This is a microcosm of Yelawolf’s career: patiently trying to get people’s attention but not really knowing how to do it. “I didn’t get a grip on what I was really supposed to be doing in hip-hop till ’07,” Yelawolf says. “I always could rap, just like anybody could rap, but that type of shit that’s just metaphors and rhymes, there’s no culture there.” 2010’s Trunk Muzik, presented by Atlanta mixtape legend and fellow paleface DJ Burn One, was backwoods funk, box-frame Chevrolets, high-powered hunting rifles and crystal meth labs. The tape’s most crucial achievement is having made converts of a great many non-believers, something Burn One says was no accident. “It’s not like he just got dope overnight, like one day he woke up like, Oh shit, I can rap!” Burn One says. “It’s just that Trunk Muzik succeeded in getting that point across. He always knew how to control a crowd [and] project his voice, but records like ‘Pop The Trunk’ and ‘Love is Not Enough,’ really connected with people.”
What may have gone over people’s heads, or more likely under the radar, was 2008’s Stereo, a phenomenally executed rap tribute to classic rock. The shared tug of rock & roll and rap has derailed a great many artistic ambitions, but Yelawolf walked the line unlike any before him. Slick-talking over looped samples of Pink Floyd and The Doors, Stereo mostly sounds like a kid who loved rock but had to rap because he was scared to sing. But Yelawolf can sing and he’s not afraid of anything. “I took a route that I knew was gonna take a long time, because it’s so fucking new,” he says. “You’re just not gonna get this and that’s cool, but I’m up for the ﬁght. On top of being a white boy, I have these ideals and these subjects that I wanna talk about and that’s not an easy thing to digest. So it’s like learning how to make the music and the lyrics make sense to people, even when they’re not listening. And if they choose to listen, they’ll have something good to listen to.”
Yelawolf’s path to burgeoning greatness was circuitous. Around the time of his 18th birthday, while living in Atlanta, his stepfather offered to buy him a car if he got his GED and went to college. “He bought me this $2000 Honda, and I left,” he says. “I got my GED and got into college just to get the fucking car and I was out.” After selling all of his belongings, Atha and a friend set out to California to become professional skaters. They drove from Atlanta to San Diego and settled in Berkeley shortly thereafter. After chronic ankle injuries derailed his pro skating aspirations, he grew tired of a lifestyle he’d come out West to escape.