When it’s all over, 2010 might go down as the year that blog rap overtook the major-label-propped stuff in serious interest from hip-hop fans. While big names like Kanye West, the Roots, Drake (who himself started on the net), Rick Ross, and others dominated coverage and sales like they always do, this year saw an increasing budget of column inches and downloads go to Internet curiosities like Das Racist, Odd Future, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs, Big K.R.I.T., Pill, and others. It’d be hard to imagine these artists getting much more than a word-of-mouth recommendation at Fat Beats (R.I.P.) without the help of the Internet machine, but thanks to the leveling power of the information superhighway, some of them have been mentioned in the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Not all blog-pimped hip-hop is that much different from the mainstream stuff, however; the gap between Lloyd Banks and Freddie Gibbs mostly comes down to pop sensibilities, for instance. Which is why it’s so encouraging that a distinctive rapper like Alabama’s Yelawolf can parlay the year’s best mixtape, Trunk Muzik, into a major-label deal at Interscope. In the pre-Internet era, Yela would have probably remained a regional curiosity, but thanks to the blogs (and some well-timed and well-received sets at SXSW this year), his unique, true-to-himself tales of growing up in the white-trash South have found him on major tours with Wiz Khalifa and trading verses with heavyweights like Big Boi (“Ain’t No DJ”) and Juelz Santana (“Mixin Up The Medicine”).
Which is to say the recently released Trunk Muzik 0-60 is as excellent as a mixtape can get. But it’s a (very slight) disappointment: It’s not the full-length album Yela had promised this summer. Instead, the still-excellent 0-60 is a stopgap that pairs six tracks from the original Trunk Muzik with six new tracks recorded since he signed with Interscope. That’s fair enough; it’s Yela’s first commercially available product — Trunk Muzik is available for free all over the net — and it’s sort of a litmus test for how the general public will swallow a hard-charging, slick-tongued MC doing impossible-to-sing-along-to tracks with Gucci Mane called “I Just Wanna Party.” That single is the first chance Yela’s had at rap radio, and it has yet to chart, but it’s a song that suggests he will sacrifice nothing (except maybe a slightly annoying hook) in an attempt to make back his advance. He packs syllables, deft observations (“D-boys on the corner dropping quarters like a wishing well”) and a rough-sounding punctuated rhyme sequence into three and a half minutes.
But the meat of Trunk Muzik 0-60 is in Yelawolf’s adroit street journalism detailing the realities of his slice of the country. He comes from the small town Alabama, a place hit hard by meth and economic collapse, where white boys fly Confederate flags on their trucks while bumping Beanie Sigel because “Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t talk about moving keys of coke, man.” He makes the soundtrack for the hoods in Breaking Bad on the grimy “Billy Crystal,” and articulates losing a woman to a guy with better economic prospects on the somber “Love Is Not Enough.” This isn’t music about Rolls Royce Phantoms; Yelawolf lives in a world where rusty “Fred Flintstone Chevys” are the most prevalent (the booming “Box Chevy” and “Trunk Muzik”) and he spends more time fetishizing a girl’s car than her body (the slick “Daddy’s Lambo”). Plus he’s capable of some cinematic violence that conjures Eminem at his most hungry (early highlight “Pop the Trunk”).
That last comparison is probably going to be yoked to Yelawolf for the rest of his career — as it will every white rapper for time immemorial — but if it gets more people interested in Yelawolf, that might be a means to an end. He’s the kind of artist that proves the positivity of Internet crowd-sourcing; sometimes, the best, most interesting artist rises to the top of the heap, not just the most inoffensive or most notorious. Trunk Muzik 0-60 was overshadowed by another rap album that came out the same week (Kanye West’s string of adjectives), but it’s one of the more assured and confident debuts from any rapper this year. It positions Yelawolf as the cream of the hypertexted crop lighting up hip-hop blogs today.