The up-and-coming rapper focuses on rural poverty, which is rarely seen or discussed in hip-hop
Last night XXL presented its fourth annual Freshman Class concert at BB King Blues Club in Times Square. The show is timed to coincide with the popular Freshman Class issue of the magazine, which features "a preview of Hip-Hop's most promising beats, rhymes, artists, labels, and more." Past inductees have included Wiz Khalifa, Lupe Fiasco, Asher Roth, and Kid Cudi--all artists who went on to enjoy prominent real estate on my teenage sister's Facebook page, if that is any indication of general acclaim.
Listen to music from XXL's Freshmen Classes
The qualifications to make the Freshman Class vary--many of the rappers featured this year have already had scores of popular mixtapes, solo records, and appearances on tracks with the likes of Kanye West and Lil' Wayne--but it is a requirement that none have had a major label release. Because of this notion that the magazine is presenting the next big stars, the atmosphere in the club felt like an amped-up, marijuana-saturated talent show. People held up Blackberries and Flip cameras, recording each act. Next to me a young woman posed for a photo with a statuesque beauty clutching a leopard skin bag.
"Who is that?" I asked the girl as she walked away, camera proudly in hand.
"She was on America's Next Top Model," she told me.
"Oh I don't know. A while back."
It was these minor brushes with fame that kept the audience excited throughout the four-hour-long show. Fifteen-year-old Diggy Simmons brought his father on stage. It could have been a cutesy, aw shucks moment if his father were not DJ Run, one of the founding members of Run DMC. CyHi the Prynce was accompanied by Kanye West's immensely talented DJ A-Trak, and perhaps most impressively, a violinist.
But it was clear that despite the Top Models and rappers-cum-reality stars that the big draw of the night was the extremely oddball, extremely authentic, and extremely marketable break-out star, Yelawolf. Part white, part Cherokee, Yelawolf (given name: Michael Atha) is from Alabama and charts a dirt-poor part of the South rarely seen or discussed in hip-hop. He rhymes about meth labs and rednecks but he does so over big, fat Southern beats with a lot of bass and with a virtuosity that has lent him comparisons to that other great, white rapper, Eminem. In fact, he recently signed to Eminem's Shady Records and will soon release his major label debut.
It is the strength of his Trunk Muzic 0-60 EP, released in November of 2010, that has garnered much of the attention so far. On Tuesday night, as he came out to join Big K.R.I.T.'s set on "Hometown Hero," the audience went bonkers. Clad in a gray hoodie, brown flannel shirt, and red sweatpants, Yela joined his "country cousin" to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Considering that it was 11:45 PM on a Tuesday and the people in the audience had been through ten set changes, this was no small feat. As he took over the stage for his solo performance he asked with a knowing smile, "You Ready to Pop the Trunk? I think we'll fully do that."