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yU is best known as a rapper and producer, but that’s far too limiting. He’s a soul musician of the highest order, quietly making the same type of meticulous art as Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, both of whom used vivid imagery and raw emotion to hone an iconic allure. In fact, to call yU a rapper is almost a disservice—sure, he’s an incredibly gifted lyricist, but he’s used that foundation to tap into something beyond the confines of nostalgic, golden-era hip-hop. yU’s spirit is cloaked in humility and rich with the artistic resonance of years gone by. He feels things deeply in song, and listeners feel those emotions instantly, even if the man himself is steadfast and reserved.
Just listen to “P.O.T. Act III,” a meditative standout from yU and SlimKat78’s collaborative album, People of Today. Above what sounds like a Marvin Gaye falsetto, yU (aka Michael Willingham, Jr.) denounces modern-day apathy: “Dead can’t die and the living can’t live,” groans the Deanwood MC, his voice teeming with exasperation. “Fun when I was young was cartwheels in the street, now these young’ns 13, buying condoms every week.” The song offers a blunt assessment of moral decay; its mix of straight talk and technical prowess make it one of the best songs yU has ever written. Then there’s “Post-Develop,” which expounds on the same social theme, but yU’s more meditative this time: “We used to greet the folks you meet, now we don’t say shit,” he muses over djembe drums. “Look at our faces, expressions blankin’/Emotionless, we don’t co-exist, attitude is stankin’.”
The album—produced by yU’s longtime collaborator SlimKat78—represents everything a rap record should be: a magnum opus of carefully crafted narratives relating to real people. At times, yU points a critical finger; elsewhere, he puts himself in others’ shoes, transforming into his characters and walking the same tumultuous roads. On “Tryin’,” yU unpacks two cliffhanging tales: An athletic classmate suffers a hand injury during a school fight, a basketball scholarship in flux. On the second verse, a man rushes his pregnant companion to the hospital as cops give chase: Do they make it in time? This tale shows off yU’s rich storytelling and SlimKat78’s fluid production work—each line, each note draws you closer to the conclusion without jumping the rails.
People of Today takes time to reach its destination, which is typical of yU’s deliberate creative approach. “Sacrilegious,” one of the album’s three worthy centerpieces, riffs on the perils of a philandering preacher, using a simmering organ and gospel-infused stomp to detail how one man’s misgivings can corrupt a congregation. On “U Know How It Iz,” yU implores his listeners to be still for a second: Life is a hectic maze of social media updates and reality TV shows, he says, which intensifies our collective need for instant gratification. But true success takes time, and that’s the only way to fully appreciate it. “To have it automatic leaves less to imagine,” he advises on the piano-driven tune.
That yeoman’s approach drove yU’s exceptional 2011 album, the EARN, which explored the trappings of monetary excess through a middle-class lens. There, he spoke of the need to rake in more cash while denying servitude to it. yU briefly addresses those financial struggles on the People of Today track “Without A Clue,” using his own setbacks to validate his lesson: “How does it feel to have to stretch a five-dollar bill? Whatchu know about moving house to house to house and sleeping on the couch?” yU doesn’t offer the line to gain sympathy; he accepts where he’s been and appreciates what he has now, no matter how meager by rap’s bloated standards.
People of Today isn’t flawless, of course. “Gentlest Ones,” a quick track after “Sacrilegious,” feels too contentious amid the LP’s wistful procession. It’s also a rough transition from “Sacrilegious” to “P.O.T. Act III,” the album’s best and most soulful tracks. The misstep has little bearing on the complete recording, though—yU and SlimKat78 have created a remarkable album that’s one of the year’s best, not just in the D.C. area, but on the national scene. People of Today offers a nuanced depiction of the conflicts, triumphs, and frustrations of the black experience. Instead of wallowing in despair, yU and SlimKat remain fixated on the silver lining and want you to do the same. People of Today is a record you feel in your depths. It’s soul music, after all.