The Breakdown: The Diary by J Dilla

Henry: It’s tough working with a dead person’s art. How can we know if we’ve stayed true to their vision? The obvious answer is that, well, we can’t. Posthumous releases will necessarily be a projection of what we thought the artist would have wanted, and the degree of the projection depends on the completeness of the work as it has been left to us, and the extent to which the creator gave instructions for how they wanted their legacy to be fulfilled.

J Dilla is a fairly rare example of an artist who died young, but had time to contemplate the end. His highly revered instrumental album, Donuts, was finished as he lay in the hospital, lending a chilling significance to its closing minutes, which include a track titled simply “Bye.”

He was also explicit in his desire for his unreleased work to see the light of day, and prolific enough that now, ten years after his death, we’re getting another new album, The Diary, which will be no less than Dilla’s sixth release since he passed. The Diary is a collection of old and new material, comprised mostly of Dilla’s own raps over other people’s beats from the early aughts that were originally to be released by MCA under the name Pay Jay. That project was ultimately shelved after MCA was bought out, and the subsequent dissolving of Dilla’s contract led to the creation and release of 2003’s Ruff Draft outside the major label system.

The Diary feels stylistically cohesive, but perhaps due to the litany of producers and the timeframe over which the album was made, it does play more like a collection than an LP. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here and I’m ecstatic to have anything from the late great JD.

 

Micah: Here it is. The legendary vocal album that Dilla was working on to follow up Welcome to Detroit and introduce him to the mainstream. Instead of focusing on Dilla’s production, this album is centered around on his raps, which are criminally underrated in the producer/rapper category. This album, in my my mind, mirrors what Kanye West achieved with The College Dropout , which made people understand that Kanye West was more than a producer. I went into this Dilla record with that transition in mind.

This is not another Dilla beat tape, but instead a flex of his lyrical, vocal and songwriting capabilities. I’m not arguing that Dilla, like Kanye, wanted to be a rapper and his production prior was a stepping stone to reach that goal. However, it seems natural that a producer with such an eclectic and prolific output would experiment with rapping and songwriting.

With eleven out of sixteen tracks containing no production from Dilla and with no opportunity for him to rewrite songs or re-record vocals, it’s difficult to say that this is the finished album that Jay Dee would have wanted. However, with the blessings of Ma Dukes and the integrity of the production team, I’m pretty sure this will be the best we will ever get.

1. The Introduction

Produced by House Shoes & J-Dilla

Henry: Love the drop on this track. Pure Detroit head nod banger. I also love that legendary DJ House Shoes is involved on the production, seeing as he was one of the first people to really push Dilla’s work. There’s an excellent episode of Open Mike Eagle’s podcast, Secret Skin, where House Shoes speaks on his relationship with JD and their history together, which I would recommend for anyone interested in the history of hip-hop in Detroit over the last twenty-odd years.

Micah: I love how the opening verse is both an allusion to Tribe’s “Excursions” and Dilla’s way of introducing himself as a lyricist. First let me introduce myself / My peeps call me Dilla / Known to write and produce myself / Also I’m a pimp by nature. Jay Dee is confident, charismatic and demands your attention. Although he was described by those who knew him as quiet and reserved, he obviously knew how to wear the mask of a rapper and get right in your face, or as he says, hold big fuckin’ warrior balls. To be honest, when I first heard this song I wrote it off, but the more I’ve listened to it, the more it’s grown on me. I’m hoping this holds true for the rest of the album.


2. The Anthem (featuring Frank N Dank)

Produced by J-Dilla

Henry: This track definitely has that early aughts feel with the stutter drums and the simple sample that leaves a lot of space for the lyricist. You can trace the sound of a lot of these songs into what would become Ruff Draft, and this one in particular fits right into that era. Frank N Dank provides his classic off-kilter flow, which compliments the sparse production.

Micah: Even though I’m trying to focus on Dilla’s lyrical content, I gotta talk about the classic Dilla production on this one. The kick here is amazing to me. The way it thuds and reverberates against the tucked in hi-hats and snappy snare is refreshing in an era of booming kicks. Maybe I’m paying attention to the production because it most definitely overshadows what the emcees are doing. The chorus isn’t memorable. I’m not feeling the We F’d up! call and response thing. The verses are pretty nice though, especially Frank’s. The The song is passable, but most certainly not an anthem.

3. Fight Club (featuring Nottz & Boogie)

Produced by Waajeed

Henry: This track sounds just like a grimey, dark club where a fight might break out any second. Another one where the beat leaves a ton of room for the vocalists to go hard. Not the song you’d choose if you wanted to put your mom onto J Dilla, but it bangs.

Micah: This is by far the most menacing song on the album. The sample kind of sounds like some swarming bees while the drums are simple and effective. The twisted way that the repeated Up in the club line is delivered adds to the deranged vibe of the song. To me it sounds like someone is withering away but still trying to turn up. I can’t say that this track is my cup of tea, but on the rare occasion when I’m searching for a twisted banger for the hip hop heads, this will definitely fit the bill.

4. The Shining, Pt. 1 (Diamonds) (featuring Kenny Wray)

Produced by Nottz

Henry: This might be my favorite track on the album. After the murky synths of Fight Club, the the quick chops and airy vocals really open this one up. Nottz is one of those producers who has remained largely behind the scenes despite having worked with just about everybody in the game, and this track is yet another testament to his absolute mastery of sample-based production.

Micah: Yes! I love Nottz’s production. I love the flip of Seals & Crofts “Diamond Girl”. The drums are tight, the bass is heavy, and the breaks are tasteful. I love how you can tell it was made on a beatpad. This is the first song on the album that truly feels finished to me.

 

5. The Shining, Pt. 2 (Ice)

Produced by Madlib

Henry: Only Madlib could make this beat. It’s so simple, but the interplay between the bass and the organ works perfectly over the classic breakbeat pattern. I also like that it’s only a minute long, making this track play more like an interlude than a full song.

Micah: The slinky bass is great over some of Dilla’s most technical rapping on the album. When I listen to this song I feel like I should be fighting Bowser or something.

 

6. Trucks

Produced by J-Dilla

Henry: Nobody ever said Dilla didn’t have a sense of humor. This track is a hilarious re-imagining of Gary Numan’s paranoid synthscape “Cars,” driven all the way up from the distant future of 1979 to the parking lot of 2003, system turned up. I have to be in the right mood to listen to this one, but I think it brings some levity to the album with its placement here.

Micah: So I have mixed feelings about this. I like how it is essentially a “Cars (Remix)” instead of a chopped sample. In a way I know it’s tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time I also know it’s kind of hot and I have to take it seriously. To be honest, I wouldn’t ever listen to another Dilla song if this was the first one I ever heard, but since it’s far from the first I kind of like it.

 

7. Gangsta Boogie (featuring Snoop Dogg & Kokane)

Produced by Hi-Tek

Henry: Love the bass on this track. That Hi-Tek bounce is exactly the kind of beat I wanna hear Snoop rapping on, and this is one of my favorite Snoop features in years.

Micah: I don’t think Snoop and Dilla ever really worked together, but they had to be planning it based on the fact that Dilla shouted out both Snoop and Kokane on the track. I don’t know if Snoop spit a verse for the record while Dilla was alive or if it was still in the planning stages, but the Snoop verse that appears here was clearly recorded during the process of the record’s release. I absolutely geeked the first time I heard Snoop say, I met Obama in some Snoop Dogg house shoes.

In his verse, Dilla continues to display a delivery that reeks of balls to the wall braggadocio. He said, Dilla with the capital letters / Niggas deliver it good, Dilla just be rappin’ it better. The more I hear from Dilla the more I wonder how good of an emcee he could have been with more physical strength and years added to his career. This track is great though, Snoop brings his A game with a verse that oozes his sly personality and Dilla flexes his underutilized lyrical prowess over some of Hi-Tek’s funkiest beat work. Also, call me crazy but, I swear I can hear Dam-Funk in there somewhere.

 

8. Drive Me Wild

Produced by Karriem Riggins

Micah: The idea for this song is cool. The chorus could fit in a strip club anthem but Dilla’s verses let you know it’s all about driving a brand new luxury car off the lot for the first time. For me that’s about as cool as this song gets. I don’t really like the production and the delivery and doubled vocals seem half-baked to me. I’m usually a fan of Karriem’s work, and there isn’t anything wrong with his work on this song per se, but it doesn’t come together as a whole for me. In my opinion, this is a skippable track.

Henry: I like the groove of this track, but there’s something about the weird dischord of the hook that throws me off. I do like the instrumental breakdown in this though, I think that’s where the track really gains some steam.

 

9. Give Them What They Want

Produced by J-Dilla

Henry: Dilla’s production shines on this one, though the verses aren’t my favorite. Love the hook though, how the chord changes come in, opening up what the almost claustrophobic repetition of the synth hits. He really does give me what I want.

Micah: Yeah, this album is kind of taking a dip for me. What gives? I would have been much happier if the last two songs would have been cut and this album had been made a long E.P. I get that it’s interesting to hear Dilla rapping over his own production, but I doubt he would have wanted this song released in this form. It just doesn’t sound like he completely finished writing it.

 

10. The Creep (The O)

Produced by Hi-Tek

Henry: Another one where the minimal, bouncey production leaves tons of space for the vocals. I had to laugh when Dilla says Y’all know the steelo with these closet freaks / they get nasty like a storyline on Dawson’s creek. It’s just one of the lyrical moments where the age of this album shows through.

Micah: I’m kind of struggling at this point. This is the first unfinished sounding track on the album. Sonically everything is there and properly placed, but as a song, this seems like filler. No disrespect to Hi-Tek, the beat is fantastic, but I would be much happier with it being used for someone else’s song or bring in someone like Mos Def and let him redirect the song creatively.

 

11. The Ex (featuring Bilal)

Produced by Pete Rock

Henry: Another of my favorites, and one I could see myself returning to outside the context of the album. These are Jay’s strongest bars on the album, and Pete Rock’s impeccable boom-bap and light touch with the sample coupled with Bilal’s soulful hooks make this song feel complete in a way that some of the tracks here don’t quite.

Micah: This is my favorite song on the album and is much needed after three lackluster joints. Let’s get into it.

It’s no secret the influence Pete Rock had on J Dilla. It seems fitting that we would see some of his production on this album and boy did he deliver. The sample is smooth, the drums are knocking and Dilla shows up vocally. For someone who doesn’t rap much there is a clear understanding of song structure and melody in his raps. I would guess that this was one of the songs that needed the least amount of buffing and polishing when this album was put together for this release. I would hope that some of the other songs on this album would have found this kind of completeness as far as songwriting goes if Dilla had the opportunity to finish it.

The song is basically the conversation every single person has in their head, in the shower, in the months after a rough breakup. Hey, remember me / Take a look baby / Yes, it’s your ex. See, off the hook ain’t he? / I’m doing my thing. Thanks, you did me a favor. Dilla is direct with the raps and his presence on the mic on this song is leagues better than any other song on the album. His thought process in justifying the breakup pulls my ears in from start to finish.

 

12. So Far

Produced by Supa Dave West

Henry: I’m a sucker for a well-chopped vocal sample, and this one does it for me. Love the drop and the timpani roll, something you don’t often hear in hip-hop production.

Micah: That sample on this song really is great. The beat is lush and grandiose, but I’m not feeling the rapping. The flows are technically on point, but I don’t think they weave through the beat well. Maybe Dilla was still working on this song and this is the best vocal take he’d made so far, but it’s not doing it for me. Which is a shame, I like the instrumental a lot.

 

13. Fuck the Police

Produced by J-Dilla

Henry: This track came out as a single way back in 2001, a reiteration of N.W.A.’s classic of the same name, but a re-release now feels just as poignant as ever.

Micah: So I got really into this song after hearing Peter Rosenberg rave about it on Hot 97 a while back. I remember it took me a few listens to really catch this beat but once you find the pocket it’s an incredible ride.

 

14. The Diary

Produced by Bink!

Henry: This one is an anthem, driven by orchestral strings and a soulful chorus, backed by a cymbal-heavy drum beat. It would be a good closer, and it is on everything but the iTunes version, which contains two extra tracks after this one. I’m not a big fan of that kind of marketing, it stinks of Apple-exclusive fuckery, and I’m not sure that Dilla would have been down either.

Micah: I like this as a closer. The production is pretty over the top and bombastic for a diary reading, but I can get down with it.

 

15. The Sickness (feat Nas)

Produced by Madlib

Henry: The first of two iTunes exclusive tracks at the end. Dirty Madlib production and a solid Nas feature. It’s a shame this is isn’t on the Vinyl.

Micah: This song is super nasty, definitely not a throwaway bonus track. Dilla’s a Nas’ verses are on point and Madlib brings a fantastic instrumental. I love this one.

 

16. The Doe

Produced by Supa Dave West

Henry: Supa Dave West creates a great bounce on this track, which is essentially a remix of “Give Them What they Want,” featuring the same verse we heard earlier by Dilla. Still, I wish the album in all formats closed with “The Diary,” it’s a stronger outtro, and the placement of these two “bonus tracks” here doesn’t make all that much sense to me within the context of the album as a whole.

Micah: I disagree, this is a strong outro to the album. The instrumental is thick and Dilla’s verse works better here than it does on “Give Them What They Want.” Although it isn’t one of my favorites from this release, I feel it completes the album better than “The Diary”.

 

Here at The What, we think you can always use a little more Dilla in your life, so we put together two playlists for your listening pleasures. Enjoy:

 

THE HITS

Youtube Link

  1. Runnin’ – The Pharcyde
  2. The Light (featuring Erykah Badu) – Common
  3. So Far to Go (featuring D’Angelo) – Common
  4. Baby (featuring Madlib & Guilty Simpson – J Dilla
  5. Fall In Love – Slum Village
  6. Wait Up – Q-Tip
  7. Sumethin’ That Means Somethin’ – The Pharcyde
  8. Thelonius (featuring Common) – Slum Village
  9. Players – Slum Village
  10. Didn’t Cha Know – Erykah Badu
  11. Last Donut Of The Night – J-Dilla
  12. Vivrant Thing – Q-Tip
  13. Drop – The Pharcyde
  14. 1nce Again (featuring Tammy Lucas) – A Tribe Called Quest
  15. Still Shining – Busta Rhymes

 

 

B-SIDES

A lot of these aren’t on Spotify so we’ve just got the Youtube Link

  1. Little Brother – Black Star
  2. Heroin Joint – J-Dilla
  3. Niggaz Know (feat. J-Dilla) – Pete Rock
  1. Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!) – J-Dilla
  2. Come Close (Remix) (featuring Erykah Badu, Pharrell Williams & Q-Tip) – Common
  3. It’s a Party (The Ummah Remix) – Busta Rhymes
  4. Got ‘Til It’s Gone (featuring Q-Tip) (Ummah Jay Dee’s Revenge Mix) – Janet Jackson
  5. Do For Love (featuring Eric Williams) – 2Pac
  6. Two Can Win – J-Dilla
  7. Game Day – Phife Dawg
  8. Once Upon a Time (featuring Pete Rock) – Slum Village
  1. Reunion (featuring J-Dilla) – Slum Village
  2. HIStory (Remix) – Michael Jackson
  3. I Try (Remix) – Macy Gray
  4. The Light (Remix) for U (featuring Erykah Badu) – Common

Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain