About a third of the way through Radioactive, the 2011 debut from the rapper Yelawolf, the album all but announces that fans of the fast-rapping trailer park poet should stop listening.
Affixed to the end of "Throw It Up," a skit masquerades as a private phone call with Eminem; the skit spotlights the importance of the album's marketability. Eminem plays himself, a whiteboy rap demigod and head of Shady Records, a large label distributed by the larger Interscope. At the time, Yelawolf was Shady's latest signee.
"You know what I was thinking man?" Eminem says hesitantly. "I think the one thing that the album doesn't have, that it might be missing is, like, a song for like, girls." The two go back and forth. Yelawolf is, at first, a little confused: "What do you mean? For like, bitches?" Then he's indignant, simply guffawing "No!" at one point. Finally, Eminem, the boss, declares, "We need one."
That is, Radioactive required a song for the girls, a hit.
For a moment, the skit seems like a joke, a parody of a bottom-line-obsessed record label messing with the work of a promising artist. But the record bears the bit out: The next song is "Good Girl." It features a crooner named Poo Bear, but it does not feature any of Yelawolf's reputation-making energy—he typically boasts a meth-head yammer of a voice. He raps about a chick he met at the mall who is amenable to his drinkin', druggin' and fightin' ways. During the next 35 minutes, Radioactive becomes a mess of crossover attempts that don't do pop properly and, worse still, forgo Yelawolf's inspired mix of dirty-South stomp, outlaw country and bugged-out OutKast-style storytelling.
This should not have happened: For years, Yelawolf built an allegiant following with free downloads and nonstop touring, making his star without the support of a major label. In fact, his profile rose significantly after he was dropped from Columbia in 2007 and went at rap stardom alone. 2010's Trunk Muzik was a fully formed, free download of an album. It had a wired single, "Pop the Trunk," a dramatic and near-spoken-word piece about witnessing violence and trauma as a youth. Meanwhile, the Lil Wayne-like "Lick the Cat" and electro-psychedelic "Speak Her Sex" were slow-jam raps ready for radio. "Love Is Not Enough" portrayed teen puppy love alongside a class-consciousness fairly specific to poor white kids locked in public school with rich white kids. There's even a song for the clubs called, well, "In This Club."
On his own, Yelawolf crossed into the realms of pop, R&B and party music just fine. He was so good at it that, toward the end of 2010, Trunk Muzik even arrived in stores as a proper record named Trunk Muzik: 0–60. A new song, "Billy Crystal," maintained the novelistic detail of "Pop the Trunk" but replaced melodramatic piano with elbow-throwing dubstep. It worked.
When Shady unveiled the first single from Radioactive, "Hard White (Up in the Club)," it seemed as though Yelawolf would make it to the mainstream with all of his inspired weirdness intact. The tune was a confident cluster of county-fried crunk with a guest appearance by Lil Jon. But the album that followed was more of a mess than anybody could've anticipated, a mixed bag of half-baked attempts at branching out.
This narrative is perverse: Interscope and Shady took a pop-savvy oddball ready for radio, introduced him by sharpening his aggressive edges with dubstep and metal riffs, and then smoothed him out beyond recognition for the album. It's also a pervasive narrative, as rap fans are accustomed to being burned by their heroes who sign big deals, and it doesn't take all that much to win their respect back. Mixtapes afford rappers the opportunity to make an end run around the demands of radio. Album sucked? Simply release a zip file of killer songs that'd make any hits-obsessed suit cringe, and the selling out's all but forgotten.
Instead, Yelawolf doubled down on his hitmaking attempts, delivering a free EP called The Slumdon Bridge. Featuring English troubadour Ed Sheeran, the four songs on Slumdon proved that, when left to his own devices, Yelawolf could make pop-leaning music that could grabs lots of ears. Still, it had little to do with Trunk Muzik. You also began seeing Yela's mug in advertisements for Monster energy drink.
More foreboding for Yelawolf's chances of true pop success is that, with his momentum mostly stalled, he now has unscrupulous competition: Machine Gun Kelly, or MGK, is a rust belt rap cornball from Cleveland best described as diet, caffeine-free Yelawolf. MGK's white-boy chip on his shoulder has an almost tea party quality that—more aggressively than cleverly—plays up the color of his skin. It's telling that Diddy has pushed him. This is the story of major-label hip-hip right now: If you are an MC unwilling to bend over backward and placate your label, then they will find someone else to approximate your shtick, set the PR machine in motion and push you out of the way.
It seems now that Yelawolf might have been Internet rap's sacrificial lamb. Did he take the body blow so that others could move from underground to mainstream more freely? This year, major-label debuts from blog-friendly rappers like Big K.R.I.T. (Live From the Underground) and Kendrick Lamar (good kid, m.A.A.d city) provided hope and daresay proof that uncompromising MCs can transition into the mainstream, integrity intact.
At least Yelawolf's cross-cultural, genre-jumping persona provides him with plenty of avenues toward a return to form. Again, the right mixtape or single can still obviate any early misstep, and any of these Yelawolves will do: dubstep MC mindfully bleating out the struggles of the working class; maniacal rap rocker with good taste in metal, steering clear of Limp Bizkit land; trailer park meth rapper not unlike the mid-2000s crack rap scene, which managed shiny hooks and gritty reportage. Perhaps his new EP with Travis Barker of Blink-182 can offer a redeeming look.
In today's rap landscape, Yelawolf still stands alone, one of a kind. Let's just hope he still knows that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Endangered wolves."