Wednesday, April 22, 2015

album review: 'love story' by yelawolf

I've been getting requests to cover this for months now. Ever since I said that I was both a hip-hop reviewer and the only country music critic on YouTube, I've gotten asked to talk about Yelawolf, affiliated with Shady Records and one of the more perplexing talents to be affiliated with Eminem.

But before I talk about Yelawolf, I need to talk about the fusion of country and hip-hop, country rap. Believe it or not, country and hip-hop have a disturbing amount in common, which is why I'm always baffled why so many people are amazed I like both of them. I mean, country and hip-hop are both driven by strong regional pride. Both are genres that are used to telling stories, and both love their alpha-male heroes, especially if they're outlaws. Both as of right now have a serious problem sustaining female talent in the mainstream without overt sexualization, and both have been going through significant growing pains when it comes to more progressive audiences.  Both aren't afraid to speak about the real problems of the downtrodden and talk about real social issues... or at least they used to be before what got popular were songs about booze, cars, and butts. 

So what do we get with country rap? Well, many people think it started with artists like Uncle Kracker and Bubba Sparxxx in the early 2000s, gaining traction with the success of acts like Colt Ford. And I'll be blunt - most of it is goddamn terrible, thanks mostly to the fact that it caters to the lowest common denominator and generally suffers from a serious deficiency in rapping talent. And thus the choice of Yelawolf to start moving towards more of a gritty, country-influenced sound has always intrigued me. He started off with a ton of buzz off of well-received mixtapes... buzz that mostly went out the window thanks to the generally underwhelming and messy Radioactive. The frustrating thing is that Yelawolf is a solid and unique rapper, at least from a technical perspective, but his production really let him down, generally sounding thin and underweight. The album suffered from a serious lack of focus and texture - Yelawolf is a spitter, but he didn't exactly blow me away or show off the elements that made him so unique and distinctive.

Well, it's clear Yelawolf understood that, because he took the criticism to heart and after an EP with Ed Sheeran - which makes way too much sense when you think about it - he dropped another mixtape and finally has released his sophomore release. And the look of it is much different. Recorded in Nashville, with only Eminem as a guest star and with a very limited number of producers, this looked to be something grittier, with the single 'Till It's Gone' on both it and SHADY XV suggesting a sound that was closer to country rap than anything else. So you bet I was curious about the album and dove in: how is it?

Well, it sure as hell is better than Radioactive, that's for damn sure! If this had been the debut that Yelawolf had dropped, I suspect he'd have done a lot better because Love Story does exactly everything a solid debut album should do: establish a unique persona and sound, place him in the best possible light, and show exactly why we should care. As such, it's not exactly surprising that Love Story is doing overtime in re-establishing Yelawolf and trying to wipe Radioactive from memory, and as such it does feel a little overlong and overstuffed. As such, I don't quite think I can call Love Story a truly amazing record, but it's a damn good one that tries to do too much and could have just used a tighter edit.

Now for starters, I think it's important to stress that while this album is defiantly country rap, it's probably one of the best examples of how to do the genre right, and a lot of it comes through in Yelawolf's persona and choice of influences. Instead of drawing from the tropes of modern bro-country or neotraditional country, Yelawolf is reaching more into the rough, ramshackle edges that coloured Johnny Cash's best work, complete with fiddles, steel guitars, and tons of acoustic rhythms with a stunning amount of squealing texture. And when you pair it with the cleaner layering and melodies, and fragments of reverb-touched synth, I'm actually reminded plenty of Devin Townsend's ambient country project from last year Casualties of Cool, which in case you missed it was one of the most striking and incredible albums of 2014. And when he's not going there, he's going for outright nasty snarled grooves that pull from funk rock or southern rock, especially in the darker basslines, doing as much as he can to emphasize that southern, white trash sound that sets the scene without needing words. What becomes more striking is the lack of modern hip-hop elements, with strikingly organic drum progressions and grittier beats that are even a step removed from typical boom-bap beats - in other words, Yelawolf to some extent is in uncharted territory, even in comparsion to typical rap rock or country rap artists. It definitely helps matters that Yelawolf knows his way around damn great melodic hooks, which means that this album manages to be incredibly catchy even at weaker moments. From the distinctive late-90s acoustic twang of the guitars on 'American You' accented with a bubbling beat, hints of organ, and warm organic production, to the much more rigid acoustic stalk of 'Til It's Gone' that only features a distant blast and thin gallop as a beat, from the slightly more chintzy guitar rollick on 'Empty Bottles' that's one of the most catchy choruses of the year with the ominous piano and bass, to probably one of the more conventionally hip-hop song in 'Heartbreak' with the piano, strings, multi-tracked chorus, and boom-bap beat, from the ghostly swell of 'Sky's The Limit' that breaks into a dirty progression to the stomping fiddles, grimy bass, and southern snarl of 'Fiddle Me This'. Honestly, there are few moments where I don't like the production, and really they come when Yelawolf harkens back to the more colourless production that has nowhere near the texture or potency that's become popular with Shady Records over the past five years, like on the Eminem collaboration 'Best Friend', the washed out emptiness of 'Johnny Cash', or the much cleaner acoustic elegance of 'Disappear' that does manage to get a little more warped but really treads closer to dreary solemnity, which isn't a great fit with Yelawolf's more nasal delivery.

On that note, let's talk about Yelawolf himself as a rapper. From a technical standpoint, the guy is impressive - yeah, it's obvious on certain songs where he's inspired by Eminem in terms of flow and cadence, but Yelawolf is also versatile enough to switch things up and remain a strong technical MC. It does bother me when can slip off rhythm, like on 'Change' and 'Whiskey In A Bottle', the latter song just feeling a lot more clumsy than it should, but those moments are thankfully rare and he does spit with some impressive intensity when the songs demand it. The one element that surprised me with this album was his singing - and yeah, Yelawolf's not a great singer in terms of range, but for the persona he's cultivating with this album, he doesn't need to be and more often than not his raspier tones just sound great against this production. If I were to have a complaint, it'd be that he's a little inconsistent of a presence as a singer, and you can tell he's still feeling out his emotional range. Sarcasm or anger or bitterness or even sincere affection like on 'Tennessee Love' the love song to his fiancee Fefe Dobson, he can handle just fine. But more straightforward soulfulness country tracks, like the tribute to his great-grandmother 'Have A Great Flight' or the self-flagellating struggle with inner demons on 'Devil In My Vein' or the exploration of faith on 'Best Friend'... don't get me wrong, he's far from bad here, but he could have sold these songs a little stronger.

Now as I said, this album's trying to do a lot and you've probably seen a fair amount of topics that Yelawolf is tackling - which takes us to lyrics and themes - but what I really like is how well Yelawolf does define who he is: the outsider, from both hip-hop music and polite society, who stays true to himself no matter how ugly or rough-edged that image might be. And if you note where the targets of his anger are - men who conform to an 'American Dream' that continues to reveal itself as hollow, a baby mama who is aggressively leeching off him in one of the most vividly descriptive songs of the record, a system that actively exploits without any regards to the real responsible parties that deserve punishment - it reveals a streak of rough-edged individualism that I'll admit really does resonate with me. But Yelawolf is smart enough to show a glimpse into his own world and bring forward some real vulnerability as well - the ugliness of his alcohol abuse on 'Empty Bottles', his insecurity at not yet being the breakout success and star on 'Johnny Cash', and his abuse as a kid on 'Disappear'. And believe it or not, Yelawolf found an answer - and yeah, it's Jesus. I'm not going to lie, the Christian angle of this album does really seem to come out of nowhere, especially considering it's not exactly played with a lot of subtlety or tact, rather as just the one form of solace that helped him through. And while I don't think Eminem's verse on 'Best Friend' is his best, it does show more in terms of struggling with faith until he could personify his relationship with a higher power in terms of his late friend Proof, which makes Yelawolf's relationship with God feel a little more simplistic and lacking in drama, which might be true but doesn't exactly engage me. Now thankfully the Christian element doesn't become overbearing or godforbid Evangelical or fundamentalist or preachy, but it's indicative of how overstuffed the album is trying to make up so much for Radioactive, and it really could have been trimmed down to a leaner release.

But here's the thing - the more I listened through this album, with the exception of a few tracks, the harder it was for me to find moments I'd skip. There's a lot of length to this record, but with the instrumentation this good and a rapper carving such a distinctive and appealing lane for himself and doing it with talent, nuance, and some fantastic hooks, some of it might as well be deserved. Yeah, even the outright country tracks work for me, and I'm prepared to call Love Story by Yelawolf a great record, getting a light 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation - but a qualified one. There will be hip-hop purists or those who hate country music who'll probably dismiss the sound and feel of this record, but I challenge them and you to check this out. After all, hip-hop and country have more in common than you might think, and with this record, Yelawolf might have dropped the record to show combining them can actually work.

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