Monday, December 2, 2019

album review: 'ghetto cowboy' by yelawolf

So when I reviewed Yelawolf's Trunk Muzik III earlier this year, I made the observation that you could tell he wasn't happy with his label Shady, under the purview of Eminem. Actually, that's probably an understatement, because with every listen I gave that album I got the unpleasant impression that not only did it feel like a slapdash rush to get something out that would get him away from Shady, he did it by getting a verse from Machine Gun Kelly to boot as a final middle finger to them. And on some level I couldn't really blame Yelawolf - at this point Shady's inability to promote any artist who is not named Eminem towards mainstream success is becoming common knowledge, and given that he could have easily made a killing in a year where hip-hop and country crossovers were surging in the mainstream, it's more than a little depressing that didn't happen.

But at the time I also said that I was worried Trunk Muzik III didn't leave Yelawolf in the best place going forward if he wanted to hop to another label - but that was assuming he was going to chase another major label at all. Instead, less than a year later we have Ghetto Cowboy, where Yelawolf has trimmed down his features for a leaner project on his own label Slumerican for a pretty quick rebound, and while I tend to be skeptical of artists releasing more than one album in a year, given what he was leaving I was inclined to be supportive. And hey, I'm a Yelawolf fan and I was pleased to see this sell a bit better than I was expecting, so maybe there was something worthwhile here, so what did we get on Ghetto Cowboy?

So talking about this project places me in a bit of an awkward position, because again, I am a Yelawolf fan... but I also really like Love Story and Trial By Fire, two projects released under Shady where I can't deny that some of the more obvious 'label moves' did help in terms of song construction and dimensionality. So coming into Ghetto Cowboy, it's a project that certainly carries more of an edge and is absolutely stronger than Trunk Muzik III, but I do think it suffers a bit for not being able to effectively translate all of those compositional strengths consistently. Again, this is a pretty damn good album and if he's looking to win back his diehard fanbase this'll get him there, but it's also transitional and it leaves me a little more intrigued with where he's going from here, if that makes any sense.

And a huge part of this has to come with Yelawolf himself and his subject matter, and a strange comparison that's going to sound nuts when I bring it up but the more I thought about it there was a strange sort of sense to it: Yelawolf at certain points on this album reminds me a little of Rick Ross. Now obviously for me Yelawolf's a better rapper - better command of flows, more naturally melodic, considerably more introspective and not afraid to highlight the hardscrabble upbringing and failures he's faced - but when I hear Ross' strengths in terms of his flexing, his consistent sound, his command of atmosphere, and the level of fine detail to the scenes he paints, and then I shift across genres to what Yelawolf delivers, it's not hard to see a parallel, especially with the newest entry to the Box Chevy series and cuts like 'Country Rich', 'Renegades' and 'Still Ridin'. And to me that can be a bit of a mixed blessing, because in the aftermath of his likely contentious relationship with Shady, you'd think there'd be more than just a few passing subliminals across 'Still Ridin' and the stormy ballad of 'You and Me' angled to win back fans, which probably has the strongest hook on the album but I do wish it was willing to punch a little harder. Partially because there are people Yelawolf is not holding back again: 'Unnatural Born Killer' calls out racists pretty bluntly in the first verse with him in violent mode, and 'Here I Am' is the sort of ass-whooping song that targets frat boys, yuppie conservatives, and Mark Zuckerberg - and it's awesome! 

And that's one thing I've always appreciated about Yelawolf: he doesn't shy away from highlighting that rural America can be just as much of a dreary, drug-addicted, poverty-stricken trap, and his self-loathing and alcohol abuse shows exactly how quickly he can stumble back into that territory by 'coming home'. And you can tell between the lines that his time on a major label and away from that place has led to some disconnect, if only in his own mind, but it's also led to him coming home shrewder and wiser, from the mature realization of the failed love he still wants back on 'So Long' where his own demons got the best of him, to how 'Keep On Rollin' highlights how he might have ridden some type of unique wave to achieve success, but said path has now diverged, and he doesn't have kind words for mainstream Nashville country cribbing hip-hop style with no knowledge of the history, even as he knows those artists riding that wave will fizzle out when the industry's done with them. Again, some of my longing for more might be a factor of me wishing Yelawolf would go scorched earth on the unique failures of both country and hip-hop - I remember his verse on Angaleena Presley's album in 2017 - but it's clear his focus is has moved on to be a bit more aspirational... well, as least as much as he can be, as the title track implies the ride could well be hellish too. That said, none of this is unfamiliar territory for Yelawolf fans - we've heard a lot of this quite a few times before - and I do wish he had leveraged more of his storytelling instincts he'd been developing the past few years beyond just background texture; there's not a 'Sabrina' here, and that's a bit disappointing.

Of course, the big concern I had coming off of Shady is that Yelawolf's production might backslide with a more limited production budget, but that's not the case, mostly because he's always kept a pretty tight circle even while on a major label and most of said crew reprise their roles here... and yet the production seems considerably better this time around! For one, the blending of Yelawolf's vocals has improved considerably, returning to the Trial By Fire approach of placing him a shade deeper within the mix and not just slathering his nasal tones on top of the mix - even his singing on cuts like 'So Long' and 'You and Me', often the most questionable part of any Yelawolf album, sounds better! But you also tell the tones he's picked this time around are rougher and nastier as a whole and a more naturalistic fit for his nasal bark, from the scuzzy synth gurgle driving 'Unnatural Born Killer', the brittle acoustics that warp against the crushing swing of the beat on 'Here I Am', the layered tangle of guitars around 'Keep On Rollin', and the more faded bassy smolder of the title track. I'm still very much on the fence about Yelawolf anywhere near a trap progression, with the biggest examples being the brighter synths of 'Box Chevy 7' and the clearer guitars coasting across 'Country Rich' - the snares and cymbals could afford to crack a little sharper - but I think the larger problem comes whenever Yelawolf flips to a brighter major key hook that doesn't always match the tone of the song, from the wheedling electric guitar that pulls out of the stormy tones of 'Lightning', all of the hook on 'So Long', and to a lesser extent the ugly vocal filters on 'Renegades'. Yes, they're less overmixed and muddy than the last album, but I found myself missing the fiery grit we got on Trial By Fire, or at least hooks that had the same melodic kick as the best on Love Story. Never outright bad - the song I probably like least is 'Renegades' and I wouldn't say it was outright awful - but only great in patches.

But when you consider this project is transitional - it's far better paced than any Yelawolf project in recent memory and there are no outright embarrassing passages or songs - I will say that this feels more like Yelawolf settling back into the atmosphere and grooves in the underground with which he's comfortable, and I can hear him embracing the richer country textures he likes more on future projects. As it is, Ghetto Cowboy is a step back in the right direction, with a couple great standouts and a consistent level of quality that avoids the questionable Shady-pushed sounds where talent in execution outshone bad ideas. And thus for me, it's a solid 7/10 - not quite back to greatness, but on the path to getting there, and as such gets a recommendation. And if you're looking for country rap that's a lot more than just novelty as 'Old Town Road' fades away... yeah, Yelawolf's been here the whole time, and now he's got the freedom to do it right.

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