Fresh off the critically-acclaimed In The Ruff debut by his Diamond District click, yU wonders off into solo territory with Before Taxes. Impressively, he doesn’t mimic the group's formula or sound, but works hard to create his own identity. It's been said that the Diamond District collective delivered Washington DC an overdue nationally-talked about project, Before Taxes is yU’s chance to put himself squarely in the middle of all the commotion.
The album begins with cleverly created introduction. A politician is sampled discussing the topic of taxes with yU breaking in with a verse that sets the tone for the remainder of the album. From the jump, yU is a sharp lyricist, both in thought and in craft. Where many emcees fall into the trap of predictable rhyme schemes, yU throws in a well-placed word or phrase that really highlights his lyrical ability. Few emcees can actually rap the phrase "cools beans" and get away it, but yU not only does it, but makes it sound fresh. It’s his ability to write solid lyrics and be honest at the same time that makes a perhaps simple line like “Ain’t nothing changed but the facial hair” so endearing.
The production is solid throughout. yU himself is credited as a producer on half of the album's 16 tracks. He has a good musical understanding, which is very evident in the instrumental track “MmHmm,” “Corners” and “Fine.” Alongside yU, Kev Brown, Bilal, Oddisee, and Slimkat78 handle the rest of the production. The sound of the album is fluid. It was clear that yU went after producers who had a similar sound to his own work, and that focus pays off. Throughout Before Taxes, each producer has interesting and fresh approach on the use of bass. At times bass merely complements the driving drums, and other times it is used as an instrument of itself. As the culture continues to be influenced by the Euro-club scene, yU’s Before Taxes defies convention while still being sonically relevant. Bass never overwhelms the listener; it is used very precisely in a post-bop Jazz manner.
“Native” is a standout track on the project. The track begins with a Dave Chappelle clip, but the content itself is immensely serious. yU manages to pull off a moment of cultural awareness without ever sounding preachy. The result is similar to Brother Ali’s “The Travelers,” and the listener is treated with great work. Lyrics like "I sing a song of truth, courage, and respect / Jumping out there like Geronimo, we stand up for that / And our plan of attack is straight Cherokee strategy / You can kill me, but you cannot kill my legacy” are rather incredible. “Breakdown” features the ever dope Bilal who also handles the songs production. Here yU shines with might be his best lyrics, which even do more to highlight the phenomenal production.
The struggles of the album are minimal. The aforementioned production should be lauded for its effort, but it does come with its share of shortcomings. At times, the experimental use of bass clash with the higher pitched drums. A few dulled moments aside, yU approaches the cusp of timeless debut territory heard in Blu, Fashawn and Kid Cudi. The album has its share of above-average produced tracks, but that truly captivating single may yet to be heard. Whereas new classers J. Cole and B.o.B. are often championed for their great self-production, yU brings forth good-but-not always-great board work.
Before Taxes isn’t a new concept. Plenty of emcees have attempted to create an album that attempted to recall an era driven by love for the art. Several have attempted to rebel against a culture consumed with monetary status. yU manages to not only accomplish both, but also manages to do it with class. The project doesn’t escape without its flaws but in some ways, that’s the point. The album doesn’t suffer from failed commercial reaches or gimmick lyricism. Before Taxes is an ode to Hip Hop before everything complicated it. Before the money is taken from our check we were somewhere with our headphones on embracing every bar, beat and scratch. yU allows us to do that once again.