Watch the Tone: yU is critical of one-percenter hip-hop.
Watch the Tone: yU is critical of one-percenter hip-hop.

There’s nothing flashy about yU. “I could kill a show rockin’ clothes from Sears,” the D.C. rapper once proclaimed. If you catch him before one of his performances, he’s usually somewhere in the crowd, nodding quietly. And he’s an understated presence in interviews, frequently deferring to fellow Diamond District members Oddisee and X.O. But yU—born Michael Willingham Jr.—probably wants it this way; it’s no wonder he calls himself “the humble king,” an M.C. who can maneuver through numerous rap circles without overwhelming them. Strangely, this persona has helped make yU one of the area’s most visible rappers, and his excellent sophomore solo album, The EARN, offers further evidence why.

The record has little to do with yU’s Diamond District work, which is dominated by Oddisee’s moody boom-bap concoctions. Musically, The EARN occupies the same breezy vein as yU’s 2010 debut, Before Taxes, which was characterized by confessional lyrics, realistic themes, and restless, sonic-scientist production. It’s telling that the rapper occasionally steps aside for the music—which includes his own production, as well as beats from 00Genesis, Kokayi, SlimKat, and others—allowing The EARN’s stomping, funky hazes and experiments in electro-soul to swell to the forefront.

In some places, he punctuates his narrative of personal unrest and perseverance with oddball movie snippets. Audio snapshots make up half of the album’s intro, and a scene from the X-rated 1973 animated film Heavy Traffic sets up the nostalgic mood of “Time Machine,” on which yU cycles through family photos to explore his upbringing in Suitland, Md.

Just as yU eschews braggadocio, he’s critical of another overdone hip-hop motif: money. “Even if you wiped yo’ ass wit it, somebody still want it,” he rhymes on the methodical “Money (the Ahh Yeah).” But he doesn’t belabor the finger-wagging. Elsewhere, yU offers an aggressive meditation on stress on “If U Down” and gets lyrically lyrical on “First,” an album highlight centered on an atmospheric loop and stuttering percussion.

In part, The EARN is about self-actualization. Over the album’s run, yU is able to extract depth and tension from his stance as a low-key individual comfortable with peaceful surroundings. Even yU’s most excessive productions are disarmingly unaspirational. “Better Man” is satisfyingly overwhelming in its lushness: Over a moaning soul chorus, muted horns, and one whirlwind of a harp sample, yU raps, “I took what I had, then expand. Meaning I stretched it. Planned, then I invested.” Talk about a humble brag.