Shady Records really ought to have fostered more than its fair share of enduring talents — just look at how its founder has fared, after all. Yet legions of signees like Stat Quo and Bobby Creekwater — these references probably seem utterly vague by now, and that’s the point — have fizzled into obscurity with barely a minor guest verse to their name, let alone a smash hit LP. Even once-surefire hitmakers like 50 Cent have parted ways with the label, and as Eminem readies himself for his 43rd birthday later this year, it seems apparent that even the most successful hip-hop artist in history will need some form of extra support — namely, an exciting and fresh new star — in order to propel the label through rap’s current epoch.
Listen: Love Story [album] – Yelawolf
Over the last few years, it has been intriguing to observe the ways in which Yelawolf has been able to fill that void. Born Michael Wayne Atha, the Alabama MC of Cherokee heritage sparked fan interest early on with a string of impressive mixtapes and guest appearances — perhaps most memorably by tagging along with fellow speed rapper Big Boi on 2010’s “You Ain’t No DJ.” After signing to Shady Records and releasing his debut LP, Radioactive, in 2011, Yelawolf returns after a fairly long album hiatus — not that the Age of the LP isn’t miles behind us at this point, anyways — for his second roll of the dice, Love Story.
Much in the style of The Slim Shady LP (1999) and its opening track, “My Name Is,” Yelawolf establishes his world as a weird, psychedelic, not-quite-terrestrial one from the get-go. “I’m not out of place, I’m from outer space,” as he explains on the album’s catchiest chorus, while also declaring himself to be “a trailer park pimp” who “needs fight tunes and mushrooms, I’m trippin.” If these sound like curiously familiar lyrics to fans of early-era Eminem, this should be no surprise: it makes sense that Yelawolf would want to take a leaf out of Slim Shady’s book, so as best to follow in the footsteps of his celebrated mentor.
Nonetheless, Love Story remains distinct from Eminem’s Detroit-based style largely by staying true to the Southern musical influences that have helped to shape Yelawolf’s sound. Not unlike his idols and Southern rap champions, OutKast — whose Aquemini (1998) bounced freely between hard rock guitar and mellow Southern soul, among other genres — Yelawolf blends a decent variety of sonic elements into Love Story, including bluegrass, country and grunge. Producers like Malay and Track Bangas may not be household names just yet, but they have certainly played a key role in making this album musically engaging.
In terms of lyrical subject matter, Love Story is not the most outspoken of records. As one might suspect from titles like “Whiskey in a Bottle,” “Empty Bottles” and “Tennessee Love,” many of these songs’ scenarios amount to little more than chasing girls and shooting the breeze on a chill summer evening in the Deep South. Yelawolf’s various tattoos also get rather inordinate coverage — true, it is remarkable that any one person’s skin could be that covered with ink, but perhaps the rapper would be wise to move on to somewhat more compelling subject matter by the time his third album comes around.
Watch: “American You” – Yelawolf
However, Yelawolf does manage to show more of his serious side on tracks like “American You,” which taps into the classic hip-hop narrative of life as an up-and-comer, and “Best Friend,” the thoughts-on-God introspection which represents one of Love Story’s most thematically ambitious moments. The latter features Eminem, in the album’s lone guest verse, speaking out to Proof, his fellow rapper and longtime closest companion, who was shot dead at a nightclub altercation in Detroit in 2006. Coupled with Yelawolf’s attempts to reach out to the Lord, the emotional gravitas of the track is undeniable, even though it perhaps could have been trimmed down by a few bars for the sake of succinctness.
Love Story is plainly overlong at 18 tracks and 74 minutes, and its content can occasionally feel repetitive and cheesy (less-than-dazzling puns like “got my weight up like I’m carrying fat people” certainly don’t help much in this matter). Whether Eminem can securely pass the reins to Yelawolf as Shady Records’ most dominant MC is still a point of contention. However, ignore the pressure of that situation and view Love Story for what it is overall — a clever, entertaining, sonically diverse album that steers clear of the sophomore jinx by improving on 2011’s Radioactive — and Yelawolf has certainly proven his worth and remains Eminem’s most compelling protege by a mile.