J Dilla’s Posthumous Album ‘The Diary’ Breathes New Life Into His Lyrics
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. Tribute tracks to the late James Yancey are still made with regularity by those who knew him and it's not surprising to see his name in an album's liner notes as a producer. The amount of great beats that Dilla left behind are innumerable and we may never see the end of Dilla beats scratching the surface.
Yet that legacy as a producer has overshadowed the fact that J Dilla was skilled on the mic -- just listen to his rhymes as a member of Slum Village and Jaylib. His first solo release was not an instrumental album like Donuts, but Welcome 2 Detroit, a project on which Dilla was the primary force behind the boards and behind the microphone. In fact, Dilla signed a deal with MCA Records as a solo rapper.
Unfortunately, things didn't pan out with the label and Dilla went back to the independent scene, leaving what would have been his major label debut lost for seemingly forever. That is, until. now. The Diary is the latest posthumous J Dilla album and it collects what would likely have been material on that first major label solo release (then known as Pay Jay). What makes the project even more unique is that Dilla largely leaves the production into others' hands. A few Dilla-produced tracks to appear, but much of the beats are left to his friends and collaborators like Madlib, Hi-Tek, Karrem Riggins and Pete Rock.
The Diary gives us an alternative look at Dilla, someone who might have been considered an MC first and foremost if his time with MCA didn't result in label frustrations. Dilla's known for the soul in his music, but his bars on the record remind us that the man was also tough as nails On "The Introduction," Dilla spits, "It's Dilla, bringing the pain and bringing the truth/If you bring it to Jay then you bring it to you/Got a problem, I ain't worried at all/Born and raised in the D, and hold big fuckin' warrior ball."
"Gangsta Boogie" has Dilla going over a funky Hi-Tek beat, rapping about killing anyone who comes in his way and gets features from Snoop Dogg and Kokane to give it even more gangsta credibility. The album also sees "Fuck the Police," J Dilla's classic 2001 single, find a home on a proper record. Fifteen years after its initial release, Jay Dee's raps about police harassment resonate just as strongly.
There are other sides to Dilla here as well. No matter what era, he was always an incredibly versatile musician who could work in any realm from West Coast gangsta rap to the jazzy realm of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, which is showcased on The Diary. "The Ex" is a letter directed at an ex-girlfriend of Dilla that features a soulful turn of frequent collaborator and fellow Soulquarian Bilal. On "Trucks," Dilla flips Gary Numan's 1979 hit "Cars" into a banger about rolling in style in his truck.
While The Diary has its shining moments, it also has some issues. Features on posthumous releases don't always work because they can reference things that the artist never saw. It's a little jarring moment when Snoop references President Obama on "Gangsta Boogie." Dilla died two years before Obama was elected and when most of the album's vocals were recorded in 2001, he was just a state senator in Illinois.
Since many of the songs are crafted with scraps of what was available in the archives, fleshing them out a bit more would work best. This is especially evident on the album's title track, a Bink!-produced highlight that unfortunately ends in less than a minute and a half.
For Dilla fans, The Diary proves to be an essential listening. Those interested in hip-hop history are sure to be pleased with a look into what might have been if Jay Dee ever got some major label support in his solo career. Not only was Dilla one of the greatest to ever work behind the boards, he's a rapper holding his own on the mic long after his death.
See 25 Best Projects of 2016 So Far