Trunk Musik Returns
, March 27th, 2013 08:08
There has been a temptation to view Yelawolf as a bit of a laughing stock recently; once touted for great things, before swerving into Kid Rock’s lane in the hope of scoring a commercial hit. That’s not intended as a dig, because he would tell you as much himself. He proudly pronounced his debut album Radioactive was titled such due to its intentions of being “active on the radio”, and if that had worked out you feel that he would have happily traded in his early critical praise alongside any notions of artistic integrity.
Of course he would, because why wouldn’t he? People who call themselves music fans (or music critics) get angry at artists for chasing the Yankee Dollar, but that’s basically bullshit. Of course it’s disappointing when somebody you’re invested in decides to dilute their product, but to take that as personal insult or indicative of a lack of integrity is ridiculous. Born in Gadsden, Alabama to a 15-year-old single mother, Yelawolf lived an almost nomadic existence during his formative years. He fought against poverty, spent some time selling drugs, and even lived homeless in California for a while as he dreamed of making it as a professional skateboarder. Those things didn't work out, they rarely do, but he turned to rapping and through sheer hard work landed himself a deal on Interscope. At that point, given the opportunity of a comfortable life making music, privileged people want to sneer at his ‘artistic decisions’? Fuck that.
On the other hand, listening to an artist you love making a bad record is hard to take. After Radioactive was released I think I listened to it twice, and worse, began to question the quality of the astonishing Trunk Muzik and Trunk Muzik 0-60 records which had preceded it. Coming back to it two years later, it’s really not all that bad. Sure there are some horrible choruses and stylistic misfires, but Wolf’s heart is still in that record if you can look past its gaudy, decorative shell. The narrative that Yelawolf signed to a major label and stopped caring about his music is a misinterpretation, and those songs, as garish as they might be, were laboured over with the misguided hope of pleasing a lot of people.
Still, for an album which still managed 55,000 first-week sales, Yelawolf has been hurting over Radioactive. Despite his purposeful compromise to make music for the radio, the record simply wasn’t given the support promised to him by Interscope. He’s been vocal about his frustration and that continues onto his latest mixtape, Trunk Muzik Returns, on which the title will tell you everything about his intentions. On ‘Rhyme Room’, which also features Killer Mike and Raekwon, Yelawolf raps: “So Radioactive had a couple of radio attempts, but I don’t wanna be radioactive anymore now / Than I wanna jump off a cliff, This I promise / Catfish Billy, you can put Trunk Muzik in the picture frame / You ain’t gotta tell me that I made a mistake and some of that shit was lame.”
It’s a weird thing listening to a rapper using their mixtape to apologise for a disappointing record. One of the things that I love about rap is how it allows for such naked self-expression, and as Yelawolf pitches his voice up here his delivery is sad and affecting. But then, Yelawolf always was an evocative storyteller, it’s just bittersweet that this terrific verse is framed in the context of regret, rather than the excitement of rising from the gutter which informed his earlier self-portraits. This tone is present throughout ‘Trunk Muzik Returns’, which eschews the few drink/drug/party cuts which cropped up on previous records. While Yelawolf songs are unquestionably less fun than they used to be, his darker, more personal material was always his strongest hand. On the tape’s desperate opener he pleads: “I’m a fire starter, but you don’t find water / You don’t know me son, like I don’t know my father […] please somebody find me water.” While his Box Chevy series of songs (broadly about having sex in his car) continues and is even more numbing this time around, as Yelawolf describes two wasted lovers getting fucked to forget, before clumsily fucking to feel.
Yelawolf’s storytelling and technical prowess are sharp throughout, although a few creative ideas do miss the mark; dodgy electro interludes on ‘F.A.S.T Ride’ and the aforementioned ‘Box Chevy Part 4’ being the worst culprits. Having said that, ‘Catfish Billy’ might be the closest he’s come to matching the regional storytelling of career highlight ‘Pop the Trunk’, spinning a tale of reckless self-destruction in Alabama. Wolf often appears very proud of his upbringing, but also fears and resents where he was raised; here, he spits: “Where they can’t find no woman, no man, no cousin, no friend without a gun / Alabama, that is my home / Fuckin’ trailer park has got my heart.”
Despite its claims, Return of Trunk Muzik is not the revival of his 2010 peak, but it does a damn good job of restoring some faith. The absence of tour-de-force producer DJ Burn One means these beats don’t quite have the bite of the original Trunk Muzik, but at least we’re back in the kind of territory where Yelawolf can thrive. Perhaps if this record receives the kind of support it deserves, Yela can drop the apologies and get back to writing the vivid, outsider-rap that he made his name on.