Return of the Real Yelawolf

Kevin Costello

The tale of Yelawolf is a long and controversial one. A white emcee from Gadsden, AL with a chopper flow and a distinctly Southern subject matter, Yelawolf is anything but orthodox. He doesn’t hail from a major urban area, as is reflected in his music. He swims against the traditional hip-hop current. However, he has managed to carve out a niche in the hip-hop community with his unique flow, lyrical flair and knack for storytelling. After years of hard work in the underground, he emerged with his critically acclaimed “Trunk Muzik” mix-tape. The mix-tape put Yelawolf in the spotlight, earning him cosigns from hip-hop giants like T.I., Bun B, Raekwon, Tech N9ne and Eminem, who subsequently signed the Alabama emcee to his label, Shady Records.

After joining Shady, Yelawolf put out his major label debut, “Radioactive,” a painfully obvious attempt to garner mainstream fanfare and radio play. The album eventually went gold, but it was met with mixed reviews, as many were highly critical of the awkward, poppy-sounding tracks that comprised nearly half of the album. This average album, combined with Yelawolf’s already controversial musical style, spelled potential career disaster. Fortunately, such was not the case. Yelawolf went on to release several positively-received mix-tapes and has since collaborated with the likes of A$AP Rocky, Travis Barker and Big K.R.I.T.. However, it has been difficult for Yela to emerge from the “Radioactive” shadow and recreate the excitement that he generated earlier in his career.

His recent mix-tape, “Trunk Muzik Returns,” executively produced by longtime collaborator SupaHotBeats, represents an attempt to do just that. Even the name, alluding to his earlier mix-tape, suggests that Yelawolf intended to return to his musical roots. Since the original “Trunk Muzik” was so well-received, it’s easy to imagine the hype accompanying this release. Can Yelawolf recapture the magic that made him a major Hip-Hop player in the first place? The answer that the mix-tape gives us, for the most part, is a resounding “yes.”

This magic is not easily recognized after the first track, “Firestarter,” which, while touting Yelawolf’s tenacity and capacity to make big things happen in hip-hop, borders on boring. His delivery is quieter than we’ve come to expect from Yelawolf and the beat is rather mellow. It is easy to get discouraged after listening to track one, but this is intentional. Emcees sometimes come soft on the first track in order to shock the listener with what is to come (you may remember Ab-Soul using this technique with “Soulo Ho3” on “Control System”). Yelawolf indeed shocks us with the next two tracks, “Way Out” and “F.A.S.T Ride.” These introduce two of the mix-tape’s main themes: lyrical consistency and artistic growth. Yela stays true to his background and lyrical prowess while infusing an obscure, psychedelic element to his delivery (Yelawolf has always been open about his LSD use) that complements spacey SupaHot production. This neo-psychedelic element climaxes on the next track, “Box Chevy Part 4,” a truly magical listening experience that both sequels and differs from the previously released “Box Chevy Part 3.”

The following four tracks, while less spacey, are laced with lyrical complexity and nostalgia of a 2010 Yelawolf. “Hustle (feat. Paul Wall)” epitomizes struggle and ambition through the eyes of a working-class Alabamian. “Catfish Billy,” an ode to Yelawolf’s devious alter ego, is a harrowing warning shot to those in hip-hop who pegged Yelawolf as an easy target after “Radioactive.” “Gangster (feat. A$AP Rocky & Big Henry)” tells the dark tale of Yela’s upbringing. It shines as a good track despite a weak verse from A$AP. “Rhyme Room (feat. Raekwon & Killer Mike)” is a lyrical firestorm with a ridiculous Killer Mike verse. It also features an explanation of “Radioactive’s” faults and promises a return to the Yelawolf we know and love.

In short, “Trunk Muzik Returns” is an artistic success that simultaneously moves back to a raw, gritty Yelawolf and forward to encompass more advanced lyricism and more complex musical elements. It’s a sound mix-tape that I highly recommend to any fan of hip-hop or, more broadly, music in general.