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Review: Yelawolf Continues to Puzzle and Impress in Equal Measure on ‘Love Story’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Label: Shady / Interscope

The second-worst mistake a rapper can make on their sophomore album is rapping about how much the music industry has failed them. It makes them sound whiny, and frankly, nobody outside of the music industry gives a shit. The worst mistake a rapper can make on their second album is to make a song that sounds like Jason Mraz. On his new record, Love Story, the Alabama rapper Yelawolf admirably manages to accomplish both mistakes in one nine-minute stretch: “Ball and Chain” is mercifully short, but is preceded by “Whiskey in a Bottle” (the anti-industry song) and “American You” (the Jason Mrazzy one), and as gestalt, the three tracks serve as a reminder that much like its predecessor Radioactive, inside of Love Story lives an exceptional, taut, and freaky rap album, wrapped inside of a very, very bad one.

There was a time when there existed a very real possibility that Yelawolf was going to be the rap industry’s next breakout star. His surly mixtape Trunk Muzik had crossed from local phenomenon to general rap-nerd favorite, and with good reason. Here was a gangly, self-described “alien redneck mastermind” who looked like a sexy meth cook and fast-rapped about rural poverty and desperation with the technical skill of Twista holding a plug of Skoal in his bottom lip. He was a weirdo, too, casually tossing out tracks like “Looking for Alien Love,” which sounded like it could have led the charge of a misguided Def Jux South. Sure, the industry had tried to make the backwoods-rapper thing happen before, but that was Bubba Sparxxx, a Georgian. Yelawolf was from Alabama. Things would be different.

Unfortunately, they were not, and Yelawolf failed the same reason so many other rappers have: He had no idea who the fuck he was. The first third of Radioactive, his proper debut album, is the platonic ideal of a ‘Wolf record. By that point, he’d comfortably settled into the persona of Kid Rock meets Harmony Korine, something that he made particularly clear on “Let’s Roll,” his best pop song, in which he compared himself to Gummo while the Kid himself launched a stadium-filling chorus out of an American Flag-draped bazooka. Between that, the Mystikal appearance on “Get Away,” and the Lil Jon-featuring “Hard White,” you could have been excused for thinking the record was going to work. Things got ugly, as they tend to do, around the time Eminem popped up to rap, “This / Right here / Is my / Ugly / Boy swag,” and proceed to damn the rest of the album straight to hell. By the end of the record, the wheels had completely fallen off and Yelawolf was doing interpolations of Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” into “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and if you were still listening, you probably wished you were dead.

While you could never accuse Yelawolf of having taste, or discretion, or a sense of quality control, everything he does is governed by its own internal logic — it’s just a matter of whether or not you agree with him on it. After the failure of Radioactive, he joined forces with Ed Sheeran (!) for a pretty OK EP, teamed up with Travis Barker for a pretty horrible one, grew a beard, then returned out of nowhere with the improbably great Trunk Muzik Returns mixtape, in which he’d finally aligned his roughneck and experimental poles and managed to Large Hadron Collide the two into a minor DatPiff classic. If you’d like to listen to a definitive Yelawolf work, go no further than this.

It is a shame, both for Yelawolf and fans, that in 2015 we’re discussing this album instead of that one, because the one we’ve got on our hands just isn’t as good as its predecessor. Still: Love Story sounds little like anything else out there. Nobody else has tried to mash murder ballads, hardcore rap, bluegrass, backwoods country, and feather-light guitar-pop into one album, pretty much ever. Its closest antecedent is Bubba Sparxxx’s underrated Deliverance, but while Bubba had Timbaland to steer that particular record’s sonic tractor, the steadiest guiding hand Yela has here is his own — he laid the majority of the record down in Nashville at the state-of-the-art Blackbird Studios, before shipping up to Detroit to finish the thing with Eminem, who provides the album’s sole feature.

With all that in mind, your enjoyment of Love Story will directly correlate with the amount that you enjoy Yelawolf’s singing, because boy howdy is there a lot of it here. If you respect Yelawolf’s progression as a musician and wish him luck on his journey to artistic self-actualization, you will be pleased. If the previous sentence made you bored and you just want to listen to some goddamn fast-raps, do yourself a favor and skip to “Best Friend.” That’s the one that’s also got Eminem on it. Somewhere, a lonely Nah Right commenter is spontaneously aroused when Eminem raps, “Unless you my fuckin’ belly button / Don’t tell me nothin’.” Yelawolf’s fast tongue and sonic evolution has done nothing for his sense of political correctness — he utters the word “faggot” multiple times on the record, which, come on, guy. It’s 2015! Even Tyler, the Creator is off that these days! Meanwhile, the rest of his bars are delivered with the precision of a homing missile, but whenever he’s got space in a verse to fill, it seems the guy drops some sort of complaint about the music industry (we get it, dude, you didn’t like your first album — us either), or a straight-up lyrical clunker (Yelawolf is a grown man, and grown men shouldn’t be littering their albums with Scribble Jam rejects like, “I got my weight up like I’m carrying fat people”).

Still, it’s not like Yelawolf went full Jack Johnson on us. There’s a lot to swipe right for on Love Story, and when he’s on, he’s one of the best, most imaginative rappers rapping. These moments, where he focuses his Rap Chi™ into a Kamehameha of white-boy country-funk, come in sporadic bursts, leaving you almost dazed. “Till It’s Gone” is one of these tracks, sounding like a skiffle song they’d play after somebody died on Nashville. Trunk Muzik Returns holdover “Tennessee Love” is a Nick Cave/Slick Rick slash-fiction fever dream, and Yela shows flashes of his original stylistic brilliance as he rides the record’s garage-tinged title track. He saves the best for last with “Fiddle Me This,” rapping over chicken-scratch guitar and the titular instrument before the song’s outro takes the General Lee on a detour straight into the dungeons of Stankonia funk.

It’s on tracks like these that Yelawolf’s vision coheres and you can’t help but root for the guy. Here’s to hoping he pulls it together one day, but if not, at least a discography full of daringly bad records, each with hidden gems buried amongst the guano, will make for a hell of a greatest hits album one day.