Yelawolf returns from self-exile and drops a genre-bending LP.
Alabama born rapper Yelawolf took a much-needed hiatus from hip-hop after having a mental breakdown on tour last year. At 37 years of age, Yela has witnessed almost every era of hip-hop. He’s watched as empires have been built and destroyed, all while biding his time and hustling his music. After his Trunk Muzik EP gained critical acclaim and national attention, Yelawolf signed to Shady Records. In that same year, he was featured in XXL’s Freshman Class, alongside Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, Mac Miller, BIG K.R.I.T., Cyhi The Prynce, and others. It was during this time that Yelawolf was at his most creative, and his music offered a southern rural interpretation of hip-hop that fused blues, rock, country, and rap into a melting pot of infectious beats and catchy hooks. It seemed as if Yela would carve out his own niche market and continue to dominate that lane, but then it all fell apart. Born Michael Atha, Yelawolf publicly supported the Confederate flag in a time where politics and rap music were having an acrimonious split. Then, his subsequent meltdown and disappearance from the music scene had the world assuming that Yela was done for good. Those assumptions were incorrect. Back with an album cleverly titled Trial By Fire, Yela aims to step back into the game with maturity, experience, and a clean slate.
The album opens with the title track, where a gang of bikers enters a bar where Yelawolf is performing his new album. “Trial By Fire” finds Yela rapping about his birth, and the chorus is an innovative mixture of deep south rock ‘n roll and gospel. Like most of the album, the intro is produced by Yelawolf himself, showcasing the Shady Records rapper’s ability to construct a song from the ground up. Although Yela also handles most of the lyrical onslaught by his lonesome, a few key features help to paint the full picture on the canvas that is Trial By Fire. Travis Barker and Juicy J loan their talents to “Punk,” another genre-bending single by Yela. Juicy only appears on the chorus, which makes sense because the instrumental converts back into a hip-hop production for the hook, while the beat mutates into a rock ‘n roll headbanger during the verses. "Shadows" offers another amazing feature. Joshua Hedley, a country singer whose nerve-racking chorus will give listeners the goosebumps, croons about the metamorphosis from hero to villain over an instrumental that sounds like it belongs in an old western. Yela is at his peak performance on "Shadows," giving fans that same introspective haunting insight that he delivered on "Till It's Gone."
Yelawolf has immaculate storytelling skills, and they are on full display on “Sabrina.” The track is a haunting tale about losing a child, and the fictional character of Sabrina plays Yela’s deceased daughter. The instrumental is chilling, the piano rift echoes in the spacious percussionless body of the beat where anxiety and terror are left to fester in between Yela’s bars. “Do For Love” is another heartfelt record on the album, where Bones Owens mystically commands the guitar behind Yela’s ominous storytelling. Short and sweet, “Do For Love” features two verses, one for each parent in separate households. Both mother and father struggle with money and stress, and the lyrics remind us that crime is birthed in desperation.
Yelawolf’s political views have been called into question in the past, and he addresses his beliefs on “Row Your Boat.” Unfortunately, the track comes off as a muddled attempt to merge his own political beliefs with one his publicist suggested might be more popular. While Yela does rap “Police they shoot and kill, they shoot at will,” and “Streets are not the only place that you can find yourself laying up under white sheets,” he also condemns protesters and points a blaming finger to the violence that usually follows unfair cases of police brutality. It also doesn’t help that he features his idol, Kid Rock, on “Get Mine.” From a fan’s perspective, the team up is plausible and delivers exactly what you would expect from the collaboration. It just feels like Kid Rock shouldn’t be allowed to step into the hip-hop world after supporting Donald Trump and trashing Colin Kaepernick, while proudly professing his support of the Confederate flag.
Overall, Yela accomplishes the task of masterfully marrying southern rock, blues, and hip-hop while viciously reasserting himself back into the hip-hop world. He once was lost, and now Yelawolf has found himself. His strengths are still his harmonic hooks and lighting fast flows, while he builds on his weaknesses of loose concepts and periodic lackluster production. While there are some hiccups along the way, Trial By Fire is a well-produced, conceptualized piece of work that adds depth and maturity to Yelawolf’s catalog.