Yelawolf is a lean, tattooed, half-white, half-Cherokee MC from the unlikely hiphop outpost of Gadsden, Alabama, at the tail end of the Appalachians. He has floppy, jet-black hair that falls some-where between mullet and uncharged Mohawk. He's probably the most unusual face in Southern hiphop right now, and after years of mixtape toil, he's poised for big things in the year to come. (Say "great white hope" and you will get slapped.)
Onstage at SXSW in March for a small afternoon showcase, Yelawolf carried himself less like a rapper than like a welterweight professional wrestler. He mean-mugged, he stalked the stage, he snarled to the back of the room, and, for set closer "In This Club" ("Let's do some drugs in this club/Let's get fucked-up in this club"), he swung an oversize, inflated replica of a Southern Comfort bottle (the venue's prop, not his) between his legs and encouraged people to "go ahead, touch it." It was not an entirely convincing act. By the end of the month, though, he was signed to Interscope.
More persuasive than that off live show is the mixtape Trunk Muzik, which Yelawolf released for free download in the months prior to SXSW. Yelawolf raps in a pinched double time matched by skittering hi-hats, drawls his punch lines over window-rattling bass, and sings his own hooks when he needs to. He posits himself as a distinctly Deep South brand of poverty-beating antihero, as on the Raekwon-featuring "I Wish": "Confederate flags, I see you/On the truck with the windows down/Why's he playing Beanie Sigel?/'Cause his daddy was a dope man/Lynyrd Skynyrd didn't talk about movin' keys of coke, man." When he says, "I'm from the bottom, believe it" on "Stage Lights," it evokes both economics and geography, and echoes the Jay-Z line.
Of course, we've seen this before. From Eminem on down to Kid Rock, the notion of "white trash," implying both poverty and a kind of second-class-citizen status that mirrors hiphop's traditional origin story, has always provided a clear route to credibility for white (or in this case, white-looking) rappers. But no amount of positioning matters without sharp rhymes and cadences, a distinctive voice, personality and charisma, and the ability to score good producers, beats, and collaborators for your tracks. On record, Yelawolf has these things in spades. His flow is, thankfully, more like Eminem's tart tongue twisters than Kid Rock's cheap-seats cornballing. And beyond Wu-Tang's Chef, Trunk Muzik features Bun B of UGK, Juelz Santana of Dipset, and consistently solid production. Notable as these appearances are, Yelawolf's guest spot on the new Big Boi album, Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty, may be his most impressive look of the summer; on the track "You Ain't No DJ," Yelawolf accomplishes the not small feat of sounding more or less at home alongside OutKast's laser-focused half.
And if Yelawolf's at all concerned about his place in hiphop, his response to critics real and imagined ranges only from the self-explanatory chorus of "F.U." to the ol' rubber/glue gambit of "I Wish": "I wish a motherfucker would/Tell me that I ain't hiphop/Bitch, you ain't hiphop." Case closed.
"Good to Go," with its hands-waving sing-along chorus and simple piercing synth melody, is the catchiest track here, Yelawolf following a typically sly and authoritative Bun B verse with a funny and self-deprecating shout-out to UGK's "Pocket Full of Stones": "I got a pocket full of stones/'Cause I fell off my dirt bike in cargo pants." "Mixin' Up the Medicine" features Juelz Santana on the verses and Yelawolf doing the Bob Dylan–derived hook. (Yelawolf previously did a mixtape of him rapping over classic rock instrumentals, but on Trunk Muzik, such potentially limiting rap/rock mashups are contained to this chorus.)
"Pop the Trunk" is Yelawolf at his most evil wrestlerish, spitting threats over descending brass blurts. Where the ladies are concerned, Yelawolf extols the virtues of giving as good as he gets, as on "Lick the Cat." Mostly, though, the objects of his affection are of the chrome-wheeled variety. "Box Chevy Pt3," which submerges doleful piano and strings in deep kick-drum bass, is an ode to road head, but it's really a love song to his car and to the joy of cruising.
Speaking of which, it must be said that this mixtape is not called Trunk Muzik for nothing. If you're listening to this in your iPod headphones, you're missing out on some essential low end. If you don't have a ride of your own, find a friend with a car and hit them up for a ride to give this a listen.
The taste of the internet rap cognoscenti is fickle and fiendish; by the time this guy has a proper label album out, some folks will already be on to the next one. But Yelawolf's ambitions are bigger than hiphop blogs, and everything about him screams crossover potential. Enjoy the undersized Nectar show while you can.