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Review: J Dilla Would’ve Surprised the Streets With ‘The Diary’

J Dilla
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 15, 2016
Label: Mass Appeal / Pay Jay Productions, Inc.

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 Diary, the latest such artifact from the late James DeWitt Yancy, captures his essence as best as a career postscript can. It was to be the first showcase for J Dilla as a rapper, mostly leaving production duties to friends like Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-Tek and, as the rumor goes, a then-less-known Kanye West. Initially intended to be released in 2002 while Dilla was still alive, it was ultimately shelved and kept in storage until now. Dilla didn’t have the freedom of a Puffy or the cachet to go from producer to rapper/producer in the way that West eventually would, but he did retain an uncompromising vision, a strong work ethic, and a self-assuredness to prove himself as a versatile heavy-hitter. It’s a shame that it took his legend growing posthumously and years of legal battles to finally see this new side of him.

This last assemblage of his unissued material provides the treat of Dilla performing the legwork of rapping over lush, experimental, body-blowing production, to match the thunderous braggadocio of his verses.  Dilla’s rap technique has the bite of a Detroit MC with an easygoing L.A. vibe strewn in, complementing the production from Madlib, Rock, Hi-Tek, along with Nottz, Supa Dave West and — on five showcases — the headliner himself.

Yancey raps over the infectious, accordion-like melody of “Introduction” in a fiery grit more in line with Proof or Kurupt than any of the backpack rappers that he was always lumped with: “If you bring it to J then you bring it to you / Got a problem, I ain’t worried at all / Born and raised in the D, and hold big f**kin’ warrior balls / Dilla like Inspector Gadget / Cause I pull out the tools to eliminate the extra baggage.”

The Diary as a whole functions to service the diehards while also allowing the pleasure of hearing the man rip it on Pete Rock and Madlib beats — besides the prospect being a backpacker’s wet dream, Dilla seemed to be enjoying himself heartily when he made these. The standout, “The Shining,” especially finds the late legend in good spirits over a candy-sweet, melodic soul beat in a loving ode to his diamond collection. “Go spend a little dough, look like you sold millions / Plus you everlastin’ / And drastically important when sportin’ your ghetto fashion,” he raps, gleefully smitten. His demeanor shifts with the production, moving with Pete Rock’s melodies on “The Ex,” or swerving with the jumbled grooves of Madlib’s “The Shining, Pt. 2,” and of course, fixing himself within his own beats, as though he was the one missing element in the production this whole time.

Despite being lumped in as part of the conscious hip-hop wave (due in part to his tenure in Slum Village), turns out Dilla had the tone, swagger, and lyricism of a street rapper: rapping about partying, jewelry, and women like a guy from the neighborhood looking for a good time — and self-assured that the entire block is watching his every move. He’s cocky and grizzled, yet charming, in the way he mentions “cake boys in the club with funds to the roof” on “The Anthem,” and even harsher and more salient on a song like “Give Em What They Want.” On “Gangsta Boogie,” he throws a West Coast party that functions as a musical drop top, cruising slow on a summer afternoon with Snoop Dogg in tow, bringing the kind of funk and hydraulic grooves that you’d expect from a throwback Westside Connection song.

The Diary is almost certainly for the diehards but even casual fans will find a lot to like, including “F**k the Police,” (not the N.W.A classic) a thundering, virulent anti-police brutality song originally released as a single in 2001, and the Nas-assisted bonus cut “The Sickness,” which feels like a demented Sega Genesis game soundtrack, and puts a battery in Nas’ back to actually give some effort on a post-2012 guest feature. The Diary exists as its own thing: a complement rather than a continuation or spiritual relative to Donuts or The Shining, though it’s bittersweet that in its brevity, The Diary leaves you wanting more that will never come.