For as volatile as it sounds, the actual dictionary term for “radioactive” leaves a lot to the imagination. But just as he does with every word he spits, Ghet-O-Vision/Shady recording artist Yelawolf gives it new life and meaning. Making it a fitting title for his official debut album.
“I think its a perfect word to describe where I’m going,” says the Alabama born rapper. “It’s the fallout, the aftermath of everything I’ve been through and here’s what’s left. This radioactive material.”
With a life story that no book could contain, the artist born Michael Atha could have auditioned for the “most interesting man in the world” title. Geograpically, he was born in a state that rests between Mississippi and Georgia but mentally he was raised in a state of constant change. Bouncing around between Alabama and Tennessee as a child, Wolf’s upbringing exposed him to the impoverished realities of both White America’s trailer parks and Black America’s ghettos.
The duality would finally define itself on a fateful evening where his mother was playing host to a group of friends who happened to be the roadie crew for rapstars Run DMC. It was that night where Wolf, who was raised on a healthy dosage of Southern Rock, would hear songs like “My Adidas” and Beastie Boys “Paul Revere” for the first time. From that point on he knew that Hip Hop was now in his DNA. Unfortunately up to this point Wolf had to battle Hip Hop listeners who judged by outside appearance...but he’s winning that fight now.
After years of toiling in the rap chitlin circuit, the mixtape matrix and doing hooks for a spectrum of artists ranging from Juelz Santana to Slim Thug, Wolf broke out in grand fashion with his critically acclaimed independent release Trunk Muzik (Ghet-O-Vision Ent.) on New Year’s Day 2010. Prideful boasts on songs like “I Wish” (“I wish a motherfucker would tell me that I ain’t Hip Hop/Bitch! You ain’t Hip Hop!) made listeners look beyond his tattoo-decorated skin and respect his skills. The excitement, paired with his unforgettable live shows, led to numerous magazine covers a record deal through Ghet-O-Vision/Interscope and then a partnership with Shady Records. The label founded by the man who many naysayers opted to unfavorably compare him to, Eminem.
“There is a fair comparison between us,” says Wolf. “But the true difference is vocal. The cadence and the words I use. There are words that I can rhyme that he can’t just because of my Southern accent. I can go to totally different places because of my slang alone.”
He wastes no time taking you to these places on Radioactive. With an additional meaning of aspiring to be “active on the radio” the album’s first single “Hard White” featuring club music kingpin Lil Jon is a dark, 808-fueled uppercut that shows traces of the 3-6 Mafia influence he picked up while living in Tennessee. Wolf takes it even further on “Throw It Up” featuring former Mafia member Gangsta Boo and Eminem, pulling from both sides of the tracks he was raised on.
“Juxtaposition is very comforting for me,” he says. “You can’t stare at a square, that’s boring. But if it’s broken, you stare at it longer and try to figure it out. This song is culturally impactful.”
With skateboarding being his first love before his affair with Hip Hop, Yelawolf already traveled the country living everywhere between California and New York, crashing on couches and park benches. So when he writes national anthems like “Made In the USA” that pairs lyrics about the dirt with a flowery hook, know that it comes from the perspective of a fly that has been in the dumps, not just on the wall.
“The grit and gutters are what I know the most about,” says Wolf who also had a stint as an artic fisherman in Alaska. “I always believed that the people who build the cars, clean the houses, dig the ditches and sell the drugs are the ones who make the world go round. As pretty as the hook is, it’s still sarcastic. The melody is great, but I was able to hide a real vocal point behind it.”
He continues to drive these points home on the tracks “Growing Up In the Gutter” featuring his Slumerican partner in rhyme Rittz and the instant smash “Let’s Roll” featuring fellow American badass Kid Rock. Both of which showcase his unique ability to shift gears from Southern Hip Hop to Southern Rock all the while remaining neutral in his own lane.
“I’m one of the most honest artists out there and I’ve always been this way,” says Wolf in mentioning his crotch-kicking manifesto “No Hands” where he shoots at naysayers and imitators. “It doesn’t matter what music I make whether I’m rapping on an 808 or over a guitar. I have a birth right to talk about these things that I do.”
Radioactive is also Yelawolf’s opportunity to open up and share some of the non-musical experiences that have made him the man and artist he is today.
On “I See You,” a song inspired by a talk with his grandmother, he talks about hitting rock bottom before finally realizing that you had the best in life all along. With “The Hardest Love Song In the World” he stays true to the title admitting that it’s two parts difficult writing a “rap ballad,” especially about the special type of woman he likes. Then in the appropriately named “The Last Song” he talks about his rocky relationship with his estranged biological father, for the final time.
“I’m not mad at him and I don’t have a grudge,” he says. “But I just had to get that off, musically.”
Though he’s been releasing material since the early 2000’s, Radioactive qualifies as Yelawolf’s official “debut.” Unlike his prior efforts that were recorded in basements and garages, only to be appreciated by his first core of loyal fans, this album was captured amidst rigorous touring, growing anticipation and now, expectation. If his ability to survive the last ten years are any indication, Wolf will rise to the occasion and beyond.
“I see this album as my Southernplayalistic and I hope it does what “Hey Ya!” or “B.o.B” did for Outkast,” says the artist who was featured on Big Boi’s 2010 single “You Ain’t No DJ” that was produced by Andre 3000. “The goal of making albums is seeing where else you can go. I made sure everything I made was at the core, true to what i was.”
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