“He always said he didn’t want to release an album until he knew it was going to sell a million copies,” Dreka Gates remembers. “And then it did, which is f*cking amazing.”
The above quote is, in essence, the story of Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates’ debut studio album Islah, which was quietly and unquestionably the biggest underdog success story in music last year. Dreka is Kevin’s wife, yes, but she is also his manager, advisor, partner, the co-founder of their label Bread Winners Association, and the liaison who is a part of “literally every single process that is involved with Kevin Gates.” And when she says her husband’s path to a million records sold is “f*cking amazing” she’s not just being a proud wife, or even a proud business partner — she’s one hundred percent correct.
An underground rapper selling a million copies of his debut album? That alone would’ve made Islah one of the best stories of 2016, but the way he garnered that platinum plaque just might make Islah the most important album of the past year. (A measly twenty albums went platinum in 2016 — nine of those were part of a Garth Brooks box set, but that’s a story for another day.)
Yes, there were more culturally impactful albums, like Beyonce’s Lemonade, or bigger albums like Drake’s large-enough-to-have-its-own-orbit LP Views. And sure, Chance The Rapper saw a “mixtape” hit the Billboard chart on streams alone, all while he successfully spearheaded a movement to get the Grammys to recognize streaming-only albums. But Chance was already a media darling, championed by superstars and a network of other celebrities eager to lap up some of the online buzz that propels him ever forward.
On the other hand, Gates and his team function independently from a crew of other celebrities and industry players. Kevin was the ying to Chance’s yang. He’d long been cast aside, a pariah who was once hailed, but social media snafus and an incident with a concertgoer put him in legal trouble and saw him become an internet personality — for all the wrong reasons — rather than a budding star. But his major label debut changed all that.
Islah came out a year ago this week, on January 29, 2016, and in hindsight, it’s clear that Gates’ debut signified a true shift in industry economics, and the way music is sold and consumed in a new era of streaming. It established Gates’ fortitude, his ability to overcome legal setbacks, his staying power with a devoted underground fanbase while going fully mainstream, and offered proof that labels can adapt to help unique artists succeed without catering to the radio or other fads. Kevin Gates may have changed the rap game, but to start unpacking just how he did we have to go back ten years, to his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.