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2011 was an especially effective year for independent record label Mello Music Group. With a heavy emphasis on quality and standards, the label kept Hip-Hop fans well-stocked with releases all year long. With a stacked comprising acts like Oddisee, Boog Brown, Has-Lo and the powerhouse D.C. trio of Diamond District (consisting of yU and Uptown XO), you might think that yU’s last quarter drop would render his project underexposed. However, the other MMG may have saved their best for last with the December release of yU’s superb second solo album The EARN.

The album opens with “Flipping Channels/theEARNtro”, featuring production on the first portion from yU’s band mate Slimkat78 of The 78ers, and DJ Roddy Rod on the other half. While the collage of the first half catches your interest, yU leaps out the gate with a blistering verse on the second half. The track is followed by the 00Genesis-produced “First” which finds yU expressing some of his inaugural steps of his career and life. While not as arresting as the intro, yU comfortably glides over the breezy production.

"Bonafide/Overdue” is another headnodding crowd-pleaser featuring production from Kokayi on the first half. But what juts out immediately is the potency and seriousness of yU’s mature themes. While teetering dangerously on the edge of preachiness, yU’s verses can’t be denied. And although not known as a producer, yU’s self-production for the latter half of the “Overdue” interlude impresses.

The album’s first single “If U Down” continues yU’s fierce criticism of lyrics and concepts in Hip-Hop. Rhyming with animation, yU’s energy meshes perfectly with Slimkat78’s somber piano-tinged track. The beautiful “Time Machine/I Remember U” featuring vocalist Bilal Salaam and production from Unknown is a largely autobiographical tale, depicting the many sides of the rapper. The track then morphs with vocalist Danedra Rowell of Op Swamp 81 (a group consisting of Slimkat78 and Bilal Salaam). Yu’s track serves as the perfect backdrop to Rowell and Salaam’s harmonies as he wisely plays the background.

The title cut features a face-scruncher of a track from Choppy ChopPe which yU shreds effortlessly; this is one of the album’s best tracks. Diamond District finally shows up, with Oddisee and Uptown XO in top form over yU’s challenging track “Delay.” Sounding nothing like the boom-bap that dominated the group’s In The Ruff album, each member’s strengths are on display--although Oddisee’s busy verse may be the scene-stealer.

Closing on a self-produced high note “Highlights Of Life Pt. 2”, yU ends his album adhering to the same steady vision he presented over the course of 17 tracks. One thing listeners should take away from The EARN is that it isn’t light-hearted. At times, yU’s delivery is hard to decipher as his distinctive voice gets muddled in the mix. But if one devotes their time to the music, they’ll come away experiencing one of the best Hip-Hop albums released in the last few years.

- D.L. Chandler