Release Date: Apr 15, 2016
Record label: Mass Appeal
Genre(s): Rap, Pop/Rock, Underground Rap, Midwest Rap, Left-Field Hip-Hop
Very rarely does the artist get to leave this world with a storybook ending to their legacy. But as tragic as J Dilla’s 2006 death was, his parting shot, Donuts, was not only a testament to his ingenuity but elevation to the top of hip hop’s pantheon, perhaps for eternity. It managed to breathe an entire narrative with hardly any vocals attached, and left the public at large with the sick feeling that a true genius had left the studio for good.
Posthumous releases are always a complicated undertaking, filled with conflicting attitudes about desiring new art and wanting to also respect the memory of the deceased. The opportunity to have a new uncovering from a lost talent feels like finding buried treasure, but without that artist’s blessing or hands on the final product, it can always feel off: missing the soul only that artist can bring. Yet sometimes — like with a revelation like Pimp C’s The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones, or DJ Rashad’s 6613 EP — a posthumous release can not only be enjoyable but provide one ultimate surprise from an artist that you thought you had figured out.
The legend of J Dilla is built around his beats. The producer, who died 10 years ago of a rare blood disease, is the object of cult fascination for his production work. But this posthumous release (the legacy of a major label deal with MCA records) sees Dilla trying to reinvent himself as a performer, and showcasing his skills as a rapper. On those terms, the album is OK.
J Dilla is often seen as some mad scientist figure, cooking up out-there concoctions in isolation. Perhaps that was partly true in his final months when, ill with chronic blood disease, he recorded compulsively from his hospital bed. But that perception can obscure the fact that he was hip hop to the bone: this “lost” album from 2002 is all swagger, bling and “big fuckin’ warrior balls”.
Completed by representatives of Yancey’s estate, ‘The Diary’ is a glimpse of the Dilla we might have known: not the revered producer, but a champion MC leading an album packed with guest productions and cameos. Some tracks have been released – ‘Trucks’, a pimped-out remodel of Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’, and Dilla’s 2001 single ‘F*ck The Police’, a sweary middle finger to the cops powered by fluttering flutes and a sturdy funky drummer backbeat. Much, though, is new.
“We gotta make music and we think, ‘If Dilla was alive, would he like this?’” Kanye West says in a clip from the B-side of the Stones Throw documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton. “I have to work on behalf of Dilla.” West is in a lineage of producers-turned-rappers birthed out of the legacy of James Yancey aka Jay Dee aka J Dilla. While Yeezy was able to break out from behind the boards and become just as synonymous with his skills on the mic, Dilla was never afforded that chance.
It's probably fair to refer to The Diary as J Dilla's lost album. The sixth posthumous record from the legendary beat maker and rapper dates back to 2002 and was pretty much complete at that time. Originally intended to be a follow-up to Dilla's 2001 debut record Welcome To Compton, and his major label debut, The Diary was rejected by MCA records resulting in the album becoming little more than a myth.
Before Alapatt's heroic undertaking, some of this material reached the public in promotional and bootleg forms. In its completed state, despite final touches that include a verse from Snoop, The Diary of J Dilla should be heard as a late 2002 or early 2003 album, as something that would have hit the racks around the same time as the Dilla-enhanced Trinity, Quality, and Electric Circus. In fact, "Drive Me Wild," a raunchy, somewhat B-52s-like rocker where Yancey's robotic vocal sounds inspired by Cybotron-era Juan Atkins, involves a portion of the cast from the Common affair, including Karriem Riggins, Pino Palladino, and Questlove.
By now, it's difficult to talk about James Dewitt Yancey - the accomplished producer and aspiring rapper known as Jay Dee, and more commonly J Dilla, or just Dilla, who passed away in 2006 - without dipping into hagiography. His legacy means many different things to hip-hop fans; he brought Pharcyde (and much of hip-hop) into adulthood on Pharcyde's 1995 album LabCabinCalifornia, placing warm and sunny beats under the L.A. quartet's disillusioned musings on identity, purpose, and struggles against commerce.
Renowned for his production work for De La Soul, Common and Slum Village, J Dilla always regarded himself as something of a dilettante on the mic. Yet his distinctive drawl was imbued with a charm that countered any technical shortcomings. Not that MCA were convinced; they shelved his 2002 vocal album The Diary upon receipt. As his tragic death in 2006 led to a re-evaluation of his work, his estate became a legal battleground, delaying attempts to release the album until now.
“Jay Dee may be the worst rapping producer since Warren G,” Jon Caramnica wrote for Spin in 2000. That was the general sentiment regarding the mic-controlling of Slum Village’s own J Dilla at the turn of the century. When the Detroit native signed a two-album deal with MCA in 2001, the implicit directive—as is the case with nearly all major label deals—was not to get any rash ideas about breaking the mold.
It’s taken nearly 15 years and much legal wrangling for this album by Detroit producer J Dilla, who died in 2006, to see the light of day. Having built his reputation with beats for A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots et al, Dilla took the unusual step of recruiting others to produce his major label debut so he could devote more energy to rapping. As a vocalist, The Diary shows him to be agile and often abrasive – anger against US law enforcement surges through Fuck the Police – but somewhat lacking in imaginative range, falling back on standard jibes and brags.
The late J Dilla shot to fame in the '90s and early '00s for his textured, soul infused production of alt-rap and neb-soul classics like Janet Jackson's "Got Til It's Gone," Common's "The Light," plus his acclaimed albums like Donuts and Champion Sound (which he recorded as JayLib with fellow crate digging producer Madlib). .
The legacy that J Dilla left behind after his tragic death in 2006 is largely as a producer but his newest posthumous album, The Diary, gives a boost to his power as an MC. J Dilla is regarded as one of the greatest beatmakers of all time. Many of the albums released since his death have been collections of unreleased beats, either left by themselves or with a verse from a rapper whom he was either friends with or he inspired.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the hip-hop producer J Dilla became something of a mystic, an oracle of warm, enveloping hip-hop and soul. He was a producer of earthy hits by Common and the Pharcyde, among others, and an extended producing partner of A Tribe Called Quest. But what J Dilla (Dilla for short) was truly revered for was integrity and vibration — a Dilla beat floated in almost ineffable ways.
Taken purely at face value, J Dilla’s The Diary should be treated with skepticism at best and contempt at worst. Hip hop is not a genre known for a sensitive approach to deceased artists; Tupac’s hologram at Coachella a couple of years ago hardly screamed dignity, but then again, his back catalogue - limited only on the grounds of the tight timeframe he actually had on this planet - has been raked over and bastardised so many times that having him appear on stage via laser projector only really seemed like the next logical step in a series of moves that racked up cash and stirred deep discomfort with genuine fans all at the same time. We lost Dilla in 2006, in the sort of abrupt and random fashion that more or less defines the word cruelty.