For many, Yelawolf is hip-hop’s great white hope. His start-stop flow resembles an unwinding sandbag accelerating from theater rafters, over the cleanest “dirty South” instrumental skitter of any audio stylist in an otherwise woozy, muddy year for beats. And like his hypnotizing number of neck tattoos on an otherwise lithe spaghetti body, he decorates these spotlessly metronomic shows of dexterity with a homespun grittiness the Coen Brothers could fetishize. Last year’s breakthrough single “Pop the Trunk” for instance, was Ghostface Killah’s man-on-street-corner “Shakey Dog” burned through at blink-and-you’ll-miss-something speed, pausing occasionally for an arrhythmic hook. With similarly technical, “on-the-beat” marvels like Freddie Gibbs becoming respected royalty again, the sky’s the limit for a motormouthed Alabama freak, possibly even on the pop charts.
Exec producer and sometime guest shot Eminem’s determined to find out; Yelawolf’s official debut album Radioactive comes with hooks-for-hire spanning from fellow redneck Kid Rock to crunk pioneer Lil Jon to lost Avril-wannabe Fefe Dobson. For Dirty South cred there’s Gangsta Boo and Killer Mike, just like an Outkast album, Yela’s heroes. (Many know him best from Big Boi’s “You Ain’t No DJ,” where he got to play his fantasy role of Andre 3000 in full skip-rope rhyme mode).
But whether or not Radioactive is an artistic coup depends on your tolerance for shows of unceasing technical skill. More melodic than any setting of Big K.R.I.T. or A$AP Rocky’s, his crawling sparseness can still be wearing over the course of an album. Individual tracks, like the videogame whisper “Get Away” (featuring long-missed talent and genuine terrible person Mystikal) and the oddly-timed “Slumerican Shitizen” indeed reach hypnotic heights. And those Kid Rock (“Let’s Roll” )and Fefe Dobson (“Animal”) cuts actually end up two of the best hooks on the whole record. Less successful pop bids include the five-minute “Radio,” which turns “Video Killed the Radio Star” into a power ballad, or the overwrought extended eating metaphor sung by Rihanna-wannabe Priscilla Renea in the bridge of “Made in the U.S.A..”
And ultimately the star’s blurriness leaves his personality sort of a blank unless you’re zeroing in on the details at all times, as proven by the ultra-tokenistic “Good Girl” and its hyper-generic opening skit (“Yeah man, bitches like love songs!” is actually said). Much preferable is the title you’d expect to be more his style: “The Hardest Love Song in the World.” If “Fuck it, I’ll roleplay/ Do it to you in the Jason mask” is any indication, Yelawolf’s got personality to spare as long as it’s on his own terms. Which is half the time. The rest gets by on unceasing technical skill.