticed that whenever a crisis happens, right after a crisis, there's always opportunity. And when somebody tells me the truth, constructive criticism, that used to be a crisis to me, like, "I don't want to hear that shit." Like a ton of bricks fall on my head. I can’t face it. I don’t want to be alone. I used to be like that, but not anymore baby. Let’s work.
You embrace it.
I embrace it all because I want to become better. I used to feel like, "Y’all ganging up on me. Y’all picking on me." No, we not ganging up on you, Kevin. We want to see you do better. So I want to do better.
Do you love Kevin Gates with where he’s at today?
Oh my God. I’m proud of him again. I swear. I used to hate my reflection. Scars all over my body, bricklayer, finessing. I dig that.
Do you love what you see in the mirror today?
Yessir. Yessir. I had to tell myself with that song “Great Man.” That was me telling myself: "Look in the mirror, I see a great man. When I look in the mirror, I see a great man." My favorite part of that was, [begins rapping] "Dump through the miles with the cartel/ Sell you a dog with a small tail/ Low to the ground wit' a large head/ The ho that you lovin', she garbage/ I'ma go vroom in a Corvette/ Take your shoes off in the apartment/ We could go sit on the carpet/ Look, I made you some tea, she got all wet/ But I am not fallin' for all that/ I hit from the back and she Aw yea!/ Now you gotta leave and don't call back."
I’m thugging. That was a very trying point. That was at the point when I was like, "Man I want to mature, I want to do better. I want to do embrace maturity." Some people do it in private, I’m doing mine publicly so the world can see. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, you gotta believe in you, though. Everybody loves Kevin Gates. I’m about to be really, really famous. It scares me.
Why does it scare you?
I’m a plug. I come from the underworld. I’m afraid of the light. I’m afraid of the light. But I’m going to embrace it, because this is my destiny. If you don’t embrace your destiny, if you don’t believe in determination, you will be exterminated. This is the game we play and I’m all in.