Upon seeing a mixtape entitled The Luca Brasi Story I immediately worried that I had somehow travelled back to 2009 and this was merely another ridiculous outing by a Flocka-impostor (say that phrase out loud, please).
The truth, however, is much stranger. The Luca Brasi Story is the newest mixtape by Baton Rouge rapper/singer Kevin Gates. You might’ve caught him on the new Pusha T mixtape, doing a Future-esque croon and spitting a surprisingly hard verse. That duality is key in Gates’s persona as a street rapper, he’s able to balance verses steeped in drugs and gang violence with his auto-tuned hooks on topics that often show a deeper sensitivity. The crack and gang violence serves more as a backdrop to help the listener grasp Gates’s background. While that’s not exactly a new technique, what sets Gates apart is how readily he distances himself from actually selling crack or being involved in gangs – that’s his environment, but his ethos as a rapper is decidedly not one of a dealer or gangbanger.
In some ways, Gates’s tape is perfectly emblematic of post-regionalism that has become such a hot topic of discussion in lieu of A$AP Rocky’s 2011 debut. It’s the same narrative; the internet causes breakdown of traditional regional barriers, allowing a kid in Harlem to get a UGK sound, and gives him a global fanbase off of Youtube hits. Certainly, Gates draws off a wide variety of producers, most of the credit going to Grizzly on da Beat and the surprisingly impressive Maven Boys, from Arizona and Toronto, respectively. The track ‘Marshall Mathers’ also stands out – a young black kid from the South identifying with a white rapper from Michigan is probably even stranger than Rocky ripping off DJ Screw.
However, Gates is deeply rooted in the southern tradition, Louisiana specifically. A recent Young Money signee, Gates is able to channel Drought 3-era Wayne’s weird references and non-sequitors on tracks like ‘Talking Stupid’. He flips a Wayne line (‘Ain’t got shit to do with this/But just thought that I should mention’) and tops it off with a crazy-ass Dennis the Menace shout out. Curren$y and Master P make guest appearances on the tape, and Gates seems right at home in collaboration with these titans of the south.
The real problem with the ‘post-regional’ analysis of modern hip hop is that it’s reductive. The internet isn’t simply breaking down regional barriers, it’s about breaking down traditional ideas of what it means to be a gangster rapper as a whole. While Gates follows in his region’s sound more devoutly than A$AP, they are similar in the nature of their content in relation to the expectation – A$AP built a persona on being an ex-crack dealing Harlemite, but also happens to namedrop Jeremy Scott and Balenciaga. Gates is doing the same thing, unboxing traditional ideas of a Louisiana rapper. Could Gates do a song outright admitting his favorite movie is The Notebook 7 or 8 years ago? Could he do a song rapping from the perspective of a Twilight protagonist? Even doing these things now is a questionable and bold move, exemplifying how outdated notions of rapper authenticity prove inadequate in the digital age.
The modern hip-hop mixtape is at its heart an assemblage. Gates effectively mixes regional sounds with foreign influences and pays homage to the lineage he is placing himself in (of Master P, Wayne, and Boosie) while also reaching across regions to pull in Eminem. He keeps his authenticity by detailing personal struggles in the streets of Baton Rouge, but also sings in auto-tune about The Notebook, Twilight, and sexual dry-spells. These inherent contradictions are brought to the forefront in The Luca Brasi Story, but they do not destroy Gates as an artist. He is able to wrangle all of these disparate interests together into a cohesive, if strange, whole product. And that is the part that is only made possible because of the internet, the ability to pull from all different kinds of sources, to create your own niche based on a weird mix of references and questionable credibility and regionalism. Ultimately, these skills of identity assemblage while retaining artistic integrity are what make Gates a promising artist to watch.- King James