With the possible exception of promiscuous sex, nothing good happens overnight. While it may seem like Yelawolf’s gone from virtual unknown to Eminem protégé overnight, the man’s actually been at this hip-hop thing for years. In fact, most people (everyone too lazy to check Wikipedia) don’t know that this is Yela’s second time swimming in major label waters; his first deal with Columbia dissolved with only one retrospectively fascinating video, Kickin, to show for it. But this history does more than provide us with Yelawolf trivia answers, it helps us understand Yela’s trajectory leading up …
DJBooth Album Review
Those years Yelawolf spent trying, and failing, and trying again forced him to not only hone his skills as a rapper and songwriter, but forge his identity. When Columbia execs attempt to rebrand you, when someone questions if a white rapper from Alabama belongs in hip-hop for the 798th time, you can have two reactions: let the pressure bend you into an unrecognizable shape, or become an even louder, even more defiant version of yourself. It’s either turn up the Auto-tune, or turn up the Lynard Skynard and grab your skateboard. We all know the route Yelawolf chose. That willingness…no, it’s more than a willingness…that need to throw up a middle finger in the face expectations actually comes full circle on Radioactive. The safe thing, the expected thing, would have been for Yela to fill this album with 15 versions of Pop the Trunk, but instead, as the title suggests, he makes Radioactive simultaneously the most and least mainstream friendly album of the year. It’s a seeming contradiction that only someone who was supremely confident in their identity as an artist could pull off.
With its Lil Jon ad libs, hypnotically catchy beat and club party demeanor many assumed lead single Hard White would be the album’s most clear cut attempt to merge club bangers with gutter rap, to meld city night clubs with the country bars, but in the context of the album as a whole Hard White turns out to be much more the rule than the exception. Let’s Roll attempts the same thing only in reverse, recruiting Kid Rock, who’s found a second career in that space between rock and country, in an attempt to craft one of the first rap tracks that could be played not just in an NBA arena but a Nascar track. But Hard White and Roll are still low on the riskiness spectrum compared to a track like The Hardest Love Song in the World, which earns its title by pairing an uplifting guitar and a smooth hook with Yela’s rhymes about f**king his lady while wearing a Jason mask, and Good Girl, which earns the distinction of the most heavily R&B influenced joint I’ve ever heard from Yela. In other words, it’s far from the expected.
Longtime fans will be suspicious of tracks like Good Girl or the piano driven Write Your Name, and to be honest I was suspicious at first too, but crucially if these are plays to make radio play Yelawolf more actively, he’s strong enough to make the radio come to him, not vice-versa, and the easiest proof in the album’s guest features. He got Bruno Mars or Trey Songz to sing the hook on Good Girl, right? Nope, Poo Bear. Rihanna for Write Your Name, right? Nope, Mona Moua. Well, he’s got a track with super producer Jim Jonsin (Lollipop, Motivation, etc.) that’s even called Radio, that’s got to pander to Billboard, right? Actually, it calls out cowardly radio programmers for not playing more Blackstar and Goodie Mob. If Yelawolf's going to make it, he's going to make it his way, with the artists he wants to work with.
Make no mistake though, on Radioactive Yelawolf still goes harder than…well…it’s hard to think of something harder than a rapper who jumps off lighting rigs at his live shows (I saw the L.A. version in person, it looked painful). Growing Up in the Gutter is a black hole dark reminder that violence and abuse don’t discriminate by race or geography, Get Away features some of the trademark breathless flows we’ve come to expect from Yela and Slumerican Sh*tizen is as obscene as you think it is. (Side note: Killer Mike belongs in any most underrated rapper alive discussion.) Most impressively, he holds his own next to his trailer trash trailblazing label boss Eminem on the rewind worthy Throw It Up, a cut that also gives Gangster Boo her most high profile placement since Outkast’s Call Before I Come. It’s a Southern thing.
I could say that Radioactive helps redefine what a hip-hop album sounds like, and that’d be true, but that’s not really the impressive part. From Kid Cudi to Kanye, true boundary pushers in hip-hop are a rare but not extinct breed. No, more impressive is that Radioactive will redefine what the world thinks a Yelawolf album sounds like. The funny part about that is Yelawolf always simply sounds like Yelawolf. I don’t think he knows how to sound like anyone else.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 11/24/11
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