Alabama-born rapper Yelawolf has a reputation for putting on rambunctious live shows. Since his first independent release in 2005 (Creek Water), he’s gained a cult following across the South. With songs referencing cans of PBR and classic rock, and shows that include the promise of beer chugged via funnel, it’s easy to affix the tag white-trash rap to his music.
“The craziest thing I ever saw in the crowd was a 60-year-old lady showing everyone her titties,” says Yelawolf helpfully.
But it’s a niche his label, Interscope, hopes to cash in on with his new album, Trunk Muzic: 0-60. In the run-up to its Nov. 23 release, Yelawolf’s on a 40-plus-date tour with Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa, another upcoming artist looking to move from regional ubiquity to national recognition. But while the two rappers are trawling the country together, there’s a marked difference in their journeys: Yelawolf has embraced an earnest portrayal of his roots, but Khalifa’s constant stylistic changes leave you unsure who you’re listening to. Their tour has become a case study in musical sincerity.
Yelawolf’s image and music are a seamless fit. In person, he talks readily about growing up with a 15-year-old mom who scored his childhood with the sounds of REO Speedwagon, Yes and 10,000 Maniacs, hanging out in dive bars decorated with “deer heads on the wall, bras hung up and peanut shells on the floor,” and being partly named after John Wayne. He talks about all this while perched on a barstool with his skateboard resting on the bar and a pair of Budweiser boxer shorts peeking out over his black jeans. (“Wal-Mart,” he adds nonchalantly.) Yelawolf comes off just as you would expect a white hip-hop artist growing up in Alabama would.
Interscope will be looking to maximize Yelawolf’s well-defined appeal – after all, they’re masters at selling hip-hop backstories such as Eminem’s trailer-park roots and 50 Cent’s crack-selling and bullet-absorbing past. It’s something Yelawolf seems grounded and ambivalent about. He acknowledges that 2010 is “a life-changing year” – if he doesn’t crossover, he’ll settle back into being a regional concern. But ask about his public image and he says, “I honestly don’t know. I rarely read interviews and never go online. I haven’t really dwelled on it.” It’s hard to imagine the same laissez-faire shrug coming from his tourmate’s camp.
Back in 2007, Khalifa attempted an ascent similar to Yelawolf’s: Build a strong, well-honed local reputation, then take that sound and image nationwide by plugging away on the independent circuit until you’ve built enough of a following to make a major label take note.
Khalifa released music that resembled a blue-collar take on Kanye West’s template, with the young MC rhyming over mid-tempo beats that often sampled and then sped up the vocals from old soul records (typified on the track “Pittsburgh Sound”).
“If you grind hard enough then people will support you,” he said at the time. Having re-imagined Pittsburgh as “Pistolvania” – “because of the murder rate up here” – he insisted he didn’t need to move to New York or Los Angeles to further his career. “I’d prefer to stay here and put myself on the map.” It wasn’t long before those honest intentions went awry.
Later that year, Khalifa released Prince Of The City 2, a mixtape that heralded a substantial shift in sound. Out went the warm soul samples and in came a batch of beats that aped the sound Atlanta’s T.I. rode to success. (Like T.I., Khalifa signed to Atlantic Records.) But the formula didn’t work, so he attempted a series of twists, tweaks and changes to his style – all openly auditioned online. He was part of the hipster skinny jeans set; he rapped over songs that sampled poppy dance hits (“Say Yeah”); he became aligned with the smoking section (“Weed Roller”). And at each stage, his identity became more diluted.
Khalifa has been looking for his artistic voice in an era when every detail of a musician’s ascent is played out in public. Cynically, it seems like a crass attempt to stumble across a profitable demographic. (The aforementioned elderly exhibitionist set has reason to be wary.) And while Khalifa grinded his way to a certain degree of recognition, the process has painted him as the insincere man’s rapper – someone who resembles a marketing meeting, not an artist. It’s not a charge one could aim at Yelawolf. Ask him what goes through his mind when he’s recording and his answer is simple but convincing: “The best I can do is make music that makes sense to me.”
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