The growing chasm between mainstream rap and street rap is evident in the contrasting career arcs of Kevin Gates and B.o.B. The two rappers, both on Atlantic Records, perform together at Baltimore Soundstage next week. But beyond their label connection, light-skinned complexion, and southern drawl, little connects these two. Gates’ stock and trade is his relatability and authenticity, while B.o.B is known at this point for his unwavering commitment to major labels’ ever-changing whims, which found him moving from lofty comparisons to OutKast’s André 3000 to bending over backward to pander to the pop-rap demands of the radio.
Yet here they are, touring together. Gates, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had worked hard for years in the deep South building and crafting a fan base in the vein of Lil Boosie. Despite the fact he has never crossed over onto radio, he is a regional superstar. That reputation helped him land on the revolving door of a label known as YMCMB (Young Money Cash Money Billionaires), which includes superstars Drake, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj, as well as many others who, like Gates, never got a chance to release a record during their time with the label.
Last year, after leaving YMCMB, Gates moved to Atlantic and released two excellent, free download mixtapes, “The Luca Brasi Story” and “Stranger Than Fiction,” which captured the emotional complexity that makes Gates such a beloved rapper. Plenty of rappers enjoy speaking about being real and really being “’bout that life,” but Gates fully inhabits his raps, grabbing the listener and drowning them in “the real.”
On ‘4:30 am’ from “Stranger Than Fiction,” he rhymes about an altercation with a friend that ends with the friend dead and Gates sick with guilt and full of adrenaline: “Puking all of my insides/ Stab wounds from an old friend/ Well at that time we were close friends/ They said I killed him in cold blood/ We wrestled for the gun but the gun went off.” He starts the song in a near whisper, but once he gets into these details his voice raises in pitch and volume, as if he’s reenacting the chaos before our very ears.
This is Gates at his best: telling street tales with more detail in a five or six lines than other rappers do for entire album devoted to the same topics. On his 2014 single ‘Posed To Be In Love’ he details an account of domestic violence that is horrific as he rhymes “Throw the left hand, you duck that one, this right bitch won’t miss ya/ Beat a bitch like Chris Brown/ Go back to jail no quitting.” It’s frankly disgusting but it’s also compelling, in part because Gates isn’t interested in being a clearcut hero or a villain, and the song’s unforgiving ugliness is tempered by his penchant for working class love songs like ‘Arms of a Stranger,’ in which he admits that his favorite book is by Nicholas Sparks.
He is a genuinely conflicted, which makes his pairing with the major-label-vetted and approved B.o.B even more confusing.
B.o.B’s roots in the major-label system go back to 2006, when he signed with Atlantic Records and spent the next couple of years making well-received and respected music that traded between his rap and pop sides. But when it came time to finally cross over for his major label debut, it was with ‘Nothin’ on You’ featuring a po-faced, pop crooner Bruno Mars. B.o.B sold out. His first official album on Atlantic, “B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” saw him work with Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo alongside Atlanta rappers T.I. and Playboy Tre. This album scored him three top-10 hits and established him as the poster boy for a rapper to “cross over.”
His follow-up album, “Strange Clouds,” tried to repeat the same success with singles featuring the bankable rappers Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj—neither of whom worked with Kevin Gates even when they shared a label with him, mind you—and Taylor Swift. B.o.B achieved a few hits but nothing that repeated the success of his debut.
And so, on last year’s “Underground Luxury,” B.o.B moved back toward more aggressive trap rap on the single, ‘We Still In This Bitch.’ Of course, “trap” has become a pop buzzword itself. And so, here we have B.o.B returning to his gnarlier, pre-sell-out “roots,” but only because trap has become pop in its own way. B.o.B might be marketed as a rapper, but his aims and core identity remain pop.
Kevin Gates even raps about B.o.B and other pop-rappers on ‘Wish I Had It’ off his latest mixtape “By Any Means”: “In the streets, all I could do is be me/ With Flo Rida? nothing in common. I’m not a B.o.B.” I repeat: Yet, here they are touring together.
Let’s hope the B.o.B fans there enduring this gangsta opening act are listening close enough to be pulled in and converted to Gates’ gruff, unsentimental truth-telling raps.
Kevin Gates opens for B.o.B at Baltimore Soundstage on Nov. 25.