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Yelawolf on the 'Calculated Risk' of His New Album, Respect for Eminem and Jail Inspiring Him

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Ryan Smith

In the three years since Yelawolf released his 2011 debut album, Radioactive, the Alabama-born rapper has released a handful of mixtapes as well as a collaborative side project with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, Psycho White. And while his sophomore studio album has been long-rumored, until recently it seemed like nothing more than chatter.

However, as he explains in a new interview with Billboard, the delay between full-length albums was solely thanks to his relentless dedication to getting his second LP right: Love Story, due April 21, finds the rapper expanding his musical boundaries in inventive new ways, embracing his lifelong love of Southern rock and country, all the while dashed with his signature Bayou hip-hop flair.

Yelawolf & Eminem Team Up for 'Best Friend': Listen

Wolf is the first to admit that Radioactive was an over-thought and undercooked project ("I was anybody's dog on that album. I was just there to do it: 'I'm in!'" he explains), which made him all the more determined to stick to his outside-the-box vision for Love Story. With the full support of Shady Records boss Eminem, the rapper born Wayne Atha took more than a year writing, recording and linking up with trusted producers to cook up his new LP. "This is the album that I fought for the freedom to do," he says of Love Story. 

Listening to the back porch-flavored soundscapes of "Till It's Gone," "American You" and the Eminem-featuring "Best Friend," his vision comes into focus. When he hopped on the line on a recent afternoon, Yelawolf was unrestricted and transparent, riffing on his take-no-prisoners approach to Love Story, his respect for Andre 3000 and Kid Rock, and why his album didn’t start to make sense until he went to jail.

How are you feeling right now? Love Story is a project you've been working on for quite some time and it's finally set to drop.

Every song that has come out has been really, really exciting for me. I'm eager for people to hear them. And the reaction to the songs has been great too. It's a risk. It's always a risk to do new things. It's always challenging and you don't know what's going to come of it. You never know what the reaction is truly gonna be. But the reaction to "Till It's Gone" was good. And then "Whiskey In a Bottle." And now "American You" and "Best Friend." So the sequence of the songs, man, has really got me excited. People hearing "American You" and backing it, backing where I’m going, really backing what I’m bringing back… the sound and the style has been something I've been sitting on for a long time.

When did you decide you were going to take these musical risks for the album?

Music tends to not allow people to grow up. It's unfortunate for some artists that they get stuck in this kind of trap to remain within the same boundary of style, you know? They'll go off and they'll play a certain kind of music or they’ll go home and when they're not playing their own music they’re infatuated with this other style of music and it’s something they really wish they could do or be a part of, but they think their fans will turn on them. So this has kind of been like a calculated risk. Because throughout my career, so far I've planted seeds of where I was going. Even if it was a strictly hip-hop to straight-rap verse I've always sprinkled in the idea --  maybe it might have been a Johnny Cash or when I was onstage with Big Boi at the BET Awards wearing a Hank Williams shirt -- that someday I would like to go there.

I think more artists need to take chances like this.

The biggest inspiration for that, not particularly for their music but the way they went about their careers: Andre 3000 and Kid Rock.

I had a feeling you'd say Kid Rock.

Yeah. They're obviously from totally different worlds but they've showed the same kind of progression in their own way. That freedom is something that I always wanted. I fought for it, really got focused on this album and tried my hardest to make it make sense and make good out of the best of any kind of music that I’m attempting to do. I tried to make it count.

You've made reference to the fact that Radioactive wasn't your best showing. I get the sense you feel this album is a much more a proper statement of who you are as an artist.

Around the time of Radioactive, there were ideas floating around the camp, not even particularly at all with Marshall [Mathers] and I, but ideas outside of the camp. The music business can get hairy, you know? So there were ideas about where I should be going and not really considering where I personally thought I should be going. I was anybody's dog on that album. I was just there to do it; "I'm in!" That's the double-edged sword of hip-hop and being an MC: You can apply a rap verse to any music. So if you're not careful it can be very confusing or it may seem like a project doesn't have a specific direction. On that album there were just a few attempts with maybe the wrong production or maybe the wrong hook. Because it's very easy to say "Insert Rapper Here." You've got the track, you've got the hook, just put verses on it. It's a very microwaved style of making music. It’s not how I naturally work. Some songs do come fast but usually I'm very focused on a conceptual project. I think we just missed the mark a few times with a few songs that took the concept from what that album could have been. I'm very proud of that album and there are songs on that album that I’ll perform for the rest of my career.

So how was Love Story different?

It was an opportunity to say, 'Alright, we're closing the doors this time. The only people invited are the producers that we personally invite and then Eminem.' He has the only feature on the album. There's no random guest producers. There's no other vocal appearances other than the McCrary Sisters, the backup singers on "Devil In My Veins." They toured with Bob Dylan and sang with Johnny Cash. They're legendary.

I hear you laid it out there for guys like Jimmy Iovine, Eminem and Paul Rosenberg and said, "Take it or leave it. This is the album I'm making."

That's exactly what happened. It was totally a trust thing. Marshall and Paul were like, "Hey man, go do what the fuck you wanna do. When you're done give us a call and then we'll bring you up to Detroit and we’ll wrap it up and that’s it." Obviously it had to be quality and it had to be of a certain par. It took me five months to make the first song. That’s how serious we were. There were about 40 ideas before I had an idea that I felt was good enough to be on this album. It was "Outer Space," the opening song. We had been working on it for months. I went to jail the night before I wrote for just getting rowdy. I never went to sleep. I left jail that morning, got a taxi to the studio, fell asleep on the couch, woke up, hit the space bar, and "Outer Space" was the track [I] loaded up on to the computer. [Producer] Will Power had worked on it while I was in jail [Laughs]. And then I came and recorded it and that was it. Then things started to happen easier creatively. It was not at all rushed and it wasn't contrived. There was not one single idea on Love Story where we walked into the studio and were like, "Man, we need a single."

Are there any other tracks in particular on the album that really signaled you were on the right track?

"American You." Last minute, [producer] Malay came out to Nashville and man, we hadn't had the time to work and get in the studio for a long time. So after going back and re-touching up some earlier ideas and making them right for the album he played that riff for "American You." And I loved it. It's one of those songs that came really quick. I wrote it probably in 20-30 minutes maybe and then recorded it. It was like, "This is what this album needs." It was almost like, "Is this a song for the album after Love Story?" But we were just like, 'Fuck it, man! Let's go with all this shit. Let's just be open and do it all." And when Marshall was excited about "American You," man, it was like, if they were down for this shit... oh man.

I get the feeling this is the album you've always wanted to make.

It's the album that I fought for the freedom to do. I've definitely always wanted to do this. I'm not at all upset though. Hip-hop and being an MC obviously has taken me all the way to Shady Records and has done great for me. So I'm excited that there is this whole other base of ideas that I just unlocked. There's a lot to follow that.

You seem excited to take these songs on the road.

That's what I do. I make an album and I tour. There's no other real connection then when you see someone live. For me, personally, that's what I look forward to. We're just gonna rock, man.

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