J Dilla – The Diary

Over his lifetime James Dewitt Yancey known as Jay Dee and later as J Dilla, proved himself the hip-hop producer archetype. He remained prudently committed to analogue methods of looping beats by hand from vinyl, amidst the emergence of copy and paste features in software like ProTools and masterminded various works of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Q-Tip. February 2016 marked a decade since both his passing and since he released his magnum-opus, Donuts, which inevitably casts a tall shadow of speculation and comparison over his latest posthumous release, “The Diary”. Originally slated for release in 2002, Dilla’s long lost and only vocal album was canned by his label MCA Records reportedly due to an internal restructuring- but is now seeing the light of day on Nas’ label, Mass Appeal Records. This project thrusts him back into the mainframe of hip-hop and to a generation that wouldn’t have a full grasp on the legacy he left.

The weight the title carries suggests a memoirs of J Dilla’s life up to 2002, which is true to an extent with bookend tracks “The Introduction” and “The Diary”. He rolls out sketches of his childhood like “Back in the day before my Uncle Al let me pull the gun trigger”, on “The Introduction” asserting himself as formidable alongside his rapping peers, before outlining some misguided pursuits of love in “The Ex”, with a lopsided beat that suits the feature of Bilal nicely. Between these more intimate moments he is only able to muster brag tracks about violence, money and hoes- and in the case of the “The Shining Pt. 1” they are often all in the same verse.

This autobiographical voice is often trampled by the host of features and producers he brings on to pull this album together, with Dilla only having a hand in producing five out of the sixteen tracks as well as having eight artist feature across the record. It remains a perplexing focal point, that across The Shining and Donuts he curated such warm and wholesome production and that his style is so distant on his vocal album. As a result rather standing with the  aforementioned timeless pieces, this album translates as situational- it sounds like it belongs in the early noughties.

One of Dilla’s classic beats “F**k the Police” receives its formal release, echoing the sentiments of NWA through creating a club hit that is also the vehicle for a political message. The song was inspired by Dilla’s own run-in with the authorities where they searched him believing he had to be a drug-dealer because he was so clean-cut. The clever composition of drum break and violin samples are what is lacking throughout this album, and whilst they aren’t underwhelming they aren’t Dilla’s calibre.

The Diary is another chapter to the complex and prolific life of J-Dilla. His intentions to build his rapping career and be centre-stage somewhat conflict with his otherwise a humble existence, but nonetheless broaden the scope of his legacy and leave us wondering what he could have become.

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