J Dilla is a late American rapper from Detroit, Michigan. Since February past, he’s been dead for ten years. His second album, Donuts, was released on Tuesday, February 7, 2006, his thirty second birthday, and three days before he died.
Since his death, he has released numerous EPs and LPs posthumously. The latest, The Diary, was released just recently, on Friday, April 15. My introduction, however indirect, to J Dilla was via Slum Village’s 2002 effort, Trinity (Past, Present and Future). It turns out Dilla had left them two albums previous, after 2000’s Fantastic, Vol. 2, to pursue a solo career.
The opening track on The Diary, “The Introduction”, is electronic with zaps of keyboard and is quite foreboding. A variance of A Tribe Called Quest’s (ATCQ) “Excursions” appears at the beginning: “Back in the days when I was a young n**ga; Before my uncle Al let me pull a gun trigger; You could find Dilla listening to Abstract; My pops used to say it reminded him of Jazz Cats; See he told me that this game go in cycles; Example, Sisqo amping like Michael”.
Rather than: “Back in the days when I was a teenager; Before I had status and before I had a pager; You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop; My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop; I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles; Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”.
He then develops the song’s hardcore stance to be in unison with that foreboding science fiction-esque backdrop. The beats changes up via an elaboration of those first keyboard lines, quite progressive in a way. Very spaced out and dark, like impending doom.
“The Anthem”, is more laidback with clapping drums, though it has an eerie element to it, like a creepy funfair, or something. His flow is very showy, the beat enabling him to stretch his vocal calisthenics. The backing singing in the hook contributes to a Central America and Mexican, yet South American vibe. Frank N Dank makes a cameo appearance, too.
The third, “Fight Club”, features Nottz and Boogie. It’s quite brooding and serious with a driving feel, rocking bass hitting syncopated, occasional punches. It appears to be about not going out on town to have a good time, but to go somewhere for the sake of confrontation and proving one’s masculinity.
The album carries on with “The Shining, Pt. 1 (Diamonds)”. This one’s more uplifting, and features the talents of Kenny Wray. Dilla appears to be dedicating the song to his perfect woman, one he’s willing to spend money on and generally treat well. The spirit of the song is the newer school of New York hip-hop, sample driven but vibrant, loud and clear. The sung hook is triumphant, but in a soulful kind of way.
“The Shining, Pt. 2 (Ice)” has a totally different vibe going on, moody like atmospheric oldschool computer game music. It could occur to the listener his voice is very reminiscent of Jeru The Damaja. It also borrows the “It’s plain to see, you can’t change me; ‘Cause I’m a be a n**ga for life” line from N.W.A’s “N**gaz 4 Life”.
Track six, “Trucks”, samples Gary Numan’s “Cars”. It celebrates being here in my truck; those massive four by fours that all the rappers drive about in as kings of the inner city roads. You get the impression this track isn’t a particularly serious one; just a bit of fun, really. Suppose you’ve got to have some respite from the serious world of rap and keeping it real.
“Gangsta Boogie” is a collaboration with Snoop Dogg and Kokane. It has that bottomless bass indicative of the West Coast, and is arguably one of the highlights of the album. It was indeed this reviewer’s direct introduction to Dilla proper, only weeks ago. Chords of synthesiser ring through now and again, as if to convey the threat of gangsta repercussions for those not watching their step.
Snoop kicks in with a sleepy, laidback verse but the flow ever supreme. The beat actually sounds like an outtake from one of Snoops’s Tha Eastsidaz projects, which’s definitely a good thing. The inimitable vocals of Kokane, in turn, on the kind of form he was in for Snoop’s Tha Last Meal from back in 2000.
“Drive Me Wild” has busy, muted guitar along with vocals harmonies, both spoken and sung. Cyclical keyboard gives the track an eerie vibe, with guitars also breaking out for some lead lines. It’s like night crawling music; up to no good and under the influence of certain substances, some legal and some not.
Then there’s “Give Them What They Want”. This has jumpy keyboard and drums that make the crowd want to bounce. He rides the beat, punctuating his flow whenever the drums clap. There are growls in this track akin to what you’d maybe hear from DMX, or the late Tim Dog.
Track ten, “The Creep (The O)”, has tinkling percussion and spooky, childlike vocals in the background. There’s an underlying keyboard part that washes over the listener from time to time. Perhaps Dilla’s the creep, only in it for the sake of a woman that’s all about the sex and no more.
Track eleven “The Ex” features Bilal and is really laidback, and is somehow both soulful and a tad jazzy. The vocals Bilal contribute really add to this vibe. It appears, whilst also yearning for the company of a former flame, to also revel in the freedom of single life.
It’s one to note the seeming attitude to women turning on a penny from the track before, by the looks of things. Moods change and everyone has contradictory attitudes on just about everything, particularly in a genre most inclined to express an opinion on anything any given time, day or night.
The next song on the album, “So Far”, spills its guts out, with that mourning, soulful backdrop and lyrics straight from the heart. It could be construed as, well, we’ve come this far, why not further? That sampled hook really soars to convey that construed meaning.
Second from last, “F*ck The Police”, only takes the general sentiments and title from that famous N.W.A song as inspiration. The drum break at the start, in turn, might remind one of an intentional homage to “Straight Outta Compton”.
This, of course, is akin to aforementioned homages made to classic eras of hip-hop on this very album. Those general sentiments, track title and introductory drum break are all that’s derivative, the rest a passionate and original slice of work aiming ire upon at police forces America wide.
Closer, “The Diary”, has shimmering percussion that washes over the listener and is so full of soul. This is another winning, triumphant and defiant moment. On top of the world and yet to be toppled, which’s a bold, perhaps true, statement for someone departed so long.
This album pleases generally, with the likes of “Gangsta Boogie” coming to mind. Some equally enjoyable aspects of the album are those that take you on a trip down memory lane. This is beautifully ironic in a way, given how long he’s been dead for and how potentially long this material has been laying about practically in its entirety.
An example of this is “The Introduction” and homages paid to Q-Tip’s verse on ATCQ’s “Excursions”. Further nods are given to “N**gaz 4 Life” by N.W.A in “The Shining, Pt. 2 (Ice)”; and “F*ck Tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A in “F*ck The Police”.
J Dilla, highlights acknowledged, and also others that are good, if not excellent, has delivered a good, solid, quite refreshing album. Generally speaking, the track lengths aren’t too long, making them less tired and more, daresay, addictive for the listener. J Dilla’s The Diary is out now via Mass Appeal Records, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Andrew Watson