On Limitations, Yelawolf, and Idiosyncrasies

At last, another long form piece! I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with baited breath. Be sure to stay tuned for an interview with Yelawolf that will be going up tomorrow, which will serve as a nice complement to this piece. In addition, check out my interview with Yela here. Enjoy!

Photo by Chris Shonting

A few weeks ago at Cocaine Blunts, Noz put up an interesting discussion of Pill and Freddie Gibbs’ cache with the blogs. There’s a lot going on in it, but I want to address one point in particular and then make another about one of my current favorite emcees.

In the article, Noz states:

“Pill and Gibbs are artists who have studied their predecessors closely, who have the intellectual capacity and skill level to follow their formula, but have thus far been too wrapped up in those standards to evolve beyond them. Like Little Brother before them, they are able to synthesize just about everything but the flair (dare I say swagger?) of their rap heroes. Their personalities don’t engage on the level of an Andre 3000 or Pimp C. And I’m sure if you were to ask them, they’d tell you of course not, those are the greats. They, like their audience, put their predecessors on an unattainable pedestal, which is a self limiting standard.”

I agree with the early statements wholeheartedly. To my eye, the obvious example of this ensnaring paradigm is the Cunninlynguists, a group who has carved out so comfortable a niche with their smoothed out Oukast-lite sound that they’ve made little progress since 2006’s A Piece of Strange (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Dirty Acres is one of my favorite albums of the last few years and Strange Journey vol. 2 has been getting regular rotation recently). The major hitch in this theory is the idea that these artists can never move past or, at very least, away from their idols.

Enter Yelawolf.

Yelawolf’s style and content are rooted firmly in the Dungeon Family tradition. His raps feature vivid characters from his Alabama surroundings and homespun wisdom set against a steady confrontational undercurrent. Yela style, at times, resembles some amalgam of Snoop’s voice (filtered through white pipes) and Andre 3000’s cagey aggression, earthy knowledge, and surreal imagery. I also detect notes of Tech N9ne. Yela describes his style in one interview as “abstract folk lyricism” mixed with “true school” sensibility. Pretty accurate, I’d say.

I think Yelawolf counters Noz’s assertion that these artists put a self limiting standard on themselves by placing their influences on unreachable pedestals. Yelawolf is obviously reverent of his forebears. It’s evident in interviews and in songs: on “I Wish” ft. Raekwon, Yela starts his second verse off by thanking Raekwon for hopping on the track with him. He then moves about as far away from Raekwon as he could by referencing the Talladega Motor Speedway.

Photo by Dominick Brady

This is the wonder of Mr. Wolf. He weaves classic Hip Hop style and substance with his metaphors and images that appear wholly organic to his personality. He is not limited by any previous artist, because each song contains as many reverent references as it does unique, transcendent moments. Yelawolf is limited only by his ability to live up to his statement that he is part abstract folk lyricist and part true schooler–wide, rather amorphous banners that leave tremendous room for stylistic experimentation and growth.

Noz is dead on about Pill and Gibbs. Talented (and often very exciting) rappers though they are, they seem trapped in the sounds and visuals of their heroes and environments. Yelawolf is liberated by these elements, able to mix them into a musical profile that is almost mythic (like those created by his heroes). Furthermore, Noz’s take does not account for the possibility of the unexpected arrival of completely idiosyncratic personas. Lebron James came about without warning, a savior in the midst of an NBA mired by an assembly line of Jordan successors who never lived up to the hype. After years of trying to pinpoint Lebron’s game, critics and fans alike agree that Lebron is a unique beast, playing with the tools of Magic but the body of a titan. He uses the traditional tools in ways that threaten to make you reconsider the way you think about words like “ceiling” and “potential.”

Another take on this situation comes from a conversation I had this summer with New York emcee C Rayz Walz. We discussing different rappers, the origins of style, and the current state of emcee ability. Rayz made the point that when he was coming up the goal was to look at your predecessors and contemporaries–and, in some cases, competitors–study their styles and move in a new direction. “No biting,” as the classic adage goes. Rayz said he doesn’t even really listen to contemporary Hip Hop, his favorite emcees are (if I recall correctly) Rakim and KRS. That might not even be evident from listening to his flow, but that’s the point. Rakim and KRS are the floor. The limiting standard becomes, instead, a foundation to be built upon. As an emcee, your job is to look at this foundation and these emcees. Study their flows, learn their rhymes, dissect each line, find out what makes the whole style mesh and tick.

And then dismantle it all.

Play with the parts. Quote lines, steal lines, change lines, imitate rhythms, imitate patterns– take it all and twist it up, do something to show you know who your heroes are without simply aping them. A rapper like Rayz might borrow a line or two (although if you’ve ever heard this guy freestyle, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with anything quite like what spills out of his head), but ultimately his verse will sound like his verse. It will be identifiable because of the idiosyncrasies of his style.

If he is not rap’s Lebron, I certainly feel that Yelawolf occupies a space similar to that described by C Rayz. He is reverent of artists from many genres and certainly has studied his Hip Hop history. You can hear it in every breath, every verse and hook. And yet each song leaves you with a new feeling–new references, new images, new constructions that suggest a knowledge of Hip Hop so fine tuned that it perches the artist at a position to move beyond his predecessors.

This is perhaps the problem of Hip Hop fans, scholars, and critics. We expect stasis and, at worst, decline. We rarely view progress as a possibility, much less an inevitability (it is not, but artists like Lil Wayne prove it is certainly possible in any case). Perhaps progress is the wrong word; let’s say evolution, then. We look at great artists of bygone days and say there will never be great, original artists again. Certainly there may never be another young Nas or BIG or Tupac, but there will be someone else. History shows us time and again that this position favoring ancient titans permanently overshadowing whatever the future holds is patently false*. “Hip Hop is dead” is a preposterous slogan produced by an age of impatient downloaders incapable of giving artists the time and space necessary to mature, improve, and become not only polished artists, but engaging personalities as well. Reminds me of the best advice I ever got from a screenwriting teacher on how to write a good story:

“Just live a few more years.”

In other words, evolution takes time.

So I hope no one rushes Yelawolf. I hope he is given the requisite time and space (and beats) to blossom. He appears to be on the right track to becoming something truly special.

Let the myth building begin with two of Yelawolf’s mixtapes, Stereo and Ball of Flames: The Ballad of Slick Rick E Bobby. (Both tapes snatched from DatPiff. As always, I recommend supporting the man when possible. I recently bought his Arena Rap EP and I certainly was not disappointed. $7 well spent on iTunes.) Just wanted to save you the trouble of signing up for DatPiff. Because we’re all lazy.

* The few exceptions to this rule are transcendent figures whose influence has invaded culture to the point that their very names have become cliches loaded with infinite associations and images. Mozart. Beethoven. The Beatles. Tupac does not yet fit in this canon. Sorry Pac fans.

BONUS: In the name of fairness, I couldn’t really mention Gibbs and Pill without sharing some of their music. As I’ve said, I think they’re great. I’m not even certain they’re incapable of taking advantage the principles and possibilities discussed above.

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15 Responses to On Limitations, Yelawolf, and Idiosyncrasies

  1. This is a great write up, I’m more content than before to check Yelawolf out.
    I’ll wait till he drops his tape with Burn One before christmas though.

  2. AaronM says:

    You nailed it, man. Really well-thought out and cogent analysis.

    One thing to add, though this was probably implied: All those pioneers you mention (Nas, BIG, Pac) got better and evolved over the brief period of time that they were enshrined for. From “Live At The BBQ” to It Was Written, Nas became a sharper writer and refined his vocal tone. I like Illmatic better but It Was Written was better written. BIG always had an astounding flow but look at the evolution from the rough, shouty cadence of “Party And Bullshit” to the way he effortlessly glides over something like “Big Poppa”.
    Pill and Gibbs might still find some way to break out of “the influence box”, if they don’t get devoured by the hype machine first. In the meantime, they’re putting out some great, if not overtly original, music, and we should appreciate that.
    Yela is the first rapper to get me really excited in a while, appreciate the links.

  3. Virtch says:

    “they are able to synthesize just about everything but the flair”.
    Great job highlighting factors of musical movement.
    The way you transition from the artists who are fantastic at “synthesizing” to inventors like Yella is well done and insightful.

  4. Dom says:

    I totally agree. When we talk about the most dynamic artists coming out of this ATL scene (recognizing wolf is from bama), I can’t ever put anyone ahead of Yelawolf.

    There is some REAL talent here in Atlanta that not many know about, but Wolf is on another level, I feel.

    His stage show reflects this as well. That Black and White photo is a pic I took of him at the A3C festival here in Atlanta in October. Even with all the acts that took the stage like J Cole, Tanya Morgan and several local favorites, Yela did TWO songs and stole the entire weekend at that venue.

  5. mark p. says:

    Yela’s mixtapes are cool, but you really should have posted a link to what is easily the best song he’s released so far:


    I’ve listened to it about 50 times since downloading it, some of the best storytelling rhymes I’ve heard in years.

  6. So…the best way to transcend the limitations of reverential rap is to be white and corny?

    • Dom says:

      I guess that was supposed to be funny or clever. Very original POV from a bitten pen name. *golf claps*

      • Nope, just perceptive.

        White artist doing traditionally black music (or using references that resonate with white audiences or whatever) = evolution is a very old, tired trope and any critic who uses it probably needs to rethink writing about rap.

        Started as Gordon Gartrelle in 2007– well before D.R. or Phonte.

      • So this is a white thing, now? Ah. I see. It’s not about the content, the skill or the techniques. It’s about the fact that he’s white?

        Nevermind the fact that nearly every other MC/Rap artist/performer sounds like they are aping someone?


        You’re hurt that a white boy from alabama is more skilled and has more charisma in his presentation and show? Fine. Be mad at that. You and The Nation of Islam can throw a march for all I care.

        By the way, did you pick Gordon Gartrelle before the writers of the Cosby Show?

      • It’s not a white artist thing, genius; it’s a white privilege/critical voice thing.

        I must admit that your lazy, mush-headed stereotype game is tight, but why stop at the Nation of Islam? Maybe you can accuse me of attending Reverend Wright’s sermons or say I’m a “reverse racist” persecuting white hip hoppers.

  7. Pingback: BLUNT RAPPS » New Rap Music

  8. DIRRT says:

    just wanted to give credit to my homie Chris Shonting (http://www.chrisshonting.com/)
    who took the pick you posted of PILL…

  9. Pingback: So Juelz Santana and a white rapper from Alabama walk into a bar… « You Must Learn

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