In the summer of 2011 it was beginning to feel like Yelawolf was knocking on the door of superstardom. His Trunk Muzik project had exploded, resulting in a booming legion of fans, a signing to Interscope and a seat at the Shady Records table next to Eminem. For an artist who had already been through the major label system once, previously signing with Columbia Records and then leaving a year later, it felt like the planets were finally aligning, like hip-hop was on the verge of seeing its first Southern, white, heavily tattooed, whiskey drinking, catfish eating, four-wheel truck driving star. All he needed was that one hit, that one song that would become a regular in rush hour radio rotation, and he'd be a household name. It felt so close.
But the best laid plans of record labels and men often go awry. Depending on your definition of success, Yela's debut studio album, Radioactive, was either a flop or a success. True, it's commercial sales were relatively disappointing and it failed to find traction on radio - painfully ironic for an album whose title was a reference to garnering radio spins - but it also contained some damn good music, certainly good enough to keep those fans onboard the Slumerican wagon.
So while Yelawolf has some regrets about the project, in many ways he also stands behind it. As he said when we recently spoke, "Radioactive had classics on it. Gangsta Boo and Eminem on a record together? Please, I'm so proud of it, there are things about that album I'm so proud of. It's not about it being a bad album. There are great songs on there, but I wasn't personally totally connected to it. There are things on there when I'm like, man, fuck...it should have been this, it should have been that. And then you wonder why a certain song hits. It's terrible, it's a terrible song, but it hits. It's because the person singing that shit believes in that shit. They sell it. They make you believe because they believe. And that's all that really fucking matters."
So the traditional door to music industry stardom door had closed, maybe Yelawolf was never meant to go through that door, so he set out to build his door. Lesson learned. Over the next four years, a continuing period I said looked from the outside like him saying "fuck everyone, I'm being completely myself" and he agreed, Yela became determined to cut out anything he wasn't completely commited to.
"I learned you can't go halfway," he said. "You have to do what you love, for you. Ideas that I was kind of halfway in on, that I let people convince me of, they didn't work." And so he began to spend more time in Nashville, where he had grown up and where he was surrounded by musicians from across the musical spectrum. He took the plunge and began tattooing his face, took long motorcycle rides and, most importantly, got back to making music, but this time it'd be music he was making entirely for him.
Without the pressures of major label A&Rs in his ear, Yela worked on projects he wanted to; an EP with Ed Sheeran, a project with Travis Barker, a mixtape with DJ Paul, it was all part of figuring out what a Yelawolf song should truly sound like, and it became increasingly apparent that if he wanted to entirely translate his life into music, he was going to have to figure out how to incorporate the classic country music and Southern rock he had grown up on alongside his love for hip-hop. As he explained, "I've been doing this [mixing genres] for years, and if I haven't been doing it literally in the music, I've been talking about it. There's elements of that on 'Good to Go.' I always tried to plant the seeds of where I was headed. The challenge was bringing together all those sounds - turns out it's really fucking hard to do [laughs]."
If there was a magic moment when it all came together, it was when he and long time production partner WLPWR were in Nashville recording what would become Trunk Muzik Returns and they came up with "Tennesee Love." As Yelawolf explained, "When I recorded that song for Trunk Muzik Returns, I was like damn man, that's the seed to Love Story. It sounded perfect. It didn't sound forced, it didn't sound like a gimmick. It sounded, right."
With "Tennessee Love" as the blueprint that new album, Love Story, truly began to take shape, and in many ways on a purely sonic level the result is closer to Kendrick's To Pimp a Butterfly album than Radioactive or Trunk Muzik. Both projects are founded on live instrumentation and musicianship and both albums draw on a wide range of influences outside hip-hop. Love Story is filled with steel guitars and fiddles, you don't have to guess who a song titled "Johnny Cash" references, although notably "Johnny Cash" isn't nearly as traditionally as country sounding as a song like "Devil in My Veins," which is essentially nothing but an acoustic guitar, violins and Yelawolf singing with nary a rap or snare drum to be found.
A term like "country rap" is rightfully terrifying to may hip-hop fans (thanks Nelly) but Love Story isn't country rap. Truthfully, it doesn't sound like country or rap, it sounds like Yelawolf. He's aware that he's outside the boundaries of traditional genre, but he's really not thinking about it. Thinking about it would only ruin the music, make it feel unnatural. As he said, "I don't hold the key, I'm not the guy who's going to bridge the divide. I'm just being me, and a lot of kids out there, they're already up on it all. They're already listening to Johnny Cash. They're already listening to Gangsta Boo."
And so here we are, fours year after Radioactive, with Yelawolf seemingly farther away from mainsteam stardom than ever but also happier and making better music than ever. "You gotta be proud, and Love Story is definitely my pride," he said. "I've done something that I can die and feel like I did my work on Earth."
Who needs radio spins when you have a love story like that?
* Art by KgTheOctopus
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer/video+radio+podcast host. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]