News & Politics

Poor White Blight: How Rapper Yelawolf (and Eminem Before Him) Turns Hip-Hop's Eye to the Trailer Park

One of rap's brightest young stars interprets the mobile home—and its corresponding economic reality.

Photo Credit: Interscope Records

Trailer parks are more American than apple pie. (The English invented that.) The trailer park, populated by mobile homes, has its roots not in its mobility, but in its birthplace: Mobile, Alabama. At their outset, mobile homes helped a flood of GIs get affordable housing without enduring a lengthy construction time. Now, the mobile home and trailer parks have become another way to say poor.

The rapper Yelawolf, another product of Alabama, is lately adding to the American vernacular for destitution. Yelawolf is a lanky white rapper with an elevated verbal flow. He raps with vivid concision and celerity. He distinguished himself with an artistically accomplished 2010 that saw the release of an inspired mixtape, Trunk Muzik. In 2011, Yelawolf was on the cover of XXLand found himself signed to a major label, by Eminem himself.

Eminem is, of course, the controversial rapper who, after receiving Dr. Dre’s blessing, used his considerable wit, talent, and skill to sell millions of albums. The most compelling thing about Eminem, though, is that this is just one iteration of him; he’s also the deeply misogynistic homophobe who brought hip-hop’s radio-unfriendly politics into suburban homes; he’s also the best rapper alive; he’s also a symbol for poor white America, hailing from Detroit, one of America’s most deeply fucked up cities.

Eminem’s multi-faceted presentation has made him something greater than just a great rapper. Consider fellow Detroiters Insane Clown Posse. While no one would claim they’re great rappers, they have inspired a great following by trading on similar personal politics. This past year marked something of a critical mass for the group; they recorded a one-off single with Jack White, a certified Real Musician. Their annual music festival the Gathering of the Juggalos got written up in Deadspin and the highbrow leftist journal n+1. (I found this latter essay particularly ignominious.)

Unifying virtually all media coverage of the Gathering of the Juggalos is a faux-naive, wide-eyed gawking at the types and varieties of overweight, destitute, fucked up (on drugs and alcohol) white trash. Almost every commenter on the Gathering seems to miss the point that it’s not just Juggalos, but simply most of America that’s overweight, destitute and fucked up (on drugs and alcohol). Or, in the only slightly self-aware words of Kent Russell, "If you’re white in this country, it’s taken for granted that you’re part of We." The music of Eminem, Insane Clown Posse and Yelawolf is a huge middle finger to that notion.

A white rapper is an odd sort of creature. A brief survey of the media tells us that, culturally speaking, there’s no higher accomplishment in America than being a white entertainer. Unless, that is, you’re a rapper: there’s a line of embarrassment spanning generations from Marky Mark, Vanilla Ice and Snow to Tommy Hilfiger’s kid, Tom Hanks’ kid and Bob Dylan’s grandkid. Apparently, it’s still too soon for rap to have its "stealing from Robert Johnson" moment. White rappers start with one strike, but that perfectly suits an artist like Eminem. Even though his talent places him toward the top of the 1 percent, his politics and fan base are bringing up the rear.

Eminem has always been a populist rapper. That his best (and most popular) work centers on drug-fueled hedonism, homophobia, misogyny, and domestic violence says less about him (and even his fans) than it does about America itself. When he says on "The Real Slim Shady" that there are "a million of us just like me/who cuss like me; who just don't give a fuck like me/who dress like me; walk, talk and act like me," he probably lowballed his influence by a factor of 20.

From the beginning, Eminem has spun low-class yarns with wit and precision that owe more to, say, Mark Twain as they do to rap’s usual "raised in the projects, roaches and rats"-style hagiography. Even though he’s an undeniable superstar, Eminem still bangs the drum of the lower class. So, from last year’s Recovery (2010’s best-selling album) we have "W.T.P.," which stands for "white trash party." The song is just the latest in a long line of his songs that invoke hard-living, trailer park-dwelling folks.

This year, Eminem shows up on his protege Yelawolf’s album for just one verse, in which he calls himself "a trailer trash pioneer." Yelawolf raps about mobile homes and trailer parks a lot. Again, being from their home state, it’s sort of expected. To urbane ears, it’s never not distracting. More than any other dwelling (rivaled only, perhaps, by so-called McMansions), the mobile home is deeply evocative. When The Onion wanted to lampoon the recently departed Christopher Hitchens, the funniest incongruence they could come up with was to put him in a trailer park. It seems like Russell’s supposition that white Americans are part of some faceless elect is so ingrained as to be a reliable comedic foil.

There’s a part in Michael Lewis’ The Big Shortthat talks about mobile homes. The topic only comes up once, but it’s portentous.

Mobile homes were different from the wheel-less kind: Their value dropped, like cars', the moment they left the store. The mobile home buyer, unlike the ordinary home buyer, couldn't expect to refinance in two years and take money out. Why were they prepaying so fast? Vinny asked himself. "It made no sense to me. Then I saw that the reason the prepayments were so high is that they were involuntary." "Involuntary prepayment" sounds better than "default." Mobile home buyers were defaulting on their loans, their mobile homes were being repossessed, and the people who had lent them money were receiving fractions of the original loans. […] How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnant? You give them cheap loans.

It would seem from the telling that it wasn’t just McMansions and house-flippers that helped fuel the apocalyptic housing bubble. A rising tide of credit propped up the country’s poor, just long enough to get the only housing affordable enough — literally — taken out from under them. The numbers are there: the US Census Bureau shows 280,900 mobile homes sold in 2000, a number that would fall precipitously throughout the decade, bottoming out at 49,900 in 2010. The majority of mobile homes are sold in the American South.

One of Yelawolf’s stand-out songs from his first major label release is "That’s What We On Now," an inversion of your typical rap litany of riches. He wields his catchy, throwed-off flow to enumerate his lifestyle of the poor and ignored. His eye for detail is as pronounced as his gallows humor: "New shoes, thrifty Bill Cosby sweater./Drinking out the keg, no Greek frat letters"; "Flick the cherry, don't ash on my sofa./I’m on some new mobile home shit, come on over"; "Lemonade is made from lemon’s, ey?/Then I'ma make fine China from a paper plate."

The result is a funny — and photorealistic — portrait of trailer park living. In "Pop The Trunk," probably Yelawolf’s best song, he casts his uncomfortably sharp eye, and sharp tongue, to tell a few disconnected stories about being at the ass end of the 99 percent. The first verse starts, "Meth lab in the back and the crack smoke peels through the streets like an early morning fog." It tells the story of his fictive father catching an interloper trying to steal his drugs. Another verse talks of a woman-fueled rivalry. All the stories end in the shotgun smoke. The sparse beat and sparser details contribute to a larger world vision characterized by poverty and despair.

When Yelawolf signed to Shady Records, Eminem’s fiefdom within major label Interscope, it seemed obvious why: kinetic, fast-paced white rappers flock together. That’s a saying, right? But there’s a much deeper underlying unity that links the two rappers, and it goes deeper than skin color, an unreliable social signifier. Yelawolf is just one of many socially conscious rappers to lately rise from the south, but he is perhaps more populist in a sense; owing to his reference points — southern rock, classic cars, trailer parks — he’s better positioned as a "white trash" champion than, obviously, many other rappers. Eminem is one of the most popular musicians of the last decade, and there are a lot of thematic confluences between the two. But the trailer park is one congruence that immediately struck me, listening through Radioactive, Yelawolf’s Shady Records debut released at the end of November.

The album is something of a critical failure. (Its Metacritic score of 62 is technically positive, but it represents a harsh appraisal for such an anticipated album.) It has a strong first half, propping up a fairly rotten second side. The record is highest before the fall, though, and finds its apogee at "Throw It Up."

It is a tremendous song. So much of Yelawolf’s project involves touting regionality, and "Throw It Up" is no different. The Gangsta Boo (formerly of Three 6 Mafia) hook goes, "You ain’t from my city. You don't know about this," and as Yela, Boo and Eminem eviscerate the sparse beat, they each give a portrait of where they’re from, letting you know about "this.” Yelawolf’s verse sets the scene, "I already got two cars in the yard that don't run,/So why would I wanna break shit down for you?"

It’s a sentiment that’s familiar to anyone who’s had to explain (for maybe the thousandth time) how "privilege" works, or why it doesn’t have to be overtly racist/classist/sexist to, you know, be racist/classist/sexist. Yelawolf’s strength is that he turns resignation into defiance, a regional tradition. But instead of the usual signifiers of defiance — Southern Crosses and an antipathy to progressivism — Yelawolf takes up another southern tradition: telling stores of low-lifes and criminals. His songs have the air of illegality only in so far as being poor in America is virtually a crime: debtors' prison, police harassment, inadequate access to legal counsel — take your pick.

At his best, Yelawolf’s superlative technique is what grabs you, but he’s arguably the best lyricist in rap right now, too. It’s interesting to hear Eminem drop a Yela-esque verse on his sole appearance on the album.

The entire verse is about class war, but of a peculiar kind. Eminem turns nasty quickly. "They say I act like an asshole, when I pull up at the White Castle/And I ask for an application, throw it back in her face and/Tell the bitch I'm a rapper. Then I whack her/In the head with a Whopper that I bought from BK." This part is funny, seething equal parts scorn and irony, but it’s illustrative: White Castle’s beneath the rapper’s scorn, but he still bought a Whopper at Burger King. (Compare to the other greatest rapper alive’s classist scorn: "What she order? Fish fillet?")

As with all things class, it’s all about the minor differences. Burger King is better than White Castle, and later in the verse, Target’s opted for over K-Mart. Anything more aspirational than Target: "Prada? Not a chance." Eminem’s verse does have a more visceral honesty — one of his really exemplary songwriting qualities — than a lot of rap. He mocks Soulja Boy (who successfully started a rumor that he bought a $55 million plane earlier this year) and the entire mentality of pretending at wealth.

It’s interesting to compare Eminem, self-affirmed "trailer trash pioneer," with Kanye West and Jay-Z, who jointly released an album touting their material success. Watch The Throne was notable even within a genre full of albums touting one’s material success. Eminem, who enjoyed a hugely successful 2010, and earned about $14 million, rarely talks about it on his records. The way he constantly touts his low-class background makes you think he still eats fast food and shops at K-Mart. Maybe he does; I have no idea.

Even though I’ve written at length about why it’s good for people of color to be successful, and unabashed about their success, it seems just as valid to note that Yelawolf and Eminem give significantly more voice to the 99 percent than any peoples’ mic or drum circle. A tiny minority of students, protesters and journalists are now enjoying the sort of rough treatment that rural poor folk (and minorities) have dealt with for decades. Eminem’s verse certainly doesn’t try to overturn the financial system from outside. The interesting affect of it is that, even though he’s part of the 1 percent, Eminem channels populist rage from within its own framework.

Being wealthy is never, in the abstract, normatively bad. In fact, I’d wager most people dream of the good they could do with some money. But wealth is moving, inexorably maybe, in the other direction. And people know that, but it seems not to stick. TV, movies and music are still dominated by so-called upper-middle-class people. When someone is poor, they’re usually a person of color. Yelawolf’s music puts the lie to that obvious misrepresentation. If most people in America are solidly in the lower class, and most people in America are white, well, it stands to reason that most people in America are poor and white. Turning on the TV, you’d never know it though.

Growing up, I always considered my family middle-class. I was too young to understand that one Christmas when all the presents I got were from my mom’s friends and a few relatives. Being an acquisitive, selfish kid, and a stoned-all-the-time teen, the general poverty around me didn’t stick. It was fun going into Utica to smoke pot with a bunch of guys who were always in and out of jail. By the time I matriculated to an upper-tier liberal arts college, I took it as given that everyone had money. It wasn’t until, and this probably sounds ridiculous, I was embarrassingly old that I realized money doesn’t grow on trees. I was fresh out of graduate school, and student loan payments were beckoning. My parents had divorced, and I was slightly estranged from them.

When I had no place to be, and nothing to do, I returned home, to the area I lived in for twenty-something years, my whole life. I had a large amount of surprise — a mix of horror, fear, confusion — upon hearing that, after their divorce, my mother had bought a mobile home and moved into a trailer park. It finally occurred to me that my family wasn’t as middle-class as I'd thought. The loss of income presented by separating from a somewhat reliable earner was enough to lose the house. It was sold in the divorce anyway. Why did she move into a mobile home? It was affordable. The close-knit community gave her piece of mind against an occasionally abusive, volatile ex-husband. So I returned home, and lived in the guest room of my mother’s double-wide, among a sea of similar-looking homes. It was fine. It was great. It was normal. Sort of like when you get a car, and you notice everyone else driving that same model, I noticed there were trailer parks all over upstate New York. Four different ones within a five-mile radius. It was life, and being home felt good.

There are different levels to being poor. Being poor and a person of color is one of them. Being poor and living in the city is another, and poor and living in a trailer is another. They overlap, exclude and present in endlessly fluid ways because that’s the historical thrust of America today. As much as I love artists like David Wallace or Kanye West, their aesthetic pleasures are essentially unreal. A rapper like Yelawolf could bring an objective correlate to an intellectual understanding of poverty many Americans seem to have. But like Friday Night Lights or Eminem’s music, its outsized depictions may not obtain for everyone, instead offering yet another unreal-seeming artistic representation of millions of Americans’ lives. It is not, though, and if you listen to them, millions of now-silent people will tell you so.

B Michael Payne is a part-time writer in New York City, a columnist for Fuse, and blogs at B Michael Tumblr.
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