Yelawolf’s Gritty Performance


Pirates skulked up and down Bleecker Street on Saturday night—some laughing, some crying, some more wasted on spirits than others. It was the first day of what had apparently been christened Talk Like A Pirate Weekend, an expansion of the unofficial holiday generally celebrated on September 19.

Inside the storefront at 159, there were no swashbucklers to be seen, and the walls were bright with murals designed to give the space the feeling of a corner bodega, one that sold breakfast sandwiches while paying tribute to the history of Eminem’s label Shady Records. The space had been given over for the night to an iced-tea brand that had aligned itself with Eminem and Shady, transforming the room into part museum displaying talismans from the label’s past—a superhero outfit worn by the Detroit MC in a music video, an assortment of important footwear from years gone by—and part ad hoc venue where the label’s two newest signings, the absurdly virtuosic Alabama rapper Yelawolf and the all-underground-star collective Slaughterhouse, would perform for a select crowd of tastemakers and scene-documentarians.

Shows like this one—free but with conditions of entry, sponsored by brands looking to scoop up some street cred via “exclusive” happenings lubricated by comped booze, easily disseminated throughout the many music-media outlets that have sprung up to meticulously chronicle even the most banal details of artists’ days—have become the norm all over the increasingly panoptic world. But they’re especially common around New York City. Here, after all, is where so many of the people who have charged themselves with entering the culture industry have set up shop, and arrangements like this are beneficial for most of the parties involved. The nightlife chroniclers get free drinks and a feeling that they’re participating on a level that people who normally pay the cover charge at the door can only hear about in booming pop songs; the promoters and brands get coverage, which in these days of all Google Page Rank-inflating activities having a salutary effect on promotional campaigns can only be seen as a good thing.

Perhaps because the Bleecker Street space was branded as a bodega and not as, say, a VIP Ultralounge, the overall feel had a requisite amount of grit, with most of the décor for the main space made up of few deli fridges and racks of chips. The relatively unpolished nature of the space (complete with Porta-Potties) might have helped the chummy vibe along. The room felt looser than it might at your normal industry showcase, which fed well into Yelawolf’s low-bullshit persona. The MC (birth name Michael Wayne Atha) bounced around the record industry for more than a minute—in 2005, he even appeared on a Missy Elliott–branded reality show—and last year, he released Trunk Musik, a mixtape that showcased his speedy flow. Trunk Musik contained the menacing “Pop The Trunk,” a four-minute portrait of life among the meth labs and gun-blasted back roads of the South. It’s a haunting song with the bare minimum of musical accompaniment, and Yelawolf tosses off his threats in a casual yet steely way. It’s probably not too surprising that he has signed to the label run by Eminem—while the easy explanation for their joining forces might be that, well, he and Em are white, what truly connects them is the way they turn syllables inside-out in a way that seems like second nature.

On Saturday, the fleet-tongued MC’s set lasted nine songs, but it seemed like it was over in a blink. There were some technical glitches here and there, thanks to a sound system that could be described as “overzealous”; his rhymes, which are intricate both plot-wise and in terms of their verbal construction, were swallowed at certain points. This didn’t stop the crowd from eating up every verse he spat out; they rapped along and whooped when he doused himself with water and danced when he dropped a bit of Big Boi’s “You Ain’t No DJ,” where he cameos.

By the time he reached “Pop The Trunk,” he had doffed his shirt as well as the hat that kept his mohawk under wraps, and, covered in sweat, he ripped through the song, enunciating each description of the bleakness that inhabited not his imagination, but “where I live, ‘Bama.” It was strange, to be sure, to hear these sorts of threats in an environment sponsored by one of the world’s leading snack-and-sugary-beverage multinationals. But that made watching his prodigious talent no less thrilling.