Who is Yelawolf? A shotgun-toting, trailer park-repping, redneck apologist? Or the most literary MC in years; a southern gothic answer to Wu-Tang Clan? Yes and yes. Because he's white and raps fast, he's often compared to Eminem, but a more fitting comparison would be with Ozarks novelist Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone), who similarly brings to life complex characters living amid meth labs, poverty and violence. "Two men stand, one's gotta go/One falls down to the ground, one walks down to the road," he raps on his breakout track "Pop the Trunk." "In the valley of the hollowed fields, in the valley of the hollowed till/This ain't a figment of my imagination buddy, this is where I live."
Despite his downright egg-headed eye for description, as an Interscope artist who has collaborated with Gucci Mane, Big Boi and Slim Thug, Yelawolf fits comfortably into the Southern rap mainstream. Born Michael Atha, with a nickname that reflects the Native American heritage of the father who abandoned him, he has been able to claw his way into an industry typically more concerned with image than insight. Not that Yelawolf's appearance doesn't turn heads; with his long, greasy hair, thin frame, and tats that creep out from his clothes (including the word "red" on his neck), he embodies the culture he represents.
Born in Gadsden, Ala. — two hours due west of Atlanta — he lived all over the country before returning home not long ago, and has no problem reconciling his love for hip-hop with his love for his hometown. "There's just something special about my state," he says. "You might see some guys with a big old rebel flag on their truck, but they'll be playing some Triple 6 Mafia, or UGK, or Lil Boosie. All they listen to is rap. It's intriguing, but it's also cool as fuck."
He wasn't always so comfortable with his identity. Raised by a mother who tended bar, he dropped out of high school and left home at 15, before eventually making his way to the West Coast, where he tried to be a professional skateboarder. He worked on an Alaskan fishing boat before returning to the South and attempting to fashion a career as a rapper. He made all the beats on his 2005 work Creek Water — which a since-deceased friend pressed up using "straight dope money" — but he hadn't fully embraced his inner-hillbilly poet. He thought his vocals were too pitchy, for one thing, and he wasn't quite sure his life's grist was appropriate rap subject matter.
But while living in a Huntsville, Ala., trailer park a year later it all crystallized. Suddenly, it became clear to him that he had the birthright to rhyme about his culture, and that doing anything else wouldn't feel true. His upbringing was a gift, and he needed to seize onto it. "Instead of just being on the mic, kicking some metaphors, I said, 'Fuck it. This is what I am, a small-town fucking white boy,'" he says.
He saw results almost immediately, and recalls a particularly fired-up recording session shortly after his revelation. "I walked out of the booth, and the guys were standing up in the control room, looking at me like, 'Wha?'" In 2007, he signed with Columbia Records and though that situation didn't pan out, his career has since gathered speed like a boulder approaching a gulch. His 2008 mixtape, Stereo, re-imagined classic rock hits as hip-hop beats and won positive reviews, while his 2010 tape, Trunk Muzik, has elevated him into the small tier of MCs considered likely to soon break big. His Interscope debut will likely see the light of day in early 2011. Until then, he's been busy prepping his next mixtape, Trunk Muzik: 0-60, which drops Nov. 23, and turning out one talked-about track and guest appearance after another, including a spot on Big Boi's "You Ain't No DJ," and a freestyle over Gucci Mane's "Lemonade."
But he may not be out of the woods yet. It would be tragic if his major-label album glossed over his gritty, frenetic flow and his evocative imagery — i.e., that which makes him interesting — for something stale and one-dimensional, as is often the case with industry debuts. In the meantime, rap is fortunate enough to possess someone truly representing his culture — not just by shouting it out, but by bringing its inhabitants to life.
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