“We just let him do his thing.”
As the stars of CBS’ The Talk were accepting the honor for Favorite Daytime Hosting Team at the 2016 People’s Choice Awards in January, 20-year-old Zacari Nicasio seized his chance. Jumping on stage and grabbing the microphone, the unexpected guest delivered a victory speech of his own — “Shout out to Kevin Gates’ Islah album” — before being kicked off stage. It was, to quote one major outlet, the “strangest moment of the night,” described as “a man plugging some album.”
Three weeks later, that album, Gates’ debut full-length for Atlantic Records, beat out Adele‘s 25 to arrive at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, moving 112,000 equivalent albums — 93,000 in pure sales — and missing the top slot only due to the arrival of Rihanna‘s fiercely-awaited Anti. Its success was met with genuine surprise by many whose only prior knowledge of Gates had come via his unapologetically wild Instagram account — which has served up several over-the-top headlines in recent years — or the random People’s Choice Awards mention, particularly as it arrived the same week as much higher-profile releases from Sia (This Is Acting, No. 4) and Charlie Puth (Nine Track Mind, No. 6).
So how did a regionally-famous street rapper from Baton Rouge, La. end up sandwiched at the top of the Billboard 200 chart between two of the biggest superstars on the planet?
The simplest answer is that all this was inevitable. An established star in his hometown for nearly a decade now, Gates, now 30, released four well-received mixtapes before spending three years in jail on weapons and firearms charges. But rather than derailing his momentum, Gates emerged in 2011 to discover his fan base had grown steadily while he was gone; the absence seemed to have created demand for more of his unflinchingly honest, melodic-yet-tough brand of street rap that is as sonically diverse as it is jarringly real. In April 2012 Gates released the mixtape Make ‘Em Believe, which contained the song “Satellites,” catching the ears of Atlantic Records A&R Brian Johnston, who brought Gates to the attention of Mike Caren and his Artist Partners Group joint venture.
“My first impression musically was that he was incredibly dynamic,” says Jeff Vaughn, APG’s senior director of A&R, who works with Gates. “He sang, he rapped; all those different components were there. When I actually met the guy, I just thought he was a superstar.”
If Gates was popular within the Baton Rouge city limits prior to Make ‘Em Believe, “Satellites” broke through those confines and made him a star throughout Louisiana. He signed a joint venture deal for his label Bread Winner’s Association with Atlantic Records, which re-packaged his Feb. 2013 mixtape The Luca Brasi Story into a 9-song EP that April, then made his Stranger Than Fiction project available for sale on iTunes — complete with a “Satellites” remix featuring Wiz Khalifa — that July. Officially billed as a mixtape, Stranger Than Fiction landed Gates his first appearance on the Billboard 200, debuting at No. 37 after selling 8,000 copies in its first week.
“A lot of the time you hear the words ‘regional artist’ and you think it’s a negative thing,” Vaughn says. “When we saw the demographics of the fans at the shows and the metrics online, it was just very clear that it was resonating across different communities. And it was just a matter of getting him [everywhere], giving him the platform, and just exposing more people to it — but trying not to stand in the way, either.”
Part of that approach was a focus on organic growth, letting the music spread naturally and allowing fans to flock to Gates instead of Gates courting them. “When we started, it was trying to build him regionally and build more regions, do touring in an easy way, test it out, see how it works,” says Jonathan Briks, Gates’ rep at United Talent Agency who began working with the rapper in the spring of 2013. “So our first tour we did a bunch of Florida markets, we did Texas, Alabama and Mississippi — where he had been before quite a bit — and tried to expand it into the Midwest. And the tour ended up doing really well, so that was a good indicator that we could keep expanding this around the whole country.”
That tour also led to a four-month jail stint for probation violation, reported at the time as a consequence of unauthorized travel. But his release in March 2014 coincided with the rollout of his retail mixtape By Any Means, which sold 17,000 copies and landed him at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 — essentially doubling his previous effort — and paving the way for Gates’ first trip to New York as part of a national tour. In his stronger markets, Gates was regularly selling out 1,000-capacity venues; in New York, his first headlining show was at the relatively modest, 500-capacity Gramercy Theater. “Artists in his realm generally don’t tour like this, or tour like this later on in their career,” Briks says. “I think [his team] could see that Kevin had that really die-hard following, really big cult following where his fans needed to see him in person.”
Plenty of street rappers have cultivated dedicated fan bases with vivid tales of an underground, drug-dealing lifestyle. Gates’ music is certainly vivid and definitely street, but that’s where the similarities end. The honesty in his lyrics is equal parts jarring and mesmerizing, the audial equivalent of being unable to look away from a car crash. His beat selection is schizophrenic, ranging from gritty trap production to glossier, more ambient sonics, and his sense of melody — soaring hooks, arpeggiated verses — owes more to R&B and rock than hip-hop. He’s hard, but vulnerable; accessible but mysterious; enthusiastic one minute and brooding the next, adhering only to his own code. Tossed all together, it’s an intoxicating cocktail of give-no-fucks persona and individual dynamism.
“I have a cult-like following because I exemplify what it is to be a human being,” Gates told Complex in a recent interview. “I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I put my flaws on front street. So the world accepted my flaws, so I don’t have any flaws.”
Gates kept touring, and the fans kept coming; each stop in a city, Briks says, would be at a bigger venue than the last, and his latest tour included a sellout show at Baton Rouge’s 4,000-capacity venue The Bandit. Venues with 1,500-2,000-capacities became the norm. With a growing buzz and an intense following, a strategy developed as Gates’ team and label shifted focus towards a debut album. “I was given a lot of confidence by what’s been happening with Travi$ Scott and G-Eazy and Logic, artists that have built it one step at a time the same way we have, without compromising,” Vaughn says. “I saw the reactions to their records and their radio strategy, which was more focused on heat around the artist rather than a specific record. Seeing that, it was like perfect timing for Gates.”
At the same time, Gates was getting more attention for his antics on Instagram than for his music. In one post, he casually admitted to having sex with his cousin with no intention of stopping; in another, he claimed to have kicked a woman out of his house for refusing to give his dog fellatio. More than anything, however, the stories brought more attention to his Instagram page, which he was flooding with the hashtag #IDGT — an acronym for “I Don’t Get Tired” — which was becoming its own meme among his fans, and eventually became the basis for a line of energy drinks that he launched last November, smart marketing in an age of Drakehawking lint rollers and Future packaging his lyrics into $0.99 emoji images. (A song called “I Don’t Get Tired,” featuring fellow Louisiana native August Alsina, became Gates’ first song to chart on the Hot 100, topping out at No. 90.) A battery charge last September after he kicked a female fan during a show — he claims it was because she grabbed his genitalia — again put him in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
“I think the number one challenge facing us was the fact that his personality is so engaging and so unique and he’s so honest that people gravitated immediately to that, before even getting into the music sometimes,” Vaughn puts it. “[But] if only one out of 10 of those people that go to his Instagram page check out the music, we know we’re going to convert them, so let’s just keep being consistent.”
The first single from Islah, “La Familia,” came out Sept. 3 in the midst of the fan kicking controversy, one of the reasons the album was pushed from a Dec. 11 release to the end of January. But the main reason for the delay was the next two singles, “Really Really” and “2 Phones,” which both dropped last fall. “When we saw both ‘Really Really’ and ‘2 Phones’ reacting, we made a decision to say, ‘Hey, let’s not rush this,'” Vaughn says. Both songs roared onto the Hot 100 by the beginning of January and haven’t stopped growing; currently, “2 Phones” sits at No. 25, a new peak, while “Really Really” is at No. 64 despite the songs being out for nine and 11 weeks, respectively.
To put Islah’s success in context, its pure sales alone would have landed the album at No. 1 on the Billboard sales chart in 14 of the past 52 sales weeks, a period that encompasses Adele’s historic last 13 frames. The only artists to out-sell Adele in any one week during that period? David Bowie, Panic! At The Disco, Rihanna, The 1975 and, yes, Kevin Gates. The album’s sales caught even Gates’ team by surprise. “To beat out Adele and Sia when most of the mainstream hasn’t heard of him?” one member of his team says. “Wow. I think we were all a little shocked at the first-week numbers.”
Vaughn has a more tempered take. “Was I surprised by the overall number? Absolutely. It was thrilling to see all the work that Kevin had put in, especially on the road, doing hard tickets in every market in the country, paid off. But I wasn’t surprised that it exceeded expectations.”
Gates still flies below the radar in a rap world dominated by Kendrick, Drake, Kanye and Future. That makes his album’s staying power even more striking; just as his two singles continue rising on the charts, Islah remains just outside the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, having moved more than 220,000 equivalent units to date as it comes in at No. 13 in its fifth week on the chart. “He really approaches this like his job and works tirelessly at it,” Briks says. “And I think that the way he engages with his fans — whether it’s at meet and greets, or at shows, or on social media — I think fans really feel like they’re a part of the experience, and that’s another huge reason why he’s come as far as he has.”
Gates’ current tour wrapped last Sunday (Mar. 6) in Jackson, Miss. — right in his wheelhouse. And while bigger tour dates and possible festival spots are still on the horizon, Gates and his team have found the formula that works for them. “This is what he planned: he set a goal of achieving a six-figure number first week and he achieved it,” Vaughn says. “It’s pretty unbelievable. That was three years ago. And a lot of people wouldn’t have taken him seriously, and a lot of people would have tried to cheat, you know? A lot of features, a lot of radio. We just believed in him as an album-oriented artist with a message and we just let him do his thing.” [Billboard]