Despite Yelawolf’s distinctive personality and voice, Radioactive is pretty much what any other major label debut is these days. Well-produced, if not even a little ambitious, and fine tuned. It’s littered with oddly—if not even poorly—sung hooks from the likes of Kid Rock, Pooh Bear (aka MDMA) and Fefe Dobson among others. And it’s very aurally scattered, attempting to open the formerly street artist’s listenership to a larger female audience with more love songs and a Diplo-styled dubstep track while maintaining his testosterone-fueled edge elsewhere with Lil’ Jon and Mystikal features. Through all of this, Yelawolf’s talent manages to shine through, confirming again and again why he’s the first Alabama rapper since Rich Boy in 2006 to get a real shot at fame, but it’s still pretty held back by these things. More than anything, it’s hard to avoid a sense that Yelawolf takes himself very seriously. If one were to use his new mentor Eminem’s career as a barometer, I’d put that sense more on the Recovery side of things than Slim Shady LP. Tracks like “Radioactive Introduction” and “Growin’ Up in the Gutter” have a strange energy to them, and even after many listens I can’t tell whether I’m riding along with Yelawolf or being preached to. I’m inclined to go with the former, but there are definitely enough odd turns of phrase to make me question what it is I’m enjoying.
All of those thoughts are just for the first six songs, a mixture of well-done and good-job-but-not-quite that encourages listeners to stick around for “Made in the U.S.A.” and “Slumerican Shitizen”, which aren’t highlights so much as mediocre reminders of what Trunk Muzik promised us. But they don’t really prepare us for what it’s going to take to get there. It’s such a corporate slab of dreck that we’re hit with from “Good Girl” onward that it all has to be preceded with an unfunny comedic phone call between Yelawolf and Eminem about Radioactive‘s need for girl songs. I’m sure both of them saw this as a move that might earn them some credibility—some sort of ‘look, we’re poking fun at Interscope’s influence on our record!’—but all it really does is warn listeners that the skip button is about to come in handy. Yelawolf strikes me as a supremely confident guy, the sort of dude that doesn’t have any problems with women in the streets, but on record he’s not a convincing figure. What’s worse are the generic levels he goes to please a demographic that’s too often pandered to and coddled by a pop community that figures they can just throw cool sounds or sexual lyrics at women and they’ll stick on principle. I suppose there’s plenty club floor evidence to support such board room decision making but it’s disappointing to see Yelawolf’s album go through those motions so unadventurously. “Animal” is the obvious lowlight, the sort of frat-dub that’s going to result in too many pregnancy scares and alcohol-fueled fist pumps to count.
“Made in the U.S.A.” and “Hardest Love Song in the World” struggle for different reasons. The former could have been an interesting take on the plastic lifestyles of many post-modern Americans if not for Priscilla Renea taking the song for her own and smothering it with clumsy turns of phrase and heart-on-her-sleeve lyricism that’s about as imaginative as a random Nickleback selection. “Hardest Love Song in the World”, meanwhile, takes what could have been a heartfelt little trailer park love song and turns it into something pre-packaged and emotionless, love by studio alchemy. It’s robotic, the sort of efficient and by the numbers water treading that’s probably going to fuel “Let’s Rock” and “Write Your Name” to the top of certain charts without ever etching themselves firmly into the public conscious, eventually fading away to make room for the next similarly-styled ‘big thing’. It becomes really hard to remember Radioactive is the sort of album that opened with a (totally random and unwarranted) warning of nuclear war followed by a series of beats built on sirens, horns and Zeus’s thunder. “Everything I Love the Most” may as well have been a Kid Rock b-side twelve years ago for Pete’s sake. Luckily for fans of older Yelawolf (March, 2010…the good old days?) “Slumerican Shitizen” storms through near the very end with an awesome Killer Mike verse and all the vitriolic, educated ignorance that comes along with him. But you’ve also got to endure the well-intentioned but laborious “Radio” to get to it, a song that epitomizes everything wrong with Radioactive with a chorus of “internet killed the radio star and Youtube killed the video star”, which is some sort of logical fallacy considering Youtube is nothing but videos, and the song is ultimately an ode to a variety of enduring underground rap artists.
Ultimately, Radioactive is an album that’s all about style. On the surface there’s a certain appeal to it, but any real layers are pretty imaginary. Creative missteps abound, from Yelawolf’s lyrics in general on “Radioactive Introduction” to Yela’s claim that “Good Girl” is for bad girls gone good before spending the entire song wondering why such a good girl messes with a bad guy like him. The end result is an album during which the main protagonist seems unaware of what’s going on, playing second fiddle to the ruminations of backseat A&Rs and misguided grasps at populism. And don’t even get me started on the female chorus vocalists here, all of whom seem to actually be trying to sound like Rihanna, a vocalist who’s often praised for everything but her actual vocals. Must Shady Records try so hard to score empty chart hits these days? I can’t argue that it isn’t working financially—after all, as an incredibly fresh face on the national scene he’s selling out shows all over the place—but on an artistic level Mr. Asha seems very uninterested in living up to what Trunk Muzik promised us. Yelawolf has all kinds of talent and potential, but as Radioactive closes with “The Last Song”, a predictable track backed by ‘emotional’ pianos, odes to a missing father and life struggles, it’s easy to wonder whether his being signed to a major label will ever allow us to see it develop into anything as tremendous and artistically dark as “Pop the Trunk” or “Mixin’ Up the Medicine” ever again.