Say what you will about Yelawolf, and since it’s 2021 you’re probably not saying anything. But back in 2011, Yelawolf was in the same XXL Freshman class as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, YG and Mac Miller, and showed at least some of the same commercial, if not artistic, potential. The “Freshman” Yela was already in his 30s, having independently released his first album CreekWater in 2005. CreekWater wears the influence of ATLiens (1996) on its sleeve, which as hip-hop touchstones go is a pretty good one to use as a springboard, even for a white boy from Alabama. Listening to it today, it’s clear that from the early days of his career Yela could both rap and carry a hook well (see “Breathe”). In this early stage he wasn’t showing much Eminem influence (besides being a white rapper), but that connection would come to full fruition by the end of 2011, when he was signed to Universal’s Shady imprint by Em himself.
Even on 2010’s Trunk Muzik the comparison is hard to avoid, since Yela presents himself as a sort of Southern Slim Shady, spitting fast and hailing from the trailer parks of Gadsden, Alabama rather than the trailer parks of Detroit. But Eminem himself is nowhere to be found. I think, then, that this was a sweet spot in Yela’s career where he could operate as a still-gritty, rural counterpoint to Em without being overshadowed by the influence of the superstar, who was far past his prime even ten years ago.
I remember seeing the video for “Pop the Trunk” on MTV back in the day, and its slightly cartoonish, eerily vivid atmosphere is still an effective representation of what Yelawolf is about (“This ain’t a figment of my imagination, buddy / This is where I live”). But my real introduction to Trunk Muzik was “I Just Wanna Party”, which I discovered deep into my Gucci Mane phase of 2012-2013. The hook is absurd (I love it), but Gucci kills the shit, declaring himself a partying rockstar in the company of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Paul McCartney in a rapid-fire verse. Fans of Big Boi’s 2010 solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot should recall that both Yelawolf and Gucci had great features on that album. Indeed, Big Boi himself appears in the “I Just Wanna Party” video. Rittz kills it on “Box Chevy”, another cool ode to cars that finds him rapping fast over a laid-back beat, bringing Houston’s Z-Ro to mind. “Love Is Not Enough” spins Rick James’ “Hollywood” (also sampled on Three 6 Mafia’s “Da Summa”) into a pained tale of high-school love.
This era of late 2000s-early 2010s rap music is special to me because it reflects my early teenage years. Trunk Muzik 0-60 is not one of the best rap albums of this era. “Get the Fuck Up!”, “Billy Crystal” and “Marijuana” are all pretty bad songs. Yelawolf is now 41 and it’s doubtful that he will ever regain anything close to the traction he had a decade ago. But I think this music is worth revisiting. After all, a rapper giving props to Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Beanie Siegel and Pastor Troy on the same album doesn’t happen that often. Yelawolf is the real deal.
Listen to Trunk Muzik: 0-60 on Spotify.