“I do everything on stage,” said Kevin Gates, a few minutes into his brief, breathless and thoroughly captivating show at the Gramercy Theater Wednesday night. “I get mad, I cry, I get pissed off.” It was an impressive moment of candor, but in truth. Gates was selling himself short. Over the course of a clutch of mixtapes released over the last seven years, the thing that has proved most alluring about the Louisiana rapper has been his ability to infuse his rhymes with a startling level of pathos. On 2013′s excellent The Luca Brasi Story, he infused sharp, skillfully-drawn narratives of crime and revenge with a level of both moral anguish and steely resolve; nearly 20 years on from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, crime narratives have become a familiar trope, a kind of framework within which lazier rappers can safely operate. What makes Gates’s songs so compelling is his conviction: there’s the unshakable sense that there’s not a persona, but a person behind his songs, and that quality makes them strikingly vivid and engrossing. On stage at the Gramercy Theater he brought to mind, more than anyone else, a young Marlon Brando, blurring the line between confession and performance with a kind of harrowing conviction.
Musically, his songs lend themselves to this kind of drama. Consisting mostly of icy, diving, minor-key synths, they feel grim and apocalyptic, swinging from tension to eruption in seconds flat. During “4:30 a.m.,” which centers around a chilling three-note melody, Gates paced the length of the stage, his voice gradually getting more agitated as the tension in the song mounted. Over the course of the night, Gates’s voice proved impressively elastic: on songs like the bleak, driving “Arm & Hammer,” it seemed to bound across the beats; on “Narco Traficante,” he cut syllables clean and even, slotting them between the thudding rhythm; on “Die Bout It,” his enthusiastic, all-caps delivery clashed with the short, sharp synth stalactites of synth to create a kind of horror-film tension. Though aspects of his music are clearly in the lineage of mid ’00s trap music – at its grainiest, Gates’s voice bore a passing resemblance to Young Jeezy’s – in person, with the benefit of Gates’s raw, absorbing performance, they came off more like soliloquies. Near the end of the set, Gates leapt into the crowd to deliver the last song from the floor. He was immediately surrounded, but Gates remained fully absorbed in the story he was telling, and the determination with which he was telling it. It was as if he was the only person in the room.