Thursday, April 4, 2019

album review: 'trunk muzik iii' by yelawolf

So look, as much as I don't want to go here, there's no way to talk about the current intersection of country and hip-hop than this whole Lil Nas X debacle. Now I gave my opinion on all of this fairly recently - there are weird conversations of cultural exchange, not helped by 'Old Town Road' being a joke song that could feel vaguely credible with the genre especially given what's been let in recently and then was spun in a disingenuous nature after the song was yanked from the Billboard Country Charts, which I'd put up more to Nashville and Music Row interference than anything else. But there's a question that's not being answered in most of this conversation, and it's this: putting aside blatant opportunism, did Lil Nas X really care about landing on the country charts? Was he looking to carve out a space in the genre, or was just aiming to grab the free playlist promo?

And I bring this up because there are acts that are trying to carve out a niche in both country and hip-hop, to be credible and respectful of the sound in both lanes and treat this seriously - and the most prominent in the 2010s is Yelawolf. He might have started out in straightforward southern hip-hop, but by 2015's Love Story he was actively fusing in country tones that worked better than anyone expected, which he followed up in 2017 in Trial By Fire. And while the mainstream music press had a hard time grappling with the sonic fusion, his raw sales success and organic groundswell proved there was something there that could work... but since he's signed to Shady, his mainstream promotion was non-existent and neither album seemed to have the impact they should, especially Trial By Fire. Thankfully, his new project Trunk Muzik III was his last project before he could get away, and a straightforward return to southern hip-hop - which I'll admit seemed to be a disappointment coming from manufacturing a distinctive lane, but if that's what's needed to recapture the mainstream attention before he goes indie or re-signs to another label, I guess I'll take it for now. What irked me more was how he had stepped away from the producer's chair, but fine: what did we get on Trunk Muzik III?

I'm not even sure where to start with this one - and really, I'd argue my reaction to this album will differ significantly from most of the old school fans who fell off when he brought in more country touches. Because yes, this is absolutely a return to a southern hip-hop and trap sound, and Yelawolf remains a really damn good rapper... but it's hard to avoid how much Trunk Muzik III feels compromised, a regression to an older sound that might have been passable but is just nowhere as interesting as his last two albums. What this project reminds me of more - and bear with me on this - is Little Mix's LM5 from last year, not in terms of sound but how so much of this project feels flimsily produced and a transitional effort as he exits his current label. And while it's hard to pinpoint any direct animosity towards Shady, it's very telling that Eminem doesn't contribute a verse... but Machine Gun Kelly does, as it looks like they've finally squashed the beef that nobody really cared about. Shame the music seems to have suffered in the mean time, and for as much Yelawolf might be planning this album to land him at another label, I'd argue it's not his best foot forward.

So let's start with Yelawolf himself - and look, I've always liked him as an MC, he's got the raw charisma, fiery presence, and distinctive lyrical flair that puts him in a unique class. Sure, his singing has never been all that good - and all the oily vocal production they try to tack on here only seems to draw more attention to it in comparison with the older country rap tunes that are more forgiving of rougher vocals - but I've heard worse, and I'm willing to be at least somewhat forgiving of Yelawolf reassembling his typical crew of producers to make this work. Hell, we'll get to this in a bit, but the album is rife with references to previous Trunk Muzik projects, and it's clear he at least thinks he's in a comfort zone. But with that, what threw me for a loop was how so many bars just felt undercooked or slapdash, and that's before we consider hooks that don't come close to his best - more words are rhymed with themselves, rhymes are outright dropped or are locked in stuttered repetition to fill up hooks, flows slip off beat, and while of course Machine Gun Kelly sounds worse on 'Rowdy', Yelawolf is a better MC than this and I'm not inclined to give him a pass! Now for the other guest stars... well, I wasn't impressed by the flows from Caskey, Big Henri, MopTop and CookUp Boss, but Doobie arguably stole the song on 'No Such Thing As Free' - Rittz unsurprisingly does the same on 'Box Chevy 6' - and the late Shawty Fatt delivered a guttural but potent verse on 'We Slum' - and was sadly let down by the hook.

But okay, if the content can go above and beyond, I'd be willing to give Yelawolf more of a pass... and this is where we run into a much bigger problem. For one, if you're expecting the visceral storytelling and heightened stakes of a song like 'Sabrina', this album doesn't remotely come close to delivering, more content to play with the Slumerican iconography that shows that shows the country-fried version of southern hip-hop flexing overflowing with the detail that's always given Yelawolf's music a lot of color. And maybe in a return to this lane that's enough - I'd certainly say that Yelawolf is more willing than most to describe the abject poverty, violence, drug abuse, and messy southern kitsch that's emblematic of the Bible Belt, and that's immediately more interesting than the thousandth trap banger I've heard time and time again. But even if this album is framed as going back to what worked in hip-hop for him - and it's very telling how 'Over Here' references the new lane he created and then doesn't indulge for this entire album - but this is content that's starting to feel recycled and two-dimensional, especially in comparison to previous projects and on the topic of drugs. Now some of this can be skirted by how Yelawolf tries to bring back his 'Catfish Billy' alter ego to indulge in the nastier, gritty scenes, but it feels really thinly sketched and the framing is blurrier than it should be. 'Drugs' is a big example of this - a song that seems to be trying to show the complicated mess of contradictions surrounding being around drugs all the time, with moments of euphoria but darker consequences, but does it come close to matching his battles with alcoholism on 'Empty Bottles' or 'Daylight'? Further on you get the desperation and deflection that drugs can fill on 'Addiction', but the verses are less structured and are all focused on other people, which doesn't even match the hook. And yet then we get the weird split between songs where he's clearly high out of his mind... and yet is taking cheap potshots at the new generation of kids who are doing much of the same thing he is! And that's not counting 'Over Here', which is a decent enough closer with a few well-deserved shots at Post Malone, but I do wish he had skipped the subs and had just gone it, given this album some real teeth. But no, on the flip side we get sex songs like 'Special Kind Of Bad' and 'Like I Love You', and they're easily some of the worst cuts Yelawolf has ever made - clumsy, badly performed, and about the furthest thing from sexy, they almost read like parodies.

Granted, in those cases the production absolutely doesn't help: the former song is riding chipmunk fragments, a honky synth, a gurgling guitar pickup and a prominent marching band snare drum, and the latter having a hook that reminds more of Akon than any of the auto-crooners where the sound actually can work, but if I were to highlight anything that really sank this project for me, it'd probably be the production. And it's not the beats - the heavy 808s and bass have the meaty impact I've always appreciated about the Trunk Muzik series - but instead some of the most buzzy and overmixed melodies I've heard in some time, including a bunch of female vocals dropped onto the hook that have nothing close to the soul or firepower to match anything here! If anything the melodies are mixed to try and pick up the same texture as the rap-rock guitars he's used before, but instead they seem to mute the organic distortion that worked before, or are placed up against synth tones that just sound terrible. I was okay with the wispy fiddle on 'Catfish Billy 2', so why did you drop that keening mess on top of it, or the watery whistles on 'Rowdy', or how much the guitars are crushed into a textureless mush on 'Trailer Park Hollywood' and 'All The Way Up', or the warped, tuneless grind of 'No Such Thing As Free' and 'Over Again', or why on earth Yelawolf thought he could get away with sampling 'International Players Anthem'! And I should also mention the vocal layering, because following in the same big production problem on Love Story - likely because he's working with the same crew - the vocal lines just feel plastered on top of the trap beats instead of well-blended into the mix, a crushing clash that might get in your face, but it either marginalizes the melody or confines it to the vocal samples or Yelawolf's bad singing - neither of which are compelling enough to revisit. And then there are issues with Yelawolf projects that seem all the more glaring here, namely around slapdash sequencing and running too long - ironic given this is his shortest album in some time, but when the content doesn't really evolve or showcase deeper layers, the latter is a real issue!

Now I could go on with this - namely how the references to Eminem and Shady feel increasingly clunky and token - but all of it can be explained by Yelawolf returning to a sound that isn't playing to the unique strengths and lane he created, a callback to a time for which there is a familiar audience, but isn't punching as high as he could. And the frustrating fact is that I get why he's doing it - in changing labels, it's probably best to put your most accessible foot forward, and a straightforward southern hip-hop lane will probably get him there. But the subtext of that move is that it can't be a regression in quality - if you're going back to a more widely accepted comfort zone, you should be doing it better by leaps and bounds, and Trunk Muzik III is not that by any stretch. Now if I'm being forgiving, I will say it's got enough uneven spots of quality, good guest verses, and Yelawolf's raw charisma to keep this above sounding outright bad... but it is mediocre and should be a hell of a lot better, which means I'm giving this a strong 5/10 and I can't really recommend it. Now if you're a Yelawolf diehard fan or have been waiting for more of his hip-hop sound, by all means get this - he's going to need that support - but if he's going to brag about defining a unique lane, the least you can expect are songs there. For everyone else... again, there's better hip-hop that dropped last Friday than this, and you can probably skip this.

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