Alabama rapper Yelawolf’s video for Pop The Trunk sees Yela as a semi-conscious narrator, one who stands in the periphery of general misery but still rubs shoulders with its anti-heroes, having just enough of his body in the muck that denial of sympathy would be denial of himself as well. The video is a literal, potent rendition of the lyrics, taking us through two escalating confrontations in which the denouement is the titular trunk popped for a shotgun. Anchoring the whole thing is a Yela “unglued in time,” snapping into himself at the scene of both tragedies and breaking fourth wall with an agitated articulation that suggests regardless of the time passed, it’s a youth still being processed.
The first flashback is to the family farm, where younger Yela bears witness to the destabilization caused by running a drug operation, exacerbated by the umbrella of a family unit, where property rights are guarded by default for security reasons instead of ideological ones. Before getting to specifics he sets up the atmosphere by first spiralling out into a bird’s eye panoptic view, “meth lab in the back and the crack smoke peels through the streets like an early morning fog.” Implied is the lack of uniqueness in the area to his family’s operation before we’re swooped back in to “mama’s in the slaughterhouse with the hatchet, helping dad make chopped early morning hog,” as a tight family, like property rights, is also guarded for security. The operation’s a desperate one, but so’s any attempt to steal from it, which brings us to the crux: Yela waking up to his father taking a kid out for going after an “elbow.” Yela stands next to his father and his face kinda just takes in what it senses to be a dead-end future, caught between sympathetic understanding and the inconvenient reality of “look what you got us into.”
If it sounds gimmicky, if it sounds like Yelawolf is wearing faux-red on his neck for the shlocky allure of novelty, consider the gravity of the song and how its portrayal is from within the debris, in unanimity, not the distant remove of Attenborough-style anthropology. It’s apparent both in how Yela hails from the town the video was shot in and from his ability to render its jarring juxtapositions (like the aforementioned family unit and its two-pronged reason for sticking together) without looking like a cross between the half-baked reductiveness of an SNL sketch and the bourgie derision of Deliverance.
It’s partly why Yelawolf is a tailspin for established notions of race and class. He’s white, skateboards, looks punk, and hails from Alabama, just not the suburbs you’d associate with that list of traits. As he put it in an XXL interview, “big trucks, Confederate flags, Chevys, dope boys, projects, trailer parks, mud tires, deer heads, camouflage, rednecks, poor people, lakes, rivers, trees…” These are all mentioned casually in the context of influences, not necessarily in the “product of my environment” sense, but yeah, that’s where he grew up, those people/qualities are part of his background, and he’s of them/it.
Which brings us to the second flashback showing the same bygone Yela hanging out with his crew, predominantly black except for him, when a long-stewing beef over who fucked whose girl wraps up in a gas station with a shotgun. The build-up doesn’t play like a build-up. There’s a blase, lived-in sense of routine to everyone’s expressions. The veneer is cracked, though, by an escalation of commitment in which Yelawolf gets pulled into the crime as a watch holder. Knowing anticipation is transmuted into what looks like a trance. Yet when everyone scrams he momentarily lags before booking it to check the victim’s pulse, assessing reality in one of those split seconds that feel like a lucid snapshot. There’s an overlapping violence between the two stories which supersedes the distinct racial characteristics of the respective parts, one that seems to confirm Hobbes’s state of nature but not by giving into it, only by having both racial categories grouped in and constricted by its inconvenient manifestations. Yela just picks up the pieces and lays them out for us to pore over.
Instead of apologetics or ladder-climbing dissociation, he stays grounded and puts the pieces together, too, as they’re for his benefit as much as ours. What he shares with us is something generally taken for granted, mainly, the intersection between races in the lower class on a social and cultural level. Harmony Korine kinda superficially went for it back in 1997’s Gummo, pontificating that “America is all about this recycling, this interpretation of pop. I want you to see these kids wearing Bone Thugs & Harmony t-shirts and Metallica hats – this almost schizophrenic identification with popular imagery.”
Yelawolf is getting at something a little more complicated, giving us insight as to why or how these disparate genres get pulled together where he’s from. It’s not necessarily post-racial but an overlap afforded by binding interests and agents. As he points out in “I Wish,” it’s not Lynyrd Skynyrd that’s gonna tell kids in Yela’s shoes about why dad’s moving bricks, it’s Beanie Sigel. With meth, crack, makeshift labs in kitchens, deals in streetcorners and trailer parks, that kind of poison has far-reaching circulation as the unfortunate circumstances that draw people into its distribution scheme are top down with the racial component standing alongside a class one.
Thus, it doesn’t come about via the desired utopianism found in watery-eyed speeches of yore, there’s no self-congratulatory reception for integration. Here it’s the byproduct of structural inequality that lets poor folk navigate the squalor of shitty infrastructure and neglected neighborhoods, where exactly what’s criminalized is allowed to fester long enough in makeshift labs to create a perpetually recyclable prison population; where scarce resources, a barely existent labor market, and a stigma that works like a glass ceiling puts out homes already broken before getting to the stage of being lived-in.
The never-ending self-flagellation that occurs at places like Stuff White People Like is on account of a classist, narrow definition of whiteness that mainly applies to a particular subset in-culture entangled twenty-somethings. Possibly the reason no post has been written on SWPL about Harmony Korine is that his poor white roots would have frustrated the perpetual baiting of white privilege, something that contributes to Gummo’s depressingly unfortunate reputation as a disturbing freakshow. Even though Korine’s intention was a deromanticized portrait of white poverty, warts and all, where no star would anchor the proceedings up until some actual documentation shattered the palatable illusion, he was also casting friends he grew up with, shooting in the Nashville town he grew up in, so neglected that it easily passed off as a set for the intended location of Xenia, Ohio that was ripped apart by a tornado. Xenia, though, was rebuilt, suggesting it’ll take a tornado to knock off denizens from some prime real estate before any kind of reconstruction can take place.
Tortured cats aside, both calls of exploitation and indecency were/are an affront to the mostly plucked-from-their-life “actors.” When Gummo gets in your face it’s not to satisfy fetishistic curiosity or give an exotic window into another world, but to force you to confront something usually relegated to punchlines about the Jerry Springer show. On the same note, Pop the Trunk’s video has the father, mother, friend, and their weapons get close-ups, but they’re not glamour shots for them, they’re hooks to bait us, sink us, ask us to judge them and guilt us for doing so because we can’t possibly process in three minutes something he still can’t get over having lived.
When the story turns back to the first shooting and Yela comes out the house, walking towards us with a shovel we see he’s accepted it by default. He’s developed a defensive stance, he’s been on the recieving end of the convenience with which southern dirt poor idiosyncracies are stereotyped instead of dealt with. There’s an unflinchingly honest portrait here that engages commonly held assumptions about the poor, white and black together, not by sanitizing anything or offering an unwavering acknowledgement of erring inferiority but instead by giving context, flesh, blood, backbone and a reason for existence. As Yela puts it, “this isn’t a figment of my imagination, this is where I live.” As long as that’s true, his obsessively detailed documentation is going to be worth paying attention to.
XXL’s interview with Yelawolf, “Creepin’ on a Come Up” , Yelawolf’s Redneck Manifesto at No Trivia, Yelawolf’s free mixtape that sounds like a full blooded album Trunk Muzik, Interview with Harmony Korine