Monday, October 30, 2017

album review: 'trial by fire' by yelawolf

I'm not sure how to talk about Yelawolf these days. I'd like to open up this review with a discussion how after the underwhelming Radioactive he pivoted into a country rap vein for his sophomore project Love Story in 2015, an album I still think is underrated to this day. Seriously, even though that record definitely has its flaws - Yelawolf was still ironing out kinks in the genre fusion and the record probably ran too long for its own good - two songs from that album made my year-end list that year, and while both a considerable percentage of country and hip-hop fans seems utterly allergic to the concept, speaking as somebody who knows both genres and who has heard entirely too many bro-country acts try hip-hop flows, Yelawolf was ahead of the curve. He was a good rapper - you don't get signed to Shady if you're not - he had good taste in country, and he was willing to write frankly about the common topics that only underground hip-hop and indie country would touch - poverty, depression, alcoholism, and a backwoods that felt far more textured and realistic than any bro-country pandering.

And if we could just proceed to the new album from there, I'd be thrilled... but let's be blunt, Yelawolf has had a bad couple of years since Love Story. He got considerable - and justified - backlash for his Confederate flag comments which led a lot of hip-hop to want nothing to do with him, his friend Shawty Fatt was killed in a car accident, and when you factor in the pressures to exceed Love Story's success, you can see why it led to a breakdown on tour last year, which led to dates being cancelled and caused Trial By Fire to be pushed back. And yet he pulled it together - a full-hour long release with guest appearances from both hip-hop and country that he produced entirely himself, and enough drama to surely inform the subject matter. So, what did I find in this Trial By Fire?

This is the sort of record that's tricky to discuss, because for all intents and purposes it's a leaner, sharper, rougher record from Yelawolf that shows him further refining his genre fusion... and yet at the same time I can't quite say I enjoyed it as much as the best moments of Love Story. To put it simply, Love Story was buoyed to greatness by four or five absolutely incredible tracks to compensate for its weaker moments and cumbersome length, whereas while this is shorter and overall more uniform in quality, I'm not sure it's got those lightning moments that would really put it over the top.

And believe me, that can be hard to say when as a performer, Yelawolf only seems to be getting better. As i said earlier, you don't get signed to Shady if you can't rap your ass off, and while Yelawolf still has a frustrating habit of fudging a few rhymes, his flows are diverse and his emotive delivery has only gotten stronger, which helps given that his admittedly weak singing voice is now being reinforced by a sharper growl that shows more intensity - granted, it doesn't always come through and you get songs like 'Row Your Boat', but that's the exception, not the rule. Granted, it helps that he's picking up a much bigger range of singers for his hooks, from the bluesier rasp of his crew like Bones Owen, country acts like Lee Brice, Joshua Hedley and Wynonna Judd, and even Juicy J's rather curt hook on 'Punk'. And while I'll admit to being seriously worried about Kid Rock showing up on 'Get Mine', he's isolated to the hook to provide a crescendo of bluster, and it's easily the most fiery he's sounded in years - hey, separate Kid Rock from his asinine writing, he does have charisma. And one thing that Yelawolf deserves a ton of credit for is his skill for setting a scene and painting a picture with his words. Even if you can't connect with the stories he's telling, his skill in describing that Alabama world in textured, often frightening detail does wonders in terms of immersing the audience in his desperate, whiskey-soaked, decaying world.

And if there's something that's going to guarantee Yelawolf an audience probably for the rest of his career regardless of quality, it is this: providing a voice for those rural Americans who can't live in hip-hop opulence or bro-country flashiness. And while there's a fair amount of this record that might as well serve as a rebirth for Yelawolf in fully claiming that voice - hell, the opening title track literally features his birth, reincarnated with the spirit of an old outlaw - he's not just telling his story. Songs like 'Do It For Love' and 'Violin' show him writing about poor men and women turning to crime in order to put something on the table for their children or find some vestige of a better life, and 'True To Yourself' is so rich with details that you almost don't even realize that Yelawolf doesn't use any pronouns to refer to himself as the figure in this song. And even when he does place himself as the main 'protagonist', his self-criticism is pretty scathing, from touching on the self-destructive alcoholism that laces 'Daylight' to becoming exactly like the same outlaws he used to fear on 'Shadows' - he never calls it the trap, but it's hard not to see a parallel. And to my mild surprise, Yelawolf doesn't shy away from political commentary on his demographic either, most notably in the pointed 'Row Your Boat', which on top of a pretty great construction where the last word of each bar matches the word of the next also has words for rural Americans falling under the sway of authoritarianism or the Klan, neither of which he has any time for given his pretty hard individualist streak. But you do get a sense of how that developed, and this is where this record arguably cuts the deepest. As much as I like 'Daylight', it really does feel like 'Empty Bottles Pt. 2' - but then you have a song like 'Son Of A Gun', where he confronts his father with who he is now. and with the gunshots echoing it's a haunting track. And while he recognizes that mirror reflection and how many of those same vices run deep, that commitment to being a better father gives songs like 'Violin' and 'Keeps Me Alive' true weight in their detail, and conversely it makes 'Sabrina', a parent's nightmare that rivals clipping's 'Story 2' for its crescendo and intensity, hit as hard as any of Yelawolf's best.

But on the flip side, you could definitely make the argument that for all of Yelawolf's detail it's more setting the stage for stories that actually telling them, and while there is less empty posturing, you do wind up wishing his level of detail also carried over into his commentary - he's showing the potential to cut deeper, and thus you get the feeling that on some level Yelawolf is still entrenching himself, laying the groundwork stylistically so he can say more going forward. And that doesn't surprise me either, because from a production standpoint Yelawolf is probably the closest he's ever been to fully nailing his fusion of hip-hop and outlaw country - all the more potent considering he's the only producer on this project and is coordinating everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Peter Keys, Bones Owen on guitar, the legendary Robby Turner on pedal steel, numerous fiddle, harmonica and trumpet players, and even Flea on bass and Travis Barker on drums for 'Punk'! Myke C-Town and I once cracked a joke that we didn't exactly need Yelawolf to become this decade's Everlast, and while you could have made that comparison on parts of Love Story, I don't think you could here; this is a much more diverse and overall hard-hitting record... until you start looking at the production details. And look, I will fully admit this is nitpicking, but if Yelawolf is going to be at the forefront of producing this sound, I want to ensure this is on the record. As such, the biggest observation I have is that he's probably a better country producer than he is a hip-hop producer - with the exception of the horns, which sound a little too blaring at points on 'True To Yourself', I really like the pickups he uses for the fiddles and strings and the majority of the guitars and especially the pedal steel, which compliments Struggle Jennings' voice on 'Struggle Speaks' really damn well. The hip-hop production, unfortunately, can feel a little clumsier, and this has everything to do with the tonal blending of his synthesizers on songs like 'Do For Love' - it's not a bad tone, but it could be blended better, or the plinking tones on 'Row Your Boat' which just sound thin. Hell, most of this record could be afforded a mix that doesn't feel as clean - the texture comes through, sure, but for as much as Yelawolf's lyrics paint a picture, you find yourself wishing  the production got there too - maybe a little more weathered or rough or lo-fi in the drum or vocal pickups could do it. Or maybe do something closer to 'Get Mine', with the old-school scratching that along with Yelawolf's delivery was reminiscent of a Beastie Boys track. It's less of a problem than it was on points of Love Story, and you can tell he knows what sounds to use in order to emphasize atmosphere or hooks or crescendos, but you can tell he's still refining his craft.

But as a whole... man, this is a record right on the cusp of greatness for me. It's leaner, it's sharper overall across the board, it's a fair bit darker which is only a good thing and while I don't quite think there's a hook here that can quite match 'Empty Bottles' or 'Heartbreak' or the sly insight of 'American You', it avoids many of the missteps that characterized Love Story: the religious elements don't feel overstated, it doesn't hit nearly as many moments that could be interpreted as corny, and it doesn't go on nearly as long. And beyond all of that, I can't really think of a fusion of these two genres at this point that is as refined, textured, or capable of so much going forward as what Yelawolf is delivering. As such for me, a very light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, but really, his demographic does not need to tell me how much they're already going to get this record. As I've always said, hip-hop and country have far more in common than many people think, and with Trial by Fire, Yelawolf continues to find a synthesis that proves it.

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