Love is a Battlefield: Can Yelawolf Rebound?

Everybody knows you never go full Kid Rock.
By    April 29, 2015


 Kyle Ellison drives his Box Chevy on the left side of the road.

It’s easy to have sympathy with somebody who loses their way on a major label, but it’s even easier to write them off. It’s been four years since Yelawolf made a pact with a bleach blonde Lucifer, during which time he’s completed his transformation from muddled Alabama misfit into another joyless disciple for the Shady Records cypher.

In his Trunk Muzik days, Yelawolf’s intrigue was multifaceted. He was a southern enigma who’d studied the double-time masters Twista, Busta and Bone, but if given money for the jukebox, he’d probably spend it on Lynyrd Skynyrd. On “Pop the Trunk,” he wrote about grisly murders in the backwoods of Alabama, filled with perfect details like the crack smoke that sweeps through Gadsden streets like early morning fog. He also described numb sexual encounters in the back seats of his Chevy and–whether he wanted it heard or not–released one of the weirdest songs of 2010, and this website’s number one pick of that year.

What happened next was as sad as it was inevitable. Yelawolf might have been signed on his own steam, but the resulting album was more about finding ways to fit his talent into existing molds. When he turned up at the studio to record Radioactive’s first single, for instance, the song had already been written and it featured Lil Jon. The next single would have Kid Rock on hook duties, and while Killer Mike, Gangsta Boo and Mystikal all made appearances, they weren’t the artists that his debut was to be modeled on.

It might still be 8Ball & MJG that rattle the trunk of his box Chevy, but somebody decided that they won’t lead him to where the white rapper gold is buried. Unfortunately for Yelawolf, it bombed anyway, and second chances in this industry are like Jay Electronica albums.

The difference between Radioactive and his second album, Love Story, is that Yelawolf no longer sounds like he’s fighting against forced narratives, but instead he’s just settled on one that’s not very interesting. Catfish Billy has always worn his country roots as a badge of honour–he goes around calling himself Catfish Billy for a start, and if you need further proof he’s got the word ‘RED’ tattooed onto his neck–but where he used to play with stereotypes and expectations, now he plays up to them. Wolf is or was a charismatic rapper, but here he’s written a 75-minute album of very conventional country rock songs with barely a trace of his former idiosyncrasies.

The southern otherworldliness of ATLiens is evoked on the album’s rap-rock opener, “Outer Space,” which isn’t exactly good, but it’s about the only song here on which he sounds like he’s having any fun. From there the album dwindles into an inescapable dreariness–the titles “Devil in My Veins,” “Empty Bottles” and “Whiskey in a Bottle” tell you everything–until a mood change on the final song “Fiddle Me This,” which surprisingly adds little to the canon of great rap songs featuring fiddles.

There’s an illusion that what’s going on here is somehow stylistically subversive, but Love Story instead feels like an extended Jack Daniels commercial with added face tats and occasional homophobia. Yelawolf is actually a competent enough hook singer with an ear for melody, but the bigger problem is his writing, which has become boring, po-faced and one-dimensional. While “American You” might be well-intentioned in taking shots at a homogenized American ideal, its targets are much too vague to hit and the song winds up feeling like a cynical grab at an underdog anthem in the key of Macklemore.

“Till It’s Gone” and “Tennessee Love” fare better, but the latter is taken from the patchy Trunk Muzik Returns mixtape, admittedly a slight return to form, but one that was released more than two years ago. I was rooting for Wolf back then and I still want him to win, but in his eagerness to slim down his songwriting team and correct the wrongs of Radioactive, he’s somehow tossed out all of his greatest assets.

So, where Radioactive suffered from a tracklist bloated with featured guests, here there are none, save for an utterly swagless turn from Eminem. Rap Genius users might applaud Marshall’s mastery of the internal rhyme, but he raps like an agitated child, spitting and spluttering himself into a rage of I-don’t-even-know-what because his delivery is so distracting. Technically impressive, sure, but it’s the rap equivalent of playing a guitar solo at a party, and I wasn’t enjoying the party to begin with.

Unfortunately, Yelawolf looks set to follow Eminem down this same path of self-seriousness, but without the years of chainsaw-wielding weirdness that made him a great. Whether or not you ever thought Eminem was genuinely funny, at the very least he used to write funny images, creating a cartoonish Technicolor world out of his tough, grey Detroit upbringing. Yelawolf had those same qualities, sitting on a porch in rural Alabama with fantasies of attending parties in Beverly Hills and driving away in daddy’s Lambo. Now he’s a guy who says things like “behold these lyrics” and writes angry baby momma songs; “Kim” might be horrible, but you felt like Eminem meant it. Even when Em’s music was bad at his peak, it was never boring. Go back and watch the video for “My Name Is” and ask yourself if the guy chasing his English teacher with a stapler would be at all interested in releasing Love Story.

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