Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates’ The Luca Brasi Story matched the brutality of coke rap to earnest sentimentality and melodicism with such a finesse that it obscured the record’s essential weirdness. Songs outlining the perils of trafficking narcotics were heard next to those inspired by romance novelist Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook and the Twilight series. In street rap, a fixation on romance is often seen as a mark against the artist’s perceived toughness, as if the one gives the lie to the other. But the weathered rasp of Gates’ voice lent a measure of grit to the love songs even as it made the deterministic criminality elsewhere in the tape feel lived-in. He’s has since inked a deal with Atlantic Records (who summarily squished the 22-song tape into a digital EP) and released the low-stakes digital album Stranger Than Fiction. Where The Luca Brasi Story’s itinerant sprawl and plentiful guest appearances played like a game of show and prove, Stranger Than Fiction whittles things down to a series of pithy two- to three-minute nuggets that lurch toward resolution, often finding it within a verse or two.
The accomplished tunefulness of Luca Brasi highlights “Paper Chasers” and “Neon Lights” is pushed to the margins here. Save for the hooky despondency of late-album gem “Don’t Know What to Call It”, Stranger Than Fiction’s Kevin Gates is world-weary in all the spots where he was starry-eyed and reflective the last time around. Whether the tense shift in his songwriting is a conscious attempt to put some distance between himself and his trap house hook-men contemporaries or a function of him stockpiling melodies for a future mainstream push, his knack for detailed, despairing storytelling cogently picks up the slack.
Stranger Than Fiction draws much of its gravitas from Gates’ own colorful back story: he cuts through the airy synths and open spaces of “4:30AM” with a travelogue of betrayal for which he’s as much a culprit as a victim, and on “4 Legs and a Biscuit”, a viewing of the gangster flick King of New York trips off a broadside about the constant strain of legal woes. “Tiger” elaborates on the period when he quit dealing drugs to pursue a career in rap, only to fall prey to a series of janky promoters and label executives whose shifty machinations made him the vic instead of the villain. Stranger Than Fiction is a litany of near-misses with police and armed foes interspersed with emotionally guarded examinations of the trust issues they leave as collateral damage. But where Gates has pulled back from the emotional heft that made Luca Brasi such a compelling character composite, he’s poured his energy into the mechanics of rhyming with such fervor that what’s being said in these songs is often trumped for intrigue by the way he says it.
While Gates’ stories suggest a battle-damaged cynic, his restless wordplay gives voice to the excitable language nerd beneath the gruff exterior. “Die About It” effortlessly switches up cadences mid-flow, shifting from a laconic swing to a sparse, staccato yelp and back. On “Careful”, he goofily adopts three different Southern accents in two verses, only one of which is his own. “MYB” reduces his voice to a guttural whisper, rendering the song’s callous dress-down of a lesser criminal all the more diabolical in the process. Gates sells all of these experiments with the same verve, and the album scarcely misses a mark until Wiz Khalifa hits the buzzerbeater on the album closing remix of Gates’ 2012 single “Satellites” with a wastepaper-basket-deep verse delivered in a bratty yawp grossly ill-suited to the rest of the song.
The success of Stranger Than Fiction is as much a result of keen lyricism and inventive vocal tricks as good editing. Its 14 tracks are over and done in just a little more than 40 minutes. The brevity and the relatively monochromatic production, a glut of foreboding minor key trap beats, collude to force the spotlight on Gates’ versatile rapping. From the achy old gunshot wound that flares up after Gates gets stabbed and the glass of Sprite that’s purple instead of pink because he overdid it on the promethazine on “4:30AM” to the Popeyes dinner that lends the title to “4 Legs and a Biscuit” to the punch in the face that doesn’t hurt on “MYB” and the succession cars he laments not being able to drive on “Don’t Know What to Call It”, the record’s uncompromising hard luck street narratives are dispensed with a preternaturally sharp eye for detail that dabs Gates’ economic writing with a shock of much-needed color.
With the help of I Luv Lola promoting, Rich Hil and his crew invaded Toronto the weekend of December 16th, and fortunately I was able to catch the performance and get in a quick interview. I am aware of the fact that Rich Hil easily attracts negative attention. Is it because people don’t think that Ricky Hil is real? Maybe the hate stems from the fact that his father is Tommy Hilfiger, or perhaps it surfaces from his emotionally- charged lyrics, which typically involve drug-talk and a sense of degeneracy. But really, Rich Hil is doing his own thing, he raps what’s on his mind, and it’s safe to say he doesn’t give a fuck what you think. After having met Rich and gotten a more-than-satisfying amount of fugged-up in his presence, I can honestly say he is one chill guy, very much lacking a celebrity persona. Hil has created a genre of music unique to himself, one which shares a similar vibe to the Weeknd (who happens to be good friends with Rich, and reached the venue to support his homie), that is, a new-age take on drug-infused rap with blatant influences from r’n’b. Rich Hil seems to have perfected his raspy-crooning & hippie-style over the past few years, and the result can be heard on his most recent mixtape, “500 Grams”, which is entirely produced by Lex Luger. “500 Grams” is vulnerable and emotional, crossbred with marijuana-smokin, syrup-sippin, pill-poppin influences, which is really the basis for most of Rich’s music.
Rich Hil’s visit to Toronto was in conjunction with the opening of “Community54”, a store run by Boo Bonic (of Philly’s Most Wanted, and good friend of Rich). There is already a Community54 functioning out of New York, the concept being straight-forward; a trendy boutique directed towards hip-hop heads. It has a laid-back yet high-end feel, and satisfies any urban enthusiasts’ vintage needs. Rich Hil showed up wearing brown Timberlands, a ragged black hoodie & a ripped t-shirt under a jean vest with similarly worn-in pants. The whole notion behind “limos” was even represented in his outfit. “Limo life”, which is tattooed on Hil’s knuckles, ironically symbolizes a “fuck you” to the bourgeois & flashy lifestyles associated with limousines.
Rich Hil, alongside Boo Bonic for the most part, performed for a little over an hour long. Hil and Bonic were rapping back and forth, demonstrating phenomenal stage presence, interacting with the crowd, pushing in tons of material from various mixtapes, which resulted in a dope live concert. Although the venue was by no means packed, everyone was having a sick time, which could be witnessed by the groupie bitches clawing and holding onto Hil’s legs, at times I thought they might not let go. These girl were intense. the Weeknd aka Abel Tesfaye and the entire XO crew added to the fun when they came through! Good times were had by all. Especially me though. Peep the interview and re-cap of our time in Toronto below!!
On the afternoon before their June mixtape, Young Rich Niggas, is to be released, two members of the rap trio Migos stand huddled in a hot, windowless studio in southwest Atlanta. They watch the tape’s final mix-down on a screen perched just below a security camera feed offering 16 different perspectives of the building’s exterior. Friends and associates weave in and out of the room, interrupting with last-minute changes to the tape’s artwork and scheduling details for live appearances every night of the week. Trinidad James’ people are waiting on the phone. “I notice the buzz, but you try not to pay attention to it,” says Quavo, 22, the oldest of the group. “Makes you lazy.” His 19-year-old nephew and fellow member, TakeOff, who also wears his long, thin dreads draped over designer shades, smiles and agrees: “It’s a day job and a night job.” Migos’ third member, Offset, is absent, incarcerated midway through the mixtape’s recording for reasons the pair decline to discuss. “He’s ready to get out,” says Quavo. “He’s getting back on the train real soon.”
When Offset returns, he will find Migos in a very different position than when he left. Their steadily escalating momentum began last year, with the regional success of the group’s ode to derelict trap houses, “Bando,” a rejoinder to the somewhat safe and provincial reputation of Gwinnett County, their home turf on Atlanta’s north side. The loopy, lightweight beat by 16-year-old producer Juvie is a perfect frame for the crew’s gruff delivery, packed with Southern slang and phrasings as repetitive and tautly rhythmic as drumline exercises, but shot through with energy and steely confidence. The group models itself closely on the raw, jewel-cased street tapes they grew up with—especially the hyperkinetic air-horn-and-gunshot soundscapes of Brick Squad and Yo Gotti—and like these predecessors, Migos often gets by on drive and force of personality more than anything else. “It’s all about the delivery,” Quavo says of their approach. “You got to finesse your way in.”
As “Bando” became a staple in clubs and radio playlists, Migos found themselves embraced by members of the old guard they emulated. They bumped into Gucci Mane’s longtime producer Zaytoven in a VIP section and he started sending them beats the next day; their new manager, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, also helped shape the early careers of local icons like Young Jeezy and Gucci, or as they now call him, “the big brother.” The Atlanta rap infrastructure thrives when its rising stars offer slight but eccentric updates to the city’s sound, pushing ever so slightly against the boundaries of hardscrabble tradition, and for the past several months, Migos has simply been doing this better and more memorably than anyone else.
The hope is that Young Rich Niggas will propel them from local celebrity to national attention, a process that already seems well under way. In Los Angeles, a few days before our interview, TakeOff was shocked to be approached by “three white guys singing ‘R.I.P.’” one of the tracks they made with Zaytoven. “On Melrose Avenue!” he says in disbelief over their encounter. “I didn’t even know they listened to rap over there.” Just a week after the tape’s release, Drake would remix another standout, “Versace,” and Justin Bieber would post a short video of himself mouthing a verse—endorsements one imagines will lead to quite a few fans Migos never expected. Back in the studio, Coach K leans forward to the group and says earnestly, “It’s just the beginning. This is our summer.” His gravitas apparently strikes Quavo as hilarious, as Quavo bursts out laughing and, with mock-seriousness, shouts, “This is our summer!” Looking around the room, he’s the only one laughing.