Around the time of “Pop the Trunk”, Yelawolf was capturing the imagination of myself and many other hip-hop fans with his unique spin on southern hip-hop. He took the familiar and stretched it out into an ultra-hype angry sound distinctly of his own. Prior to his arrival on Shady Records/Interscope Records, it felt as if he had the potential to be the next star out of the south. Unfortunately for his career, this never ended up being the case. Between poor decisions politically (specifically defending the Confederate Flag with a clear misunderstanding of what it represents), and things going sideways with his sound, Yelawolf eventually petered out and was nothing more than a quick blip on the radar in hip-hop. Thinking about this began to raise some questions for me. Most prominently: is Yelawolf one of the biggest modern cases of wasted potential in rap?
Flash back with me for a moment to the moment Yelawolf first signed with Shady Records in 2011. At this point he had The Arena Rap EP and Trunk Muszik (plus 0-60) under his belt. Very unique sounding projects that were distinctly southern, yet had a spark of untamed craziness which to me felt quite refreshing. His Shady Records debut, Radioactive, was admittedly disappointing but still had moments which showed flashes of the potential he had as an artist. He found his footing again with a series of collaborative extended plays, and really pushed himself to the next level on Trunk Muzik Returns. Trunk Muzik Returns was, to me, an incredible project. It was spacey, southern, energetic, introspective, and wild in all the right ways. After this project dropped, if felt like Yelawolf was on his way to becoming something truly special. He had nailed down a unique sound and most fans were extremely excited, including myself.
Unfortunately, this would prove to be somewhat of a peak rather than his first step to creating something bigger.
Marking the fall from grace was Love Story. Don’t get me wrong, Love Story was actually a really solid album. It had plenty of cool ideas and unique sounding songs, but it also felt like the point that the magic started to fade. Yelawolf began to lose his energy on the rap tracks and focus more on trying to combine country and rap together. Though it was, at times, executed extremely well on Love Story, to me it lead him down a path that would ultimately kill his appeal. While the wild-boy renegade rapper motif felt super fresh and natural, his new sound quickly became forced and uninteresting. Yelawolf no longer had a factor that made him stand out. This becomes painfully obvious on Trial by Fire, which does include a lot more rap-focused tracks; however, the country fusion just sounds so played out, and the excitement isn’t there anymore. He sounds tired, and the songs are tiring to sit through in every aspect from vocals to production. It’s dull, which is unfortunate for an emcee that had been lauded for his abundance of energy just a handful of years prior.
With that reflection out of the way, I think I also need to say that it’s cool if you like the direction Yelawolf has taken. Music is a subjective experience, and I realize that. To me though, as an individual who was a big fan I can’t help but shake the feeling that Yelawolf is wasted potential. He had a sound that took everything lovable about southern hip-hop, and jacked it up on meth to create something so brilliantly unique. He was slaying features, his songs were impossible not to get amped up to, and it so much felt like he was primed to become something amazing. To see him step back and abandon those dirty-south roots to pursue something more rooted in lifeless country based production is disappointing. He’s definitely not the worst artist out there, but it feels like he’s little more than a slightly better Kid Rock. In terms of his trajectory of development, that’s kind of a major bust of an outcome to me