”Don’t play me for weak or underestimate me,” he rapped back in 2005 on his independently released debut, Creek Water. “What you see ain’t exactly what you expect it to be.” Two years later he recorded a full-length album called Fearin’ and Loathin’ in Smalltown, USA for Columbia Records that was never released. When Rick Rubin was brought in to run Columbia later that year, he cleaned house, leaving KP without a job and Yelawolf without a label.
A year later, he dropped two mixtapes, Arena Rap and Stereo, both of which went relatively unnoticed. Then in March 2010 he released the lyrically dizzying opus, Trunk Muzik, through KP’s Ghet-O-Vision imprint. With features by Bun-B, Raekwon, and Gucci Mane, the mixtape solidified Yelawolf’s place as one of the most acrobatic rappers of this generation, and certainly the best white rapper since Eminem. Apparently Em thought so too, making him the first white rapper to join the Shady Records roster, which also includes D12, 50 Cent and Slaughterhouse.
I kept it so real, [my music] became brutally honest. Because, you know, on top of being a white rapper, I never wanted to be called out on anything.
Most of Radioactive, minus two songs, was recorded over a few weeks in Las Vegas last January. Yelawolf laid down over sixty songs in total before deciding on the final sixteen tracks. The result is a remarkably well-balanced rap album, with roots firmly planted in an eclectic range of musical sounds—from Southern-fried rock to electronic dance beats and power ballads.
“We wanted it to be a little more accessible,” KP says. If Trunk Muzik was Yelawolf’s opportunity to prove himself as a rapper, Radioactive is Catfish Billy’s chance to hook a wider audience. But as he casts his net as widely as possible, Wolf doesn’t want to lose the fans who’d rather see him to pop the trunk than see him go pop. But when it doubt, he just brings it back to simply telling his stories. “This generation of MCs,” KP asserts “no one tells a story like Yelawolf does.”
Not so long ago storytelling was a dominant mode in hip-hop. But the great tradition—from Slick Rick to Ghostface and Wolf’s personal favorite, Outkast—has become something of a lost art in rap’s ADD/Hashtag moment. Maybe because storytelling isn’t very well-suited for gloating. But Yelawolf’s knack for storytelling is one of Radioactive’s greatest strengths, and Wolf’s music is deeply steeped in his own story.
On new songs like “Write Your Name in the Sky,” he raps about a sixteen-year-old getting pregnant. It’s easy to imagine that he wrote the song for his own mom, but like many writers do, he maintains a shroud of fiction to allow himself some distance from the story.
“It kind of came from like this whole ‘keep it real’ thing, where I kept it so real, it became brutally honest,” he explains. “Because, you know, on top of being a white rapper, I never wanted to be called out on anything.”
"I’ve been lost ever since I could walk,” he rhymes on Radioactive’s final track, called “The Last Song”: “But I learnt quick / That my daddy wasn't never gonna come around / And I didn’t give a shit / 'Cause me and my momma we held it down / No new kicks / First day of school I'm Goodwill bound..."
Like Rabbit in 8 Mile, Yelawolf will always beat you to the punch.
His boldest pre-emptive strike may be the three bold block letters tattooed on his neck, spelling out the word RED. “Because of the perception, and the story that I tell, I started getting called a redneck,” he says. “It was empowering to be called that. You own it and you break the stereotype.”
As much as Radioactive is an unapologetic declaration of his identity, the experience he’s peddling in these songs is universal. Anybody can wind up at the bottom, or “the gutter,” as Yelawolf calls it. That’s a place where we all end up at some point in our lives. One of the new tracks Yelawolf has been testing out on tour is “Growin’ Up in the Gutter” featuring his fast-spitting protege Rittz, who’s clearly thrilled to be making his first trip to New York, having recently quit his job at a Georgia BBQ spot to chase his own hip-hop dreams.
For Yelawolf, the Gutter is a trailer park in rural Alabama. It’s being raised by a single mother who had him when she was just 16. It’s riding the school bus from Antioch, Tennessee to the projects of Nashville and feeling hip-hop connection. It’s smoking weed at 11, dust at 12, acid at 13, and selling ecstasy by age 16. It’s living on the streets in Berkeley, California, skateboarding and doing what he could to get by. It’s working as a commercial fisherman on a boat off Alaska, thinking about what it might be like to jump off the deck into the freezing sea.
“I don’t give a fuck if you’re from the trailer park, the projects, the suburbs,” Wolf hollers. “If you’ve ever been through anything at all, put your motherfucking hands in the sky.”
After the show, on the sidewalk in front of Irving Plaza, there is a small mob of people lurking near Yelawolf’s tour bus. Most of them look like desperate groupies, hoping to be invited aboard for whatever antics take place on the bus.
But Yelawolf is nowhere to be seen.