As one of a select few rappers next in line for mainstream stardom, Yelawolf probably could have handpicked a famous songstress to sing the hook on his major-label debut single. Instead, the Gadsen, Ala.-born MC stuck to what got him to this point: staying away from any and all gimmicks.
"I called my homie's girlfriend up in the studio, she said the 'I just wanna party' line, and once we got that, we blew smoke in the air, popped open a beer and just fooled around with it," Yelawolf says, as though he were talking about a random basement party and not his most important solo record thus far. Although Gucci Mane eventually added a verse for "I Just Wanna Party" -- the lead track from Yelawolf's "0-60" (Ghet-O-Vision/Interscope), due Nov. 22 -- the final product still sounds the furthest thing from self-conscious.
"We didn't want to get too far away from 'Trunk Muzik,' " says Yelawolf (real name: Michael Wayne Atha), who released that breakout mixtape in January when he was still relatively unknown. "I'm too stubborn to change. I'm real careful about my music and my longevity in the game. I want to be able to stand next to people like OutKast, N.W.A and Snoop Dogg."
Video: Yelawolf feat. Gucci Mane," I Just Wanna Party"
There's another reason why "0-60," which consists of six new tracks and six from "Trunk Muzik," won't be as stark a blog-to-radio-darling transformation as, say, B.o.B's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray" or Drake's "Thank Me Later." It's the first of two albums that Yelawolf will release in the next few months. The rapper's sophomore release, tentatively titled "Radioactive," is already slated for March 2011 and is expected to include more commercially appealing collaborations with Diplo and Travis Barker, along with current go-to producers Jim Jonsin and WillPower.
So why not just close out the year with a free mixtape, instead of releasing a fourth-quarter debut and going head to head with Kanye West and Nicki Minaj? "We just want to have something on the shelf for the holidays, because I'm steadily making music and making rounds around the country," Yelawolf says, though he admits, "It's not a project we expect to do crazy numbers with."
Interscope is also keeping expectations measured. "We haven't gone crazy spending money," says director of marketing Andrew Flad, who describes the campaign for "0-60" as "grass-roots, to continue the momentum he had when he signed."
Yelawolf inked his Interscope deal in April, on the heels of a breakout South by Southwest performance and a modest street hit, "Mixin Up the Medicine," a Juelz Santana track to which he contributed a countrified, Bob Dylan-inspired hook. A yearlong tour with Wiz Khalifa followed, as well as a second-stage slot on hip-hop festival Rock the Bells and an opportunity-seizing feature on Big Boi's "You Ain't No DJ," from the recently released "Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty." "Ever since we hooked up he just gave me huge co-signs," Yelawolf says. "Him bringing me to the BET Hip-Hop Awards was a career-changing moment."
Flad cites the instant appeal of Yelawolf to major retail and media partners as the main reason why the label wanted to release an album. "For a skinny, tattooed white kid who almost became a pro skater to be able to rap so well, and be very respected in the rap community by people like Big Boi, Bun B and Gucci Mane -- that's what people are responding to," he says.
Video: Yelawolf in the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cipher
MySpace will stream "0-60" a week before release, and Best Buy is onboard to sell a physical version of "I Just Wanna Party" paired with another album track, "Pop the Trunk." Featured promotion on iTunes is in the works, and Interscope has also tapped indie marketing firm Blackman Enterprises to specifically target black college radio. "A lot of college radio plays stuff like Sonic Youth and Trail of Dead," Flad says. "We wanted to make sure that we were focusing on places that have ears for a guy like Yelawolf."
On the strength of his BET Hip-Hop Awards performance with Big Boi, the label is also in talks to have Yelawolf premiere an edited version of the "I Just Wanna Party" music video on "106th & Park."
Meanwhile, the rapper will continue to walk the delicate line between satisfying his underground hip-hop fans and growing his crossover appeal. "Free music used to get on my nerves because I couldn't understand why I felt like artists were being robbed," he says, "and now it's completely reversed. Free music has changed my life. Because 'Trunk Muzik' was free, I'm making money. I want to keep giving people projects on the shelf, but I'll always leak a free song here and there."