Mello Music Group, 2010
In 2009, a mega album was released to the hip-hop world, albeit only certain hip-hop heads were exposed to it. The album was called In The Ruff by Diamond District, a supergroup of sorts led by producer mastermind Oddisee, Uptown XO and yU. At the time, In The Ruff was a sight for sore eyes, an album that literally rang and rattled with grimey East Coast construct and sounded like the offspring of something by Mobb Deep or Wu-Tang Clan. Oddisee’s samples shuttered with harrowing feels and gritty breaks, and Uptown XO and yU provided unrelenting flow greased in political and social consciousness. Less than a year later, yU came out with Before Taxes, a solo record that felt like both a follow-up and expansion of the ever-so credulous In The Ruff.
If anything, Before Taxes feels like a Diamond District follow-up merely because of Oddisee’s guest-spots and some recurring themes. Besides that, yU creates his own identity and form with this record, subjecting himself to new sound, a new formula and a new attitude.
yU’s ability as a lyricist is cunning, constantly sustaining an effortless attack with variation and flow. He’s serious, but he mixes it with a witty and cutting consciousness that is sharper than an MC trapped within the boundaries of a certain rhyme scheme. With this constant change and rotation in lyrical setup, yU stands out and clears all traces of dullness from the album’s itinerary. yU’s smack on “The Up & Up” is a rough-around-the-edges lyrical onslaught, that contends with any battle rap inside or outside of Washington D.C. (“My brain is the humble king crown made of copper all/ You the best not for long sleep until your spot is gone”), and “Native” bears down on serious issues concerning the dismemberment of indigenous peoples and colonization as a whole while retaining that certain storytelling ability yU travels with (“And in the middle of the pow wow we all heard a loud sound/ Found ourselves ambushed they shot one of ours down”). With a song like “Native,” yU retains his conscious flow and storytelling from Diamond District and adds his own individual discourse. Likewise, on “Thought About It,” yU reflects on society as a whole and its intentions in his own take (“Beginning to win now, hate comes around/ When you get a lil bit, niggaz teeth tend to grit”).
Before Taxes makes us think in a different type of way. It challenges us to focus on the artist’s message and ability to adjust while also presenting unique forks in the road along the way. Much like In The Ruff was in 2009, yU’s 2010 solo presentation achieves the same but with perhaps greater success: it’s more stylistic, unique and somewhat fresher. Either way you decide, you can’t pass up Before Taxes, a record with enough individuality to stand alone for years to come.
From 2010, yU’s Before Taxes has everything you could want from a hip-hop record. When it comes down to a solo album, what separates a good record from a great one is how well we get to know the MC. On Before Taxes, yU allows us into his world. His words are the guide as he takes us on a virtual tour of where he is from. Additionally, yU reveals his philosophy on life based on lived experience. The allure of this record is the artistry of yU’s rhymes and the way he is able to blend with each beat. Hailing from D.C., yU is an MC that is observant and wise beyond his years. These things important to the art of being an MC.
There is a certain sensitive slickness that comes with yU’s delivery. His raps aren’t necessarily delivered from a hyper-political point of view. Instead, he questions the systems and structures of power within our society in much more subtle ways. On “Thought About It” he begins the second verse about an aspiring MC that is trying to break into the game. It starts out in a similar style to that of “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick and later on, Black Star. I assumed that yU was going to tell the familiar story of an eager MC that gets caught up in the materialism and quick money schemes that can exist within hip-hop culture. Instead yU comes with this: “My man had a plan to get play/ On the radio hard like a hundred times a day/ Woulda take a lot hard work and a lot of networkin’/ Started from the bottom up just like a rebirth again.”
If you didn’t catch it, yU just flipped the entire script on the stereotype that young MCs that are just in it for the fame and aren’t willing to work hard at their craft.
This happens again on the Oddisee produced track, “Lunchin.” The hook goes like this: “A lot of niggas wanna risk they life for what?/ Just for that broad you want? Nigga, you a chump!/ Stickin’ your chest out to prove somethin/ Do somethin.”
Once again, we see how yU challenges to be more than what society as a whole or our personal communities may expect of us. Also, keep an ear open to the well placed sample from Killer Of Sheep, one the best films of all time by Charles Burnett.
With his music, yU demands that we respect ourselves and do things for the good of society. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything but he also doesn’t despair and bemoan the struggles and inequities in life. Instead, yU puts us in a position to change things for the better and work at becoming better, more conscious human beings that will have a positive impact on our respective communities.