It’s been over three years since Yelawolf’s debut album, Radioactive, dropped, and in that time he’s done some soul-searching. After many criticized the album for its misguided attempts at radio crossover hits, the man otherwise known as Catfish Billy embarked on a quest to reconnect with his Trunk Muzik roots. He spent last year on the Slumerican Made Tour with longtime collaborator Rittz, and found his musical footing again with his 2013 mixtape, Trunk Muzik Returns. On the track “Rhyme Room,” he even apologized for his missteps, saying, “I know Radioactive had a couple of radio attempts/But I don’t want to be radio-active anymore now than I want to jump off a cliff/This I promise.”
On Love Story, he’s (mostly) kept his promise. The album layers the trailer park swagger of his early work over rootsy country music instrumentals, and it’s largely successful. Songs like “Till It’s Gone” and “Heartbreak” feature the Alabama rapper delivering punchy, personal verses over twanging guitars and pianos. “You gasping Yelawolf/You’d better pump your fucking breaks, asshole/You’ve got the nerve to talk wanna talk about heartbreak?” he asserts on the self-doubting “Heartbreak.” Longtime fans will also be pleased to know that, among others, “Outer Space” and “Empty Bottles” feature some of his classic spitfire rhyming.
This doesn’t mean Yelawolf has abandoned his commercial ambitions completely. He croons his way through the Kid Rock-esque “American You” and keeps things surprisingly soft on the Eminem-featuring “Best Friend.” Luckily, most of these more radio-friendly moments still retain a solid feeling of authenticity. “American You” might be a pop record, but unlike the ones from Radioactive, it feels like the kind of pop record Yelawolf wanted, rather than was forced, to make. Eminem, the album’s only feature, is also as dynamic as usual on “Best Friend,” infusing the track with a needed sense of angry energy. Not all of these attempts work (see the messy, uneven single “Whiskey in a Bottle” for example), but even those missteps are not glaringly obvious in the broader context of the album.
If Love Story had ended at its title song (track 13), it could have been a truly great project. Unfortunately, much like on Radioactive, Yela overstuffs the ending with a number of downbeat tracks. Songs like “Johnny Cash,” “Sky’s the Limit,” and “Disappear” are all fine on their own, but the album simply doesn’t need all of them. As a result, its solid momentum really fizzles out in the last few songs, making for a disappointing finale of an otherwise solid effort. Nonetheless, Love Story is a big step forward for the Slumerican affiliate. It’s unlikely to have huge commercial appeal, but it definitely puts his career back on a stable trajectory after years of uncertainty. With Love Story, Yelawolf proves that he can make a solid major label album on his own terms.
Chris Mench is a writer living in North Carolina. Follow him @Chris_Mench.