I’ve always been a little bit indifferent toward Yelawolf. I don’t hate him, I don’t love him, he’s just THERE. Initially I didn’t even take him that seriously — for me he was a failed contestant on a failed reality TV show. Since his recording career now spans three different decades (the 2000’s, 2010’s and 2020’s) and he’s even established his own record label with major names like DJ Paul signed to it, I’ll be the first to admit Yelawolf succeeded wildly beyond my limited expectations. He wasn’t and isn’t the guy who got voted off Missy Elliott’s TV show. If anything it was probably that failure that fueled his inner drive for the later success he’d achieve.
On songs like “All Aboard” from the “Arena Rap EP,” Yelawolf is embracing his Gadsden, Alabama roots to the fullest. Kawan “KP” Prather and Malay create a track I’d describe as “rural rap rock” and Yelawolf breathlessly sings the hooks between verses, all before the song crashed into a big violin breakdown that turns the whole affair into a hoedown. Just as suddenly the deejay runs the instrumental backward and strips out the music so we can hear Yelawolf singing without being overpowered, and it’s pretty dope. This same production team handles the majority of his EP, including what sounds like a violin interpretation of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” for “Candy & Dreams.”
I have to admit I like it. It has the same rural Southern rapper charm that was pioneered by Timbaland protege Bubba Sparxxx, who coincidentally is ALSO signed to Yelawolf’s Slumerica imprint. The team isn’t afraid to change up the formula though for a song like “Stage Lights,” which takes the hard hitting drums of an old school Run-D.M.C. or Beastie Boys track and even OLDER sounding synthesized voices of a Zapp song. Yela’s bars are on point too: “It ain’t about the money, we never got paid right/Money will come, but for now we do it all for the stage lights.”
The only time I think Yelawolf may have pushed it too far and gone straight up cornball is on “Gone,” when he imitates (and borrows from) the pop song “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” by Greg Kihn Band’s. Ironically this is one of only two tracks not handled by KP & Malay, and this bad idea comes to us courtesy of Jim Jonsin and DJ Ideal. Ideally everybody involved should have reconsidered this track.
Despite that blemish I can say that Yelawolf’s “Arena Rap EP” is… alright. I have to be perfectly honest and say it’s better than I expected, but it’s also easy to tell that this is from an early point in his career (2008) where he hadn’t signed with Shady Records (whom he obviously left later on) and his success in the business seemed far from assured. Yelawolf had not quite risen to star stature based on one independent album, one EP and one reality show, but at least what’s here shows he was slowly getting there.