Surrounded by pain, Tampa rapper Gat$ searches for something good

He celebrates a cutting new album, 'Robbed' on May 14 at Hooch and Hive.

click to enlarge Surrounded by pain, Tampa rapper Gat$ searches for something good
Photo by Jan-Michael Reyes. Design by Jack Spatafora.

This summer, Robb Ferdinand plays his ninth stadium show. The set is part of the second rescheduled date for the July edition of Rolling Loud, a Florida-born hip-hop festival where the 32-year-old better known as Gat$ has played stages with A$ap Rocky, Future, Kid Cudi and Cardi B in cities like Oakland, New York and Miami. At Hard Rock Stadium on July 24, the Tampa rapper is on a bill that includes headliner Travis Scott along with Young Thug, Wale, Roddy Rich and more.

Temple of La Piña: Robbed Album Release
Gat$ w/Scxtt Aye/DJ Wally Rios
Saturday, May 15, 8 p.m. $10-$15
Hooch and Hive. 1001 W Cass St., Tampa

Had the festival happened as planned last May, Gat$ would’ve been supporting his 2020 album, Robbers, a collection of songs he made knowing Rolling Loud and South By Southwest (also canceled) were on the calendar. The effort is marked with Gat$’ familiar social commentary, but other cuts find him rapping about suicide, then something completely hedonistic in the very next bar. It’s a fully-transparent LP with open wounds wrapped in bandages of bombastic beats designed for the festival stage.

Still, having Rolling Loud—inarguably the biggest hip-hop festival in the world—postponed twice due to coronavirus had a silver lining. Gat$ told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that last spring kicked off a “pretty, pretty bad time,” for him. Truth be told, the entire last half decade has been rough.

After the release of his 2016, jazz-riddled, boom-bap-driven album By Any Dreams, Gat$’ sickle cell anemia—a diagnosis he received after being wrongfully pegged for various other ailments since the age of 12—grew so dire that he publicly asked fans and friends if they could be a match for a bone marrow transplant. His younger brother Elijah ended up being the one, but tests found that attempting the transplant left Gat$ open to a 10% chance of dying. Even the doctor wouldn’t do it. In the years after, Gat$ has been skipping chemo, opting instead for a good diet and less stress to control the disease poisoning his blood.

click to enlarge Gat$ at Five 5 Studios in Ybor City, Florida. - Jan-Michael Reyes
Jan-Michael Reyes
Gat$ at Five 5 Studios in Ybor City, Florida.

Then, on March 14, 2020, Gat$’ older brother died of a heart attack. Three days later the world shut down. With Rolling Loud canceled, Gat$ was forced to be alone. “Henry was my protector and really my sense of grounding,” Gat$ said. A week after his brother’s funeral, Gat$’ mom got COVID-19; she ended up with a port in her chest.

Mom’s hospital stay and his brother’s passing comprise just some of the pain detailed on Gat$’ new album, Robbed, set for release on May 14. The songs were meant to see him through the bereavement, not for the public to hear. Gat$’ colleagues at Ybor City’s Five 5 Studios, where he’s Studio Director, helped convince him otherwise. There’s a verse on the opening track, “Laugh With God,” where the treble is totally panned down, rendering lyrics indecipherable.

“I needed to get that out, but it's really for my brother. It was my personal eulogy for him,” Gat$ explained. It’s the only opaque part of a 34-minute album that wears deeper bruises than Robbers, but without the padding of production meant for crowds ready to party.

Robbed is a rare record that, in three acts, confronts darkness—both societal and internal, sometimes not exclusive of each other—while retaining a sense of hope not just in the way it makes room for loving sentiments and a sense of longing, but in how it approaches the ills addressed on its most cutting tracks.

On “Moonlight,” over a restless piano sample, Gat$’ references H.P. Lovecraft’s ancient winged god as he raps about American norms that often paint Black men as superthugs, criminals and generally devious beings no matter how much they move vertically through society. “The Cthulhu line has a lot of meaning, as it's a tentacled being that physically shifts and a monster of lore that has had many interpretations over time, [and] Lovecraft was a racist so there's that," Gat$ said.

Elsewhere, like on “Black Nationalist,” Gat$ asks why the nation's biggest gang enjoys qualified immunity, while also pondering how a community actively avoids oppression in a world where property is sold off to developers and municipalities, effectively closing the book on a family’s land ownership. Houses are either being torn down or rehabbed on the song, but always sold for profit, leaving the original homeowner out of the cycle of generational wealth.

As a teenager, Gat$ took advantage of an opportunity to work at a bank where he now spends his days training to be a financial solutions advisor. Being around people who have some money, others with no money and the lucky few with heaps of it not only taught him the difference between clients on 50th Street, in Palma Ceia and in the suburb of Brandon, but also how financial literacy is passed down, and how it plays out in real life. And on tracks of longing like “Lauren London,” he raps about all of that, inequity and police reform in a way that’ll leave you humming the hook while also thinking about the message long after the record wraps.

But even while blasting cops on MAGA patrol and painting pictures of people hanging from trees (“Bad News”), Gat$ still manages a balanced album that doesn’t explicitly tell you what to do. Instead, he asks a lot of questions, inevitably inviting listeners to rethink their worldview.

“It's super easy to say, ‘Fuck the police,’ but why?,” Gat$ said, explaining the way Robbed can be simultaneously dense and lit (like on “NRA” when he has choice words for Marco Rubio). On his new album, he talks directly about issues without superfluous messaging. “I don't want to be preachy or whiny, I just tried to find the voice to rap about the things that bothered me; on the other hand, I feel like opening up conversations about those things are the actions that lead to resolving those things.”

And at the end of the day, in spite of all the pain that is the foundation of Robbed, Gat$—who’s been to more funerals than weddings, baby showers and birthday parties over the last five years—still finds hope. On aforementioned album highlight “Bad News,” Gat$ raps that he “Ain’t got time to cry.” But in real life, he actually does it all the time.

“It just comes out at the most inopportune moments, like in traffic,” he said. With the kind of year Gat$ had, they might just come out in Miami. We all suffer differently, but Gat$ rolled his pain out so we could address ours, too. It’ll be OK to cry with him when he’s onstage, we’re all just laughing with God anyway.

click to enlarge Gat$ at the Rolling Loud studio in Miami, Florida. - Jan-Michael Reyes
Jan-Michael Reyes
Gat$ at the Rolling Loud studio in Miami, Florida.

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About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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