We study the design of sample-efficient algorithms for reinforcement learning in the presence of rich, high-dimensional observations, formalized via the Block MDP problem. Existing algorithms suffer from either 1) computational intractability, 2) strong statistical assumptions that are not necessarily satisfied in practice, or 3) suboptimal sample complexity. We address these issues by providing the first computationally efficient algorithm that attains rate-optimal sample complexity with respect to the desired accuracy level, with minimal statistical assumptions. Our algorithm, MusIK, combines systematic exploration with representation learning based on multi-step inverse kinematics, a learning objective in which the aim is to predict the learner’s own action from the current observation and observations in the (potentially distant) future. MusIK is simple and flexible, and can efficiently take advantage of general-purpose function approximation. Our analysis leverages several new techniques tailored to non-optimistic exploration algorithms, which we anticipate will find broader use.