As he prepares to sever his ties to Shady Records, Yelawolf has given himself a new lease of life as an independent artist
When Yelawolf’s deal with Shady Records came to light, it seemed like the logical next step in his career. Armed with his distinct artillery gun flow and a unique set of life experiences to relay, it seemed only right that Eminem should be the one to bring the Alabamian MC to the foot of hip-hop’s commercial mountain. Not on the grounds on his skin pigment, but on the merits of his impeccable lyricism and his determination to pull himself out from the furnace of deprivation and towards a prosperous future.
“I can tell you that when you're willing to give your life up to see a dream through, the reward is great. And now that I've become an apprentice to one of the greatest artists in the world, my potential reaches beyond anything I ever imagined. Let's kill this shit."
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Eight years on, it raises the question of whether those rewards were as plentiful as they’d once seemed to be. Prior to the release of his major label debut Radioactive, Em hastened to praise his latest charge and claimed that “Yelawolf is a true original and he has crafted an incredible record.” With this ringing endorsement and contributions from Diplo, Killer Mike, Kid Rock and Em himself, it seemed that all the necessary groundwork had been laid for this project to catapult him into the music industry stratosphere. Until…it didn’t.
In an indication of things to come, the record divided listeners between those marveling at his technical expertise and range of unique selling points to others who felt it was dampened by attempts to ingratiate himself to the commercial realm. Four records into his alignment with the Shady imprint, the two parties have decided it’s time to amicably part ways. As detailed at a show in Colorado, “Catfish Billy” revealed that the third edition of his acclaimed Trunk Muzik series will be his last record on the label but expressed how “blessed” he felt to have this opportunity.
Ever since he vocalized his departure, it feels as if the enormity of the transition from major to independent has reignited the fire in his gut. Just days after 2019 got underway, Yelawolf commenced the roll-out of a line of freestyles that have placed him back in the fray with authority. Just as he did in the interim period between Trunk Muzik Returns and Love Story’s eventual release, the Gadsden MC has been putting his fearsome lyrical abilities to use and reaffirmed why he still deserves our attention.
Three years on from being committed to a mental institution, offerings such as “Gangsta Walk”, “Billy Goat” and “Elvis Messy” sees him rapping with a renewed vigorousness and sense of urgency that shows he’s unwilling to subsist among the ranks of the overlooked any longer. After opting to peer over the industry ledge with no safety net, this spate of unofficial releases harks back to the pre-fame days where mixtapes and freestyles emanated from him as though they were uncontainable.
With no shortage of praise coming his way, this week saw Yelawolf compound all of the simmering hype and unleash his most incendiary work of 2019 so far with “Bloody Sunday Freestyle.” A sterling example of the Alabama native at his most incensed, he leaves no stone unturned as he levels shots at G-Eazy, Post Malone and the “sleaziness” of the rap game in general. Complete with a pledge that we’ll “know how I feel about MGK” on Trunk Muzik III, the rationale behind the track is clear considering it frontlines everything that sets him apart from the pack. From his tangential, razor-sharp wordplay to the ferocity of his flow when unburdened with commercial concerns, targeting his fellow Caucasian MCs demonstrates why he’s compelling at the most pivotal time. At the junction between two converging career paths, “Bloody Sunday” shows that he’s not prepared to dwell at the crossroads and is plowing ahead with what he knows best.
In one particularly telling bar, Yelawolf acknowledges that he’s no longer afforded the luxury of complacency and must fight for every scrap of recognition that he gets: “Dribble through the middle up, crossover on 'em like I'm in the NBA. Look I don't really give a f**k, tell me what do I gotta lose anyway?”
Aside from this line, Yela’s claim that he’s the “prodigy of an anomaly” is a swift rebuttal to anyone that depicts him as a flop for not ascending to the same unprecedented heights as his Shady Records mentor. Relieved of mainstream pressures, this track strikes at the crux of what this departure from Eminem’s camp signifies and that is freedom from a lingering shadow over his career.
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In the prescribed role of an Eminem protégé, it led to the formation of a duality in the public perception of Yelawolf. On the one hand, his fans viewed him as an MC with veteran status and talent that far outweighed many of his peers. In the eyes of the casual viewer, it seemed as though he had yet to leave his own definitive stamp. During his time at Shady, the Alabamian clearly knew that his fortunes could turn on a dime and major label backing couldn’t be taken as a given.
For one thing, his decision to set up his own imprint of Slumerican just one year after inking his major deal attests to the Gadsden MC’s foresight. Formed with his Southern kin including DJ Paul, Bubba Sparxxx and Struggle Jennings, Yelawolf described the ethos behind the company in 2012:
"I thought it was a pretty descriptive word of what I am. Then it became a record, that became an idea and a crew and a pretty definitive style of people who vibe with me and my music. People who grew up on the same type of s**t."
Known to inject his own country-tinged flavour into hip-hop, the disconnect between himself and the mainstream’s sound became increasingly overt on Love Story and Trial By Fire. With such a self-devised and idiosyncratic style, the independent route is more befitting of an artist whose strength has always come from his singularity. By laying the foundations of his own company in advance, it seems as though Yelawolf was always prepared for this eventuality and is now exacting a plan to bring his career full-circle. What’s more, his recent actions have resulted in anticipation around his major label farewell that far outweighs his past few records. By producing an acclaimed and unfiltered record as his last dalliance with the record company machine, Yelawolf could hypothetically come out the other side as a self-sustainable phenomenon.
Governed by the same business acumen that informed his clothing store and whiskey range, Yelawolf has positioned himself in a way that allows him to dispense with enticing the mainstream. Instead, “Bloody Sunday” and the fanfare around his recent freestyles justify the decision to focus on crafting the gritty material that brought him to the table in the first place. Now that Trunk Muzik III is shaping up to be a return to form, this is his chance to set the wheels in motion for the longevity that he spoke of to Forbes in 2016: "I picture myself old, silver hair doing something really rad for someone really young."
Armed with the courage to relinquish the safety blanket, Yelawolf’s fortune looks brighter than it has for years.