Think Piece: The Wasted Potential of Yelawolf

by Dustin

yelawolf

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

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Why it Was Good: A History of Violence, by Kuniva

by Apu

HOV

On December 16, 2014, Kuniva released his official debut studio project, A History of Violence. It followed a long stream of mixtapes (Retribution, the Midwest Marauders series, and the Lost Gold mixtape). Unlike the music that was on the mixtapes, Kuniva used all original production (primarily handled by Block Symfany, a production team composed of Rio Da Ghost and T.Boyd out of Michigan), and made actual fleshed-out songs, rather than just long verses and freestyles. Overall, it’s a very solid solo offering. It set the stage for him to grow and dig deeper in his later material.

The best part of this project to me is how Kuniva put it together. It sort of sounds like he sequenced the album very deliberately. The first 4 tracks seem like they’re from the perspective of a younger, more rowdy Kuniva. Those tracks tend to celebrate the street life. It opens up with the posse cut “Michiganish”, featuring Aftermath artist Jon Connor, Mass Appeal’s Boldy James, and Detroit legend Guilty Simpson. It starts things off fairly simply, being a competitive cypher of sorts. The following few songs, “Born Like This”, “Where I’m From”, and “Baileys In Bangkok,” all have a similar sort of vibe. They’re cocky and rowdy. They sound a little ironic and tongue in cheek, almost as though Kuniva was trying to rap the way a younger kid would rap. The content and the way it’s done makes me think he was talking about the street life, from the perspective of a kid living it, rather than someone reflecting on it.

Then comes “Derty Headz”, which is a very powerful song dedicated to fans of his and D-12. It has an anthemic hook and verses that drop all sorts of history about his career. He talks about Proof recruiting him for the group, the beef they’ve had, and the adversity they’ve faced from within since Proof passed. This song is the major turning point in almost every way. Here, flashes of reflection and maturity start to show up. From track 6 onwards, it seems to shift to his perspective now as a man nearly 40 years old after having seen massive success with his group, mournfully reflecting on the hard times in life but looking ahead with a drive to keep moving now that he’s out. “Light Work” and “Where The Hoes @?”, both offer fiery production and strong verses delivered with the hunger and confidence of a man who has seen his fair share of hardship. The title track, which is quite possibly the most personal and poetic song Kuniva has ever released, has him speaking on his past up to the point when Proof was murdered in chilling, almost uncomfortably rich detail, his voice oozing pain over him reflecting on it, and the album ends on “Shoutout”, which sounds like where he’s at now, looking forward into the future with hope after everything he’s been through.

The music on this project is good. There’s no denying that Kuniva is a strong rapper and has been doing nothing but improving since D-12 World. His delivery has become a lot more convincing and his writing has gotten sharper. The production is great too. Block Symfany (and Enrichment, on the title track) were able to provide Kuniva with a backdrop that deviated from the typical D-12 sound. It gave Kuniva the chance to step out of that style and develop his own identity, which is something that he hasn’t had the chance to really do much in the past outside of his Retribution mixtape. I think the first half of the album is a little shaky and unfocused at points, but every song from “Derty Headz” onwards is great. The title track might be one of my favorites of the entire year of 2014, period.

However, what really makes the album good is how it lives up to its name of being a “history”. Kuniva put the album together to actually make it almost like a song-by-song history of his life, from rapping competitively at the Hip-Hop Shop and living in the streets, to when D-12 were at their peak, and ending it with an adult perspective on life. It’s really special, because oftentimes artists don’t do that kind of thing when putting their projects together. You generally hear about Kendrick and the like putting their albums together in a manner like that, but honestly, Kuniva managed to pull off an album concept as well as anybody else. Even if it wasn’t fully intentional, he still clearly had an idea of progressing the sound and content of the project in a way that made sense, as opposed to putting the songs together in an arbitrary order and releasing it onto iTunes. That, to me, is what really makes it good, and not just another hip hop album.

Artist of the Month: Proof

by Apu

Proof

This April we’re fittingly making Deshaun Holton, better known as Proof, Artist of the Month. Proof is known primarily as the founder of Detroit-based rap group D-12, Eminem’s hypeman and best friend, and the man who ran the battles in the Hip Hop Shop similarly to the character of Future in 8 Mile. He was also a member of the group 5Ela and half of the duo Promatic. He was an instrumental role in establishing Detroit hip hop, being associated with acts from J. Dilla to the Fat Killahz.

He is most known for his roles in the groups that he was a part of, but his talent as a solo artist was undeniable. His first solo album, I Miss The Hip-Hop Shop, had a sound that was grittier, more soulful, and less aggressive than the D-12 material that had been made up to that point. He showed that he was capable of more than just the signature Shady style. The album still had all of the charm and wit that he and D-12 were known for, but he also showed a more reflective side that wasn’t as present on the group material, on songs like “Broken”, the Promatic cut “Nowhere Fast”, and “Love Letters”, dedicating his verses to Paul Rosenberg and Denaun Porter of D-12.

He only kept building creatively for his next album, Searching For Jerry Garcia. Proof created a sound that was only fitting for an album with that title. Songs like “Purple Gang”, “Ali” featuring the late MC Breed, “No.T. Lose” with a bluesy hook courtesy of King Gordy. “Jump Biatch” and “M.A.D.” have a quite unique sound that can only be described as psychedelic rock-rap. This album is also very dark. Much darker than anything else he had put out beforehand. “Kurt Kobain” and “Forgive Me” are the two most notable tracks off the album. They are hauntingly dark songs on which Proof uses the backdrop provided by the producers and his raspy voice to build an atmosphere of melancholy, numbness, and frustration. Much like Tupac, Proof seemed to predict his own death on this album, on more than one occasion.

Genius artists, so retarded,
Broken hearted, my soul’s like an open target,
And I’m ready to leave Earth,
You step to my death, next year on my T-shirt.
No.T. Lose

Proof was not just an ordinary rap artist. He had a vision that became clearer and clearer as he got older, fusing psychedelic rock with a soulful hip hop style reminiscent of Dilla/Slum Village as early as his first solo release, the Electric Coolaid Acid Testing EP. Even songs off D-12’s Devil’s Night like “Revelation” and “These Drugs” (from the limited edition bonus disc) sound like they have Proof’s fingerprints on them, even if they were not produced by him. Being a member of D-12 might have subjected him to the stigma of being an Eminem clone, just one of Em’s boys, but any time he did solo music he quickly broke out of that mold, using musical styles that Eminem has not attempted at length, aside from maybe “Stimulate”.

Proof was also a legendary freestyler. Eminem detailed in his autobiography how Proof once forgot a verse he was supposed to be performing on the air while he was midway through, and he pulled one out of thin air. You wouldn’t have even known if you hadn’t heard what the verse was originally going to be. Back in ’06, he was challenged to make an entire project in 24 hours. Being the quick thinker that he was, he managed to make 22 tracks in that time span, creating the Time A Tell mixtape. And if that wasn’t enough, the mixtape had a level of lyricism that an embarrassing amount of rappers can’t put on an album that takes them 3 months to make. Unfortunately, the mixtape was delayed because of his death. However, it did manage to come out 4 years later as a fantastic posthumous release.

And Proof may be heard again, if D-12 can finally actually make an album. They mentioned that they’ve messed with his vocals to see how he sounds on newer beats. Generally, posthumous material organized by other people end up being used as cash-grabs and get littered with artists who the rapper would never have rocked with (just ask Method Man about Biggie’s posthumous The Duets album). But it’s a different story when it’s the group that you started, which already has the selling point of having the biggest rapper ever as a member, just using your verses to pay homage, isn’t it?

Before I end this article, I would like to add a small personal tribute. I first started listening to Proof and D-12 in mid-2006, just a few short months after his death. The first time I heard him was on “When The Music Stops”, then on “Trapped” off Eminem Presents The Re-Up (which I later found out was just a portion of the song “Oil Can Harry”). I knew he was something special after listening to “Trapped”. Searching For Jerry Garcia is one of my absolute favorite albums. I don’t know if any other rapper has ever attempted the sound that Proof managed to create. He used to speak about being open minded because his father was a musician, and I think that helped him differentiate himself from his group and from other rappers in general.

It’s weird for me to listen to some of his music as I’ve gotten older and started to understand the gravity of what he was saying prior to his death. I can think of at least 5 different times his death was brought up before it actually happened, most notably on “40 Oz.” and in the video for “Like Toy Soldiers”. There’s a whole new level (well, not really new, since it’s been 10 years [Jesus…]) of darkness and depth to a lot of his music.

Proof is the real reason why I listen to hip hop to begin with. He’s the one who formed the group that flipped my world upside down at age 12. The group that interested me beyond all the rap that I had heard up to that point. The group that introduced me to the darker side of humor and taught me you could say whatever you wanted to. Without him, none of the music that basically raised me would have existed. Who knows what my life would be like?

Rest in peace, Big Proof.