While posthumous albums too often play out as cynical cash-ins, with random labels seemingly popping up out of nowhere to make a fast buck from an artist’s legacy, ‘The Diary’ – released a few months after the tenth anniversary of revered hip-hop producer/rapper J Dilla’s passing – has at least received the official seal of approval from his close family.
The new LP, issued through his estate’s PayJay Productions imprint and the Nas-headed Mass Appeal label, is comprised largely of material J Dilla (then known as Jay Dee) had been working on for his major label debut around 2001 and 2002. Industry Rule #4080 saw label MCA jettison the album, with bits and pieces then sporadically trickling out over the next few years as Dilla busied himself with other projects.
Having already built a steady buzz thanks to his production and remix work, his output with Slum Village, and his own well-received ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’ debut, Dilla had chosen to step away from the boards and into the booth for his next album. For the production, he apparently selected his favourite beatmakers who were popping at the time – including Pete Rock, Madlib, Hi-Tek and Nottz – to craft the backdrop to his own raps.
Now, for this official release, the scattering of multi-track master tapes and demos unearthed from the vaults have been mixed down by Dilla’s own engineer Dave Cooley, lending weight to the ‘how-he-would-have-wanted-it’ premise of the album - even if the inclusion of Snoop Dogg and Kokane on ‘Gangsta Boogie’ may raise some eyebrows.
‘The Introduction’, the House Shoes-produced opener which surfaced earlier this year, sets the initial tone perfectly. Vocally, Dilla sounds charged up and focused over the robotic synth-driven beat, reworking Q-Tip’s opening verse from A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark ‘The Low End Theory’ (one of several such lyrical homages here) before dropping some blistering lines of his own.
Standout effort ‘The Shining’ rolls out in two parts - ‘Part 1: (Diamonds)’; ‘Part 2: (Ice)’ – reflecting early 2000s hip-hop’s fixation with bling before Kanye delved into the darker side of jewel politics on ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’. While the first segment captures Dilla in full celebratory mode (“I’m shining with my girl’s best friend”) over a breezy number produced by one-time Busta Rhymes collaborator Nottz, the second part – helmed by Dilla’s dependable Jaylib partner Madlib - serves as a suitably grimy counterbalance. A menacing synth line welded to a stripped-down drumbeat – shot through with organ stabs pulled from The Mohawks’ ‘Champ’ – sets the scene for Dilla to borrow from old ‘EFIL4ZAGGIN’-era NWA hooks and brag about how his chain glistens in the light.
Later, the autobiographical title track further expands the album’s focus, as we find Dilla recalling his early life in Detroit surrounded by street hustlers and explaining how “I started spinning parties at six/Blessed with the hardest of kicks….”. Backed by a reflective Blaxploitation soul groove crafted by Bink! (the then-in house producer at Roc-A-Fella), the track lends a richer cinematic feel to proceedings.
Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s the moments where Dilla himself returns to the production boards that things get a little more uneven. As pioneering and influential a producer as he was, the frustratingly patchy, frequently-brilliant-but-often-disappointing nature of his material (especially as things became ever more stripped-down and electronica-based in subsequent years) is reflected in his work here. To wit: the previously-unearthed ‘Trucks’ remains a pretty deflating remake of Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’, bearing an oddly synthetic feel that somehow saps all the fun out of the original. As it closes, you’re left wanting to revisit Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo’s frivolous and more light-hearted 1989 take on Numan’s synth-pop classic.
Much better, however, is ‘The Anthem’, which is built around a nagging, shuffling rhythm formed in the classic Dilla style. Long-time collaborators Frank N Dank, as well as Jay Dee himself, turn in solid vocal performances - though the song’s references to “cakeboys” and its reworking of R. Kelly & Jay-Z’s ‘Fiesta’ hook date it somewhat. (Snoop’s references to President Obama - who took office almost three years after Dilla passed away - on ‘Gangsta Boogie’ feel similarly discordant.)
Yet, with his production pedigree assured, the album nevertheless offers an engaging snapshot of James Yancey the rapper. Sure, it’s certainly not his best long-player, but the highlights stacked here - the truly awesome ‘The Introduction’, established heaters like ‘Fuck The Police’ (sequenced perfectly here towards the climax) - ensure ‘The Diary’ is, in the end, a solid addition to the J Dilla catalogue.
Words: Hugh Leask
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