I don't know Yelawolf.
Over the years we've crossed paths a few times. DJBooth exclusively put out his Trunk Muzik mixtape - the original Trunk Muzik that was later repackaged as Trunk Muzik 0-60 - Yela played our A3C show, I interviewed him right before Love Story dropped, blah blah blah. But I've never talked to him about anything except music, I certainly wouldn't ask him to move a couch, I don't know Yelawolf, and I certainly don't know Michael Wayne Atha.
Still, I've known plenty of Yelawolfs in my life, I have some Yelawolf in me. He's my Uncle Jim, my friend Cal, guys who were allergic to fake smiles, who had no tolerance for even casually forced small talk. And so they would constantly test you, carefully watch how you reacted, and if you could roll with the punches, even land a few jabs of your own, you had their loyalty. And if you didn't prove tough enough to be worth their time, well, you probably called them an asshole, but not to their face.
And so I was well prepared when I walked into Yelawolf's trailer during Soundset. I'd watch other interviewers get rattled by his willingness to challenge questions he thought were stupid, but I had a childhood full of Uncle Jim behind me, I was ready. I didn't know Yelawolf, but I felt like I knew him well enough to be able to get a damn good interview out of him.
Case in point, check out this video. It starts off with him talking about the reaction to Love Story, how he felt like sites like Pitchfork completely missed his intentions and couldn't understand the kind of music he was making. But while we were talking a festival radio kept going off and he eventually yells at the staff to keep the trailer quiet. It's all interesting, but in particular watch for the 2:46 mark.
Did you catch that? The slow smile he couldn't keep supressed, the one that let you know the flash of anger was never serious, that he just wanted to see who could tell that he was joking? In a moment that's Yelawolf, and in a way it's a good description for his career. There's a part of him and his music that's constantly pushing, always challenging what hip-hop can sound like, what a rapper's supposed to look and act like. And that's why it was striking to hear him so comfortable on Love Story, like he had settled into himself, wasn't pushing anymore, and he confirmed that was the case. According to Yela, the rapper we knew from Trunk Muzik was more the exception than the rule, that he had been blending rap, rock and country years before he ever popped the trunk.
And so while they're from strikingly different geographies, it makes perfect sense why Yelawolf signed to Shady, why he and Eminem have found so much common ground. They were both odd kids, people who felt unstoppably compelled to be themselves, even when there were so few people around them like them. And in being so fearlessly themselves they found out just how many people out there are like them, how many people are looking for someone to let them know it's ok to throw a middle finger to the world in the name of self-expression.
I know Yelawolf better after that interview. I know what it sounds like when his son is bored backstage and wants to go to the mall, I know he thought the gigantic donuts left out for him were ridiculous, I know his fiancee, Fefe Dobson, was furious with him when he got the Slumerican tattoo under his lip. But I still won't claim to know him in any real way outside his music, although maybe the best way to get to know Yelawolf is through his music, especially after Love Story, when it sounds like his music is finally a true reflection of the person he truly is. Truth be told, we all have at least some Yelawolf in us, even if we don't know ourselves well enough to realize it.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]