Yelawolf has built a considerable fanbase with his rapidfire melodic flow and Alabama twang, which ultimately scored him a deal at one of the top labels in the game, the impressively resurrected Shady Records. But the Shady 2.0 boys might be technically impressive and inventive lyricists who love to rhyme for the sake of rhyming and wave the flag of what were once considered backpack rap aesthetics, they’re still a part of one of the biggest record conglomerates in the world. Those checks don’t write themselves, Shady/Aftermath parent Interscope needs hits. Does Catfish Billy deliver them?
Those afraid that the album will be full of sugarcoated pop tunes can rest easily when the opening track seeps through the speakers creating an eerie vibe that is more akin to Sarah Conner’s visions of Skynet than Jimmy Iovine’s visions of the charts. It could easily set the stage for a concept album but while that may not be the case there’s certainly a common theme between many of the tracks and a feeling that these portraits of America from the bottom are set in distinct chapters. The first third of the album sounds both distinctly southern and distinctly hardcore. Like shots of bourbon in a dirty glass they go down leaving a strong taste that’s hard to forget. Stories of child abuse and violent drug trades (‘Growing Up In The Gutter‘ with frequent collaborator Rittz) go hand in hand with the equally thumping but less gloomy ‘Hard White (Up In The Club),’ the most rugged club track of the year.
This first sequence of songs is capped off by the inevitable Eminem feature, who follows a verse by Gangsta Boo, in itself another welcome confirmation Yelawolf is allowed to follow his own dirty south instincts instead of conforming to those of an outside source. The song segues into a skit where label boss Em calls Yelawolf on his cell phone to discuss what he believes the album needs. While the skit is actually fairly funny and mercifully short (“Em: We need a song for girls. Yela: …for bitches? Em: Nah, girls! Yela: Like a love song? Em: Yeah, bitches love love songs!”) it does seem to contain a sliver of truth as the following song is the most obvious grab for crossover appeal. ‘Good Girl’ doesn’t sound particularly inspired and is so blatantly targeted towards a female pop crowd it’s almost embarrassing. His signature flow is even slowed down to a conversational tone more accessible to an audience with a casual interest in rap, but luckily Yelawolf manages to intone it with enough of his personality for the song to become bearable.
Fortunately that’s one of the few low points of the album. The second chapter of the album is the one that holds the tracks with the most crossover appeal as it’s filled with trendy synths and choruses by various Hayley Williams and Skylar Grey stand-ins. That’s not nearly as awful as that description makes it sound, a track like ‘Made In The USA’ pitches a stringladen backdrop and a seemingly (at first listen) patriotic hook against lyrics that paint an unromanticized image of the lower working class that actually makes the worlds largest economy tick. ‘Animal’ is begging for a dubstep remix and Yelawolf’s technically impressive flow and melodic flourishes paired with the poppy but fitting chorus make it a perfect example of a potentially commercial hit song while simultaneously staying true to the artist’s own sound.
The last chapter of the album is one infused with twangy acoustic guitars and some subtle country tropes. They’re worked seamlessly into organic sounding beats and unsurprisingly feature some of the most personal moments on the album. ‘Radio’ has smart topical lyrics dealing with controversies and personal artistic decisions but is marred by a chorus that is a reworking of the infamous “video killed the radiostar” by Buggles. It’s a minor huddle though, as it’s followed by ‘Slumerican Shitizen’ with Killer Mike, a fittingly angry rant about America’s disenfranchised citizens that sounds like one of the most natural and effective rap/rock hybrids since his label boss decided to dust off an Aerosmith sample on ‘Sing For The Moment.’ Killer Mike perfectly sums up the frustration in his ad-libs after delivering a great verse;
See what you suckas don’t understand is… This ain’t even about race. This is about who got it and who ain’t got it. So if I’m on the bottom, and you on the bottom, we’re the same color…
Dirty Fuckin’ Poor!
But the album has one more haunting moment up its sleeve. The appropriately titled ‘The Last Song’ is the most personal track as it deals with going through childhood without a father in a poor environment, his sometimes complicated but loving relationship with his mother (“And I feel like I’m raisin’ you, but what do I know, baby blue, All I know is that I was made in you, so I put all my faith in you”) and the errors he made growing up. It’s a song brimming with genuine emotion that never derails into cheap sentimentality. In short, it’s emo rap done right.
But everything I did I had to see, feel the pain, had to grieve
To become who I am and I’m proud of the man I came to be
What I’ve learned cannot be taught, what I’ve earned cannot be bought
Justified deserve it all, so don’t be concerned it’s not your fault
I never counted sheep I count my blessings
So if you see him now momma don’t give him the cold shoulder just give him my message
It’s the the perfect bookend to the album. Though occasionally flawed, ‘Radioactive’ manages to hold the line between creating songs ready for radio rotation while still maintaining more than enough of his original flavour to keep them bumping in a ‘Box Chevy.’ Marshall Mathers made a smart investment that can pay back both commercially, and more importantly, creatively. The Geiger counter on this chunk of radioactive material reads ‘dope.’