Kevin Gates’ ‘Islah’ Builds Brand While Remaining Rooted in Classic Hip-Hop

3.5 stars

The first studio album released by an up-and-coming musician doesn’t often singlehandedly account for his initial popularity, but the direction that the artist takes on his first album usually constitutes his fame in the future. If Kevin Gates follows the trail he blazed with Islah, he will likely see success after success as the years pass by.

A bird’s-eye view of Islah reveals a strong mastery of songwriting, even when compared with popular hip-hop artists today. Many of the tracks on the album exhibit a refreshing use of smooth tones and vocalizations, even when mixed with fairly standard mid-speed tempos. Perhaps the best example of Gates’ musical stylings surfaces in the song “2 Phones,” the third song on the album. Gates has an impressive voice, one that guides Islah in sections in which he raps as well as sings. Islah would not achieve nearly such high praise if it were not for Gates’ impressive vocal range.

“2 Phones” is far and away the best song on Gates’ album. Other top-tier performances include “Thought I Heard (Bread Winner’s Anthem)” and “Ask For More,” but none are quite so well-done as “2 Phones.” Gates, for the most part, does little to innovate on the common hip-hop formula, but succeeds so well in his execution of said pre-existing formula, that no blame can truly be laid.

Naturally, there are certain exceptions to Gates’ generally stunning performance. One of the primary themes that exists within Islah is sex, and Gates’ views on relationships, love, and the like become central to many of the songs. While this strategy succeeds in certain areas, it fails in others—“Hard For” is unnecessarily over-sexualized, with no traces of finesse or tact. The song comes across not as an insight into the role that sex plays in life, but instead as a stumbling attempt to embrace the oversexualized hip-hop culture that pervades much of today’s music. There is nothing inherently wrong with the usage of sexual imagery in music, but Gates does not pull it off with class, which is disappointing and muddles the overall quality of Islah.

Likely to be underrated is a collaboration with Trey Songz, Ty Dolla $ign, and Jamie Foxx. “Jam” is an exhibition of talent from big names in the hip-hop and rap industries and comes at a place in Islah that ties the whole work together quite well. Artistic collaboration can serve the artists quite well or damage their work irreparably. This is an excellent example of the former. Gates’ style seemingly would not blend well with Songz, $ign, and Foxx, but surprisingly, it does.

For Gates to continue his foray into popular culture, he must achieve two major goals. First, his satisfying blend of vocals and beats must be expanded upon and perfected—as stated before, he has not innovated, but upholds classical hip-hop stylings quite well. For a monumental level of popularity to be reached, Gates must continue to perform as well as he has in the past. This is to be expected, but the second point is perhaps less obvious: Gates must continue to collaborate with other well-known artists. His talent is massively improved and honed by partnerships with others, which appears to be his one-way ticket to stardom.

The road to popularity is not an easy one to travel in the music industry, but Gates, with his first studio album, has made a solid first step. If his talent and execution continue to grow as it has, hip-hop fans may soon start to see the name Kevin Gates more and more.

Featured Image By Atlantic Records