His “mullet mohawk”may not resemble close-cropped, bleached-blonde ‘do of label boss Eminem, but Alabama rapper Yelawolf treads familiar territory on his Shady Records debut: a pasty-faced MC from a previously barren hip-hop wasteland attempts to make it huge in the authenticity-obsessed world of rap. And like Marshall Mathers, the man born Michael Wayne Atha pulls off this feat by skillfully sticking to his roots.
Eminem acts as executive producer of Radioactive, but he’s not concocting his own Mini-Me. Although both rappers possess an exhilarating ability to rap at warp speed, reciting densely packed syllables in a high-strung voice, Em channels Detroit’s dilapidated 8 Mile strip, while Yela trades in the trappings of run-down Alabama backwaters. And Yela switches out Em’s sociopathic tendencies for something inclusive and even tender. On “The Hardest Love Song in the World,” he likens himself to Axl Rose and pays tribute to a girl who “Don’t gotta drive a Fleetwood Cadillac / You just got to know some of the words to Fleetwood Mac / Horror movies turn you on, pull the seats back / Fuck it, I’ll role play, do it to you in a Jason mask.”
Moreover, while Em’s breakthrough album had him cruising around looking to dispose of his baby’s mom’s body, Yela’s fantasy envisions him and his girl skipping across the country like Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers; he drives, and she hangs out the window with a pistol, taking potshots at dogs and cats for kicks. This unity of sentiment and persona drives the album and casts Yelawolf as a likable character — you warm to his honesty, even if you’re a card-carrying Petco Pals member.
Much has been made of Yelawolf’s Southern rock fandom, but Radioactive is more an ode to the Southern hip-hop movement that started to seep across the world a decade ago. Yela’s influences dot the region: At times, he leans respectfully towards Outkast’s mid-career work, all 808 drum patterns and synth lines; Atlanta’s Lil Jon appears briefly on first single “Hard White (Up in the Club),” ranting and yelling like it’s the 2002 crunk invasion all over again; and Yela himself pays homage to his spell living in Tennessee by inviting one-time Three 6 Mafia temptress Gangsta Boo to guest on “Throw It Up.” (Em also appears on that song in full-on “trailer trash pioneer” mode, dropping references to White Castle, K-Mart, and Payless.
But the album’s most guttural moment is “Slumerican Shitizen,”which has Yela talking about being “on a sidewalk with this fuckin’skateboard and these dirty-assed jeans.”It’s a characterization writ large across Radioactive, delivered with sincerity and conviction.