Our underground heroes fail us so consistently when they move to major labels that it hardly feels like a valid gripe anymore. Is there even any validity in hoping for an underground artist to retain his distinctive charms? Do major label albums after free and indie releases ever add up to a significant artistic achievement? How much blame can we really lay at the feet of the super producer brought in to make things more radio-friendly? And are record executives who sign people based on underground success really guilty of forcing them to do commercial material?
Which is to say Yelawolf has finally released Radioactive, his full length Shady Records/Interscope debut (Trunk Muzik 0-60 was a re-release of a free mixtape), and it’s as bad as your mind allowed to be when you heard Yela would be subjecting himself to Jimmy Iovine’s stable. All the hallmarks of a commercial sellout are here, from the Lil Jon and Kid Rock cameos, to the attempts at radio hits, to the smooth, sports television bumper production. A song called “Slumerican Shitizen” proves pairing up any rapper with a .38 Special guitar riff is pretty dumb (not to mention that title, which is, ugh). “Animal” proves that Fefe Dobson is never going to happen. And when an Eminem interstitial skit is the best thing to recommend an album by, you’re in serious trouble. It turns out that weird shoutout to Sprite in his BET Cypher maybe was as calculated as it seemed at the time.
But here’s the thing: Yelawolf is not actually the problem with Radioactive. He’s still an incredibly magnetic performer, flipping internal rhymes and double time flows into some of the most fun verses to yell in your car. He briefly flashes the shit-eating grin that defined the best cuts on the Trunk Muziks, trading verses with Eminem on “Throw It Up,” and providing superfan catnip on “Get Away,” the kind of track that contains everything that made this guy impossible to ignore. The fact that his verses are the worst on the most nakedly commercial stuff here (“Let’s Roll,” the song with Kid Rock, for instance), at least suggests that Yela was forced into this, that he’d rather be ripping and running through material like “Get Away” than having to make a “song for girls.”
But maybe my unqualified belief in Yelawolf’s greatness—Trunk Muzik 0-60 was one of my favorite albums of 2010, and I saw him twice in 10 days earlier this year—is preventing me from completely burying Radioactive in the way I feel I probably should. It’s hard to view Radioactive in any context that doesn’t label as it a total artistic failure, to see the totality of Yelawolf’s rolling over to commercial demands as anything but truly disheartening.
This was a guy who could bring grimy, meth-head rap to the mainstream, demanding that the trailer park is not a joke, but an environment as stifling as the project high rises that have long shaped up-to-success stories in hip-hop. Yelawolf was supposed to kill “rise of the white rapper” hacks like Mac Miller and Asher Roth dead, was supposed to carve a new lane for rap and rock hybrids. But getting commercial placement during Thanksgiving football games is apparently the new goal, and by that metric, Radioactive is a resounding success.