Listeners will likely only select a few standout tracks to throw into their vintage rap playlists.
J Dilla has been dead for a decade, and in that timespan we’ve gotten a staggering 12 releases from the Detroit hip-hop luminary, ranging from reissues to new EPs to full-length records like 2006’s The Shining. Now, thanks to Nas’ Mass Appeal Records, we have The Diary, an album intended for release in 2002 as James Yancey’s proper debut on the mic. Unlike previous Dilla posthumous releases, this project features production from not only the man himself but also the likes of Nottz, Madlib and Hi-Tek, all disciples and peers of Dilla who have a clear handle on his gritty, yet introspective style of beatmaking.
The Diary (originally titled Pay Jay) comes off as a nostalgic time capsule of a bygone hip-hop era, but on a purely evaluative note it is understandable why MCA wasn’t eager to release it. There isn’t much in the way of commercial fare, and while Dilla clearly understands the act of rapping from his countless hours on the boards, he’s not nearly as engaging as some of his frequent Detroit collaborators (Slum Village’s Elzhi or T3, Guilty Simpson, even fellow dual-threat Black Milk).
Had this record come out in 2003, it is unlikely it would have found a widespread audience outside of the Motor City, and while new Dilla is always good for hip-hop as a community, The Diary simply isn’t on the same level as his sharpest solo outings. Still, there are some genuine gems here, including the soulful “The Shining Pt. 1 (Diamonds)” which features a sunny beat from Nottz that’s honestly quite Dilla-esque, as well as a gorgeous hook from Kenny Wray. His Bilal collaboration “The Ex,” which features dusty, minimalist production from Pete Rock, is a frank and candid look at the aftermath of a relationship that features some of Dilla’s most exhilarating bars, demonstrating a complex and knotty internal rhyme scheme.
“I knew it was over, I was hoping it worked/ But see I can’t go to work when you going berserk/ You’re going through shirts, you’re scoping for dirt/ And what’s worse, you’re searching to only get hurt,” he spits wearily.
Dilla classic “Fuck the Police” is a welcome addition to the tracklist, and it may even ring truer in 2016 than when it was first released. Lyrically, Dilla shines while taking on crooked cops, dropping some of the most pointed jabs of his career: “It’s more than a beef with five-oh/ In the streets with the five-oh it’s a game of survival.”
But the inclusion of “Fuck the Police” also highlights one of the main issues with The Diary: the lack of Dilla production. The track works so well because of its booming break drums and ominous bass line, as well as the unorthodox, jazzy string line that is trademark Dilla. Of the 14 songs here, only four of them feature Dilla behind the boards, and while they don’t all work (his sampling of Gary Numan’s “Cars” for “Trucks” is still, frankly, pretty strange), they are among the more interesting moments on The Diary. For better or worse, Dilla simply sounds more engaged rapping on his own instrumentals than those of his peers.
Sadly, we’ll never get an album of Dilla flowing over his own production, which would surely be something worthy of the intense focus that surrounds every Dilla release. Instead, we have The Diary, an album of songs that range from inoffensive to great, but which trend a bit more towards the former than the latter. Dilla was too talented and knowledgeable about hip-hop to make any outright bad music, but this is a record from which most listeners will likely only select a few standout tracks to throw into their vintage rap playlists.