The first time Yelawolf’s voice ever entered my life was through a snarling verse on “You Ain’t No DJ” off Big Boi’s solo album Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son Of Chico Dusty. I was immediately blown away by his performance.
Yela’s frenetic delivery was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. His verse was like verbal free-form jazz; a white incarnation of Mystikal, but with a lyrical dexterity reminiscent of Eminem or Tech N9ne.
From there, I was introduced to Yela’s Trunk Muzik mixtape series, which showcased the full range of his abilities both lyrically and musically. Lyrically, Yela is able to hold his own amongst some of the most intricate rappers in the game. His flows are endless, and the way he packs them full of meaningful content promises repeat listens. Musically, however, Yelawolf’s production selections, over time, began to stray further and further from the sonic norm of the times.
With a successful mixtape run and a rapidly expanding fan base, Yelawolf inked a deal with Interscope/Shady Records and released his full-length debut, Radioactive. While Radioactive was met with fair reviews, those familiar with Yela’s previous work saw it as a departure from his true form and a failed attempt at garnering a broader fan base.
After his self-admitted failure with Radioactive, Yelawolf went on a tear of increasingly experimental mixtapes and EPs, including collaborative projects with Travis Barker and Ed Sheeran. (Side note: TheSlumdon Bridge kind of flew under the radar for a lot of heads and is insanely good...check it out.)
As his musical horizons expanded, more of Yelawolf’s true self began to creep out both lyrically and sonically, and it was becoming clear that there was a large part of his musical identity he hadn’t yet shared with the world.
Being from Alabama, Yelawolf’s Southern pride runs deep, as does the musical influences afforded by his upbringing, and as Yela’s artistic evolution continued, listeners were slowly introduced to a side of the artist largely missing in his earlier work—the country part.
The real transition in Yelawolf’s sound came with the release of his mixtape Trunk Muzik Returns. At the end of a spaced-out, trap-inspired trip through Southern hip-hop, however, was a song called “Tennessee Love,” a twangy sap-fest that, while still hip-hop influenced, featured a directional shift toward country and Yela singing just as much as he was rapping.
The song was genuine, heartfelt and completely different from anything else in hip-hop. While there had been plenty of misguided attempts at blending country and hip-hop influences (*cough* Kid Rock *cough* Big & Rich *cough*), the precision with which Yelawolf entwined the two, and the authenticity his upbringing afforded him, allowed him to avoid that contrived sound that is often felt when hip-hop tries to sleep with other genres.
On Love Story, the highly-anticipated follow-up to Radioactive, Yela dove head first into his rural roots, and to incredible results. The album kicks off with a pure hip-hop banger, and then switches directions completely, following Yela through a retracing of his upbringing both musically and otherwise through the use of a perfectly blended mixture of country and hip-hop.
It’s as if Yela finally figured out how to incorporate his Southern pride and upbringing into his current musical leanings, a move that surely took some courage from an artist signed to Shady Records, a label best known for intricate, traditional hip-hop.
Somehow, though, Yelawolf has managed to successfully navigate the expectations of his longtime fan base while coming to terms with his musical destiny, and the result has been some of his strongest work to date, as well as arguably the most authentic, listenable execution of country-rap that’s ever existed. Yela has set out to remind listeners that, at their core, hip-hop and country aren’t nearly as far removed from one another as one might believe.
Yela lets his country flag fly, absolutely, but he’s also still an emcee at heart and has a penchant for dropping in an absolute banger every time he feels listeners need a quick reminder of just how brutal he can be with a more traditional hip-hop backdrop. Those reminders are often perfectly placed and offer both context and balance to his more country-fried offerings.
With the surprise release of his new EP Hotel, Yela has continued down the path of incorporating his leather-wearing, Johnny Cash-loving true self into his love for hip-hop, an evolution that’s as exciting to watch as it is surprisingly fun to listen to.
Considering Yela has a new full-length album in the works, entitled Trial By Fire, his evolution might be far from over. As his artistic journey continues, Yelawolf could be leading the charge for a whole new subgenre of music—one that embraces the old, accepts the new, and flips both on their heads to make something genuinely exciting.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.