The talented rappers disappoint with their long awaited albums, TM 103: Hustlerz Ambition and Radioactive.
Young Jeezy and Yelawolf albums fail to live up to expectations
The warning signs that an album's birth is not going as smoothly as it should are easy to spot. Leaked tracks, underperforming singles and constantly postponed release dates all contribute to a slow-building narrative of disappointment even before the finished work finally emerges. And traditionally, no work is more fraught with difficulty than the second album.
The past 18 months have seen the rapper Yelawolf's star ascend at a remarkable rate. On his 2010 mixtape Trunk Muzik, the Alabama native displayed remarkable technical skills - a snarling flow that shifted from scurrying, rat-a-tat double time to drawling Southern menace; a knack for evocative, richly detailed lyrics - but more importantly, the kind of command over his style that even some veterans struggle to master. From the sinister, piano-driven American gothic narrative of Pop The Trunk to the cascading rhymes and riffs of Mixin' Up The Medicine, Trunk Muzik showcased a persona that never lapsed into gimmickry. Moreover, in South Carolina producer Will Power, Yelawolf found an ideal sonic partner, delivering thumping bass, rattling snares, druggy synths and sparse arrangements which set off the hunger and fury of the skinny skater kid perfectly.
Repackaged later that year as Trunk Muzik 0-60 with an alternative track listing, both versions are essential and the stage seemed set for his inevitable major label deal. It arrived last January, courtesy of Eminem and his Shady Records imprint - and from that moment, the making of his debut album proper became something of a tightrope walk. Could Yelawolf preserve his aesthetic without descending into caricature? Could he prevent lazy comparisons to Eminem, despite their business alliance? Above all, how could an artist who excelled at depicting everyday rural poverty via complex characters, dense imagery and rich, subtle language, live up to commercial expectations?
On its eventual emergence, though, Radioactive proved to be a schizophrenic listen - and not just due to Yelawolf's alter egos. At his best, Yelawolf picks up where he left off on Trunk Muzik 0-60, widening his vision from the poverty of the rural South to recession-hit America. "A quarter for your thoughts, appreciate the contribution," he raps on the album's introduction like a particularly sarcastic war veteran, and follows it with the sucker punch: "Slumerican, I depreciate the constitution." Made In The USA skilfully celebrates the American working class while skewering the American dream: Yelawolf's verses are paeans to the "old-school yard-fighting, beer-drinking, hell-raising, hard-working, blue collar, earn-it-all due-paying" people, while a deceptively sweet chorus from Priscilla Renea ends up conveying more futility than hope. On Growin' Up In The Gutter, Yelawolf drags his eye to the genuine horror beneath the surface, unflinchingly drawing out a narrative of sexual abuse and murder over harsh, grinding bass.
Meanwhile, the long-undervalued former Three 6 Mafia rapper Gangsta Boo puts in a star turn of unalloyed, unashamed aggression on album highlight Throw It Up; and the unlikely combination of Yelawolf, hipster producer Diplo and Canadian teen pop singer Fefe Dobson turns up on the belligerent, brilliant and anthemic Animal.
Renea and Dobson's R&B choruses have been pinpointed as indicative of Radioactive's flaws - a critical line that seems more illustrative of anti-R&B critical bias among hip-hop heads than the actual quality and appropriateness of their contributions. But at times, Radioactive sadly displays why the trepidation was justified in a grimly inevitable kind of way: with the cloudy synths and watery lyrics of Write Your Name, Yelawolf lowers himself to BoB-esque schlock, while the title of The Hardest Love Song In The World starts by apologising for itself and gets even worse on record. Worse still is Radio, with its corny chorus and hackneyed complaints. Yelawolf even manages to spoil The Last Song - a raw, affecting letter to his absent father - with a chorus that tips the complex emotions of the verses into empty sentiment. It's not, of course, the fact that Yelawolf is writing about women or relationships that's the problem: from Daddy's Lambo to Speak Her Sex, these are subjects he has handled adroitly and interestingly in the past. But on his major label debut, he seems to second-guess what kind of love songs his new audience will want, and no amount of meta-skits about needing songs for the ladies on the album make up for it.
A surfeit of songs for the ladies is not a problem that veteran Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy encounters on his fourth studio album, Thug Motivation 103: Hustlerz Ambition. The postponement of Radioactive's release date by a couple of months pales beside the interminable gestation of Hustlerz Ambition, originally scheduled for release in 2009 and eventually snuck out with little fanfare at the very tail end of December 2011. Jeezy's third album, 2008's The Recession, was an unexpected masterpiece that catapulted its author from a relatively one-dimensional regional artist capable of producing the occasional hit into the top tier of current rappers. With its depiction of urban communities sliding into economic hopelessness, The Recession was a zeitgeist-capturing work that felt topical and important. By turns triumphal and depressed, celebratory and determined, it allowed Jeezy - who, with his single-cadence gruffness, has never been a particularly subtle rapper - to display a hitherto unsuspected emotional range; and, from the use of judicious samples linking the 1970s recession to the 2008 crisis to the creative use of Auto-Tune on Put On to the sheer rambunctious energy of Who Dat, it expanded his sonic range considerably as well.
Whether due to the pressure of following that up or not, Hustlerz Ambition is a conscious retreat from The Recession's thematic and sonic qualities - but, monochrome even by Jeezy's standards, it doesn't even provide the anthemic peaks that leavened the bloat of early albums, such as Go Getta or 3am. The closest is Lose My Mind, Jeezy's May 2010 hit included here as a bonus cut; by the time its intro hoves into view, all hallucinatory twinkles and tectonically shifting bass, around 17 tracks in, it feels like blessed relief.
Hustlerz Ambition isn't an album that fails through ill-advised aesthetic choices, as Radioactive does at its lowest points, or through a disastrous degeneration of its author's skills, as has happened to Lil' Wayne over the past three years. Out of the overlong 18-track context of the album, several of its songs improve significantly: the magisterial victory lap of Everythang is classic Jeezy, from its triumphant chorus to the dramatic drum fills that propel it; rapping the chorus of the pensive Never Be The Same in rounds is a brilliant touch, magnifying the circular loops of memory underpinning its martial trudge.
But Jeezy fails to build adequately on Jill Scott's imperious admonishments on Trapped; the smooth beat of F.A.M.E. provides some much-needed musical variance, but superstar rappers complaining about their success is a trend that's long overdue a swift death; it is regrettable that it has become so embedded in hip-hop culture that every major album seems to find it necessary to include a token whinge now. (Blame Kanye.)
As a whole, Hustlerz Ambition grinds away in a mid-tempo groove seemingly interminably, and grinds the listener down accordingly. Jeezy can make adequate Southern rap in his sleep, but - apparently uninterested in saying anything surprising any more - this is what it frequently feels like he's done.
These are, then, two highly anticipated rap albums to open 2012, burdened by expectations of greatness; two disappointments that fail to live up to their artists' potential. But taken in tandem, there is little question about which of Radioactive and Hustlerz Ambition is the preferable approach. On one, a new artist attempts to find his feet and retain his strengths while pushing himself into new territory - and, even if he falls flat at times, he still manages to showcase a route beyond these growing pains. On the other, an established artist seems to surrender before even trying to live up to his newly lofty level.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.