“Damn, I thought Montreal was off the chain. You motherfuckers live as fuck!” said 32-year-old, Alabama-born rapper Yelawolf, shortly after taking the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre on Saturday night.
Heavily tattooed and clad in a black leather jacket, matching toque and white sunglasses, Yelawolf surveyed the raucous crowd that was every bit as eclectic as his music. The motley collection of frat boys, sneakerheads, skate punks, crust punks, metal dudes, musclebound roid-monkeys, suburban teenage girls and Juggalos that had been chanting his name intermittently for 30 minutes before he took the stage, now gazed at the Gadsden, Alabama native, their rabid cheering somewhere between extreme adoration and deranged excitement.
Yela took advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm by immediately ripping through “Daddy’s Lambo,” and “Trunk Muzik,” two trunk-rattling hits off his Interscope-released EP Trunk Muzik 0-60.
“I finally made it back to Canada, motherfuckers!” he said, alluding to the stage-dive-gone-wrong that landed him in the hospital with a ruptured spleen and forced him to reschedule a string of Canadian dates back in March. After shouting out his label-head Eminem and Shady Records, Yela launched into “No Hands,” a song prominently featured in the marketing for Ubisoft’s Driver: San Francisco, sending the sold-out crowd into a frenzy complete with pseudo-moshing, screaming, and crowd-surfing.
This reaction was in stark contrast to Yelawolf’s last performance in Toronto, back in September 2010 at the Sound Academy, where he served as the opener for Wiz Khalifa’s Waken Baken tour. There Yela performed with trademark intensity to a screwfaced, Khalifa-crazed group of teenagers, most of whom were restlessly counting down the minutes until Khalifa took the stage. That night Yela put on a solid performance, never losing his confidence in the face of the crowd’s apathy. On Saturday night, he returned with the same vigor and received it back in spades, creating a heated and electric atmosphere in the Phoenix.
Yela slowed things down to perform his verse from “Get Away,” the second track off his debut album on Shady Records, Radioactive. The change in pace provided the perfect contrast for Yelawolf to display his technical proficiency, quickly following up with his tongue-twisting, show-stealing the 2012 BET Cypher. Yela effortlessly transitioned into double and triple-time flows without missing a beat, an impressive feat considering how many rappers today seem content to perform shows as glorified karaoke artists, barely keeping up with their tracking vocals blaring over the speakers.
Yelawolf continued his workman-like efforts with steadied precision, performing amped-up renditions of “Hard White (Up In This Club),” and “I Wish,” only briefly stopping to introduce songs and banter with the crowd. Taking a break from his series of party-rockers and Southern rap anthems, Yela issued a requisite “where my ladies at?” call. This led into a trio of relationship songs, his excellent country rap ballad, “Love is Not Enough,” off Trunk Muzik: 0-60 and “The Hardest Love Song in the World” and “Animal,” two Top-40 seeking potential singles off Radioactive. On the album, “Hardest Love Song” and “Animal” can come off clumsy or maudlin, but both songs’ big, radio-ready hooks resonated in the Phoenix thanks to Yelawolf’s earnest showmanship and a contingent of loyal fans who gave “Animal” one of the night’s biggest reactions.
Yelawolf’s ability to sell these songs live shouldn’t be a surprise. As an MC, he has always been a synthesis of disparate influences – Mystikal’s frenetic Southern speed rapping; the Beastie Boys devil-may-care rockstar attitude; Johnny Cash’s emotional directness; and in front of a Toronto crowd just as diverse, he couldn’t have been more at home. This connection was most apparent when Yelawolf’s DJ ran-through an eclectic medley of tracks from some of Yela’s favorite artists, mixing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” into Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-The-Hood,” and that into Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” (which he dedicated to a group of rockers moshing in the middle of rowdy and sweaty crowd, stating, “That’s for these motherfuckers right here!”) leading Yela to take a break from MCing, put one foot on the front of the stage, and head-bang with the reckless abandon of a metalhead at Edgefest.
It’s moments like these where Yelawolf’s wide-ranging appeal is most clear – he’s an outsized extension of his diverse fan-base, authentically representing different elements of skate culture, metal, country music, and hip-hop. Yela performed over 230 shows last year, and it shows in his polished, 90-minute show, consisting solely of Yela and his tour DJ. He owned the crowd from the moment he walked onto the stage, and they followed his every move with rapt attention, as he changed tempos and pace with the swiftness of a seasoned road warrior.
“Toronto definitely is the loudest motherfucking city on this tour,” Yelawolf said, with a wry smirk, near the end of his set. Even though audiences are conditioned to accept conveniently disingenuous comments like this, it’s safe to say that many in the crowd on Saturday night believed him – no outside confirmation necessary.