It’s not unprecedented for a hip-hop artist to hit his stride after hitting his 30s, as anyone who’s listened to The Blueprint, Madvillainy or Disposable Arts can tell you. But breaking out is something different, and the 1978-born, D.C.-based yU has taken the unusual career path of establishing his bona fides at the same age other artists are looking for ways to reinvent themselves. Sophomore solo release The Earn follows his 2009 work with Diamond District and his debut Before Taxes in proving what a potent aesthetic that late-bloomer drive can create. On the mic, yU sounds confident and comfortable in his finely-honed style: He’s a classicist, informed by peak ’90s golden age indie rap, heavy on assonant internal rhymes and sociopolitical-meets-personal material that hits the sweet spot for vintage hip-hop preservationists.
But he still sounds hungry. As an MC, he’s infused The Earn with a current of grounded, hard-working focus, delivered with the frustrated yet resilient reflection of a recent downsizing casualty. And as an executive producer, he’s taken pains to gather some compatible beat creators — including frequent collaborator Slimkat78 — and thread their productions through his own take on the dusty yet warm Soulquarian aesthetic. The end result is an album that moves like a vivid, personality-establishing narrative, in the tradition of cinematic, integrated-interlude works from the likes of Madlib, J Dilla and Exile. Not a bad place for life to begin.