Album Review: J Dilla – The Diary

A long-lost vocal album gives light to one of hip-hop's most influential artists




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“We gotta make music and we think, ‘If Dilla was alive, would he like this?’” Kanye West says in a clip from the B-side of the Stones Throw documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton. “I have to work on behalf of Dilla.”

West is in a lineage of producers-turned-rappers birthed out of the legacy of James Yancey aka Jay Dee aka J Dilla. While Yeezy was able to break out from behind the boards and become just as synonymous with his skills on the mic, Dilla was never afforded that chance. By now, the late Detroit producer’s death feels mythical. Working up until the end, he released the landmark record Donuts just days before he passed away in 2006. There are no vocals on that record, just short, jagged beats and vinyl scratches pulled together with a simple Boss SP-303 sampler. It’s one of only two full solo albums released under his name in his lifetime, alongside the guest-heavy, severely underrated Welcome 2 Detroit.

Since then, Dilla’s status in the hip-hop world has been revered as one of the greatest producers to have worked in the business. If a guy like West is going to admit that he second-guesses whether his work will live up to Dilla’s, that says something. Yet, that’s not all Dilla wanted to be. Like any true artist, he was constantly looking to expand his boundaries. That’s why his estate is able to constantly unearth new material for posthumous releases; he was always working and always experimenting. He was able to split mic duties with fellow producer and kindred soul Madlib on their collaborative record Champion Sound, billed as Jaylib, but the one thing we never got from Dilla was a solo record with his vocals as the main attraction. Not until The Diary.

Another thing needs to be noted before jumping into this record. Unlike many of the releases that have come out under his name since his death, this is a project that Dilla actually wanted released. The barrage of “lost” and “unearthed” recordings released over the last decade really should be labeled as “unfinished.” While there have been gems like 2006’s The Shining and 2009’s Jay Stay Paid, records that showed undeniable love from the collaborators involved. There’s no faulting anyone for having trepidation about another Dilla release. Still, The Diary is different. It’s a completed project that Dilla had ready to go after signing to MCA in 2002 but was ultimately shelved. This wasn’t Dilla’s doing, but a decision from the labels. Stones Throw general manager Eothen Alapatt, who also oversaw this album, reveals in The Diary’s liner notes that it was one of the few projects Dilla had mentioned in his final days that he would like to see released. Now that wish is being realized.

To make it clear, Donuts will always be Dilla’s final, perfect parting gift. Anything that comes after that will be scrutinized and held to that impossible measure. The Diary doesn’t usurp that spot, but rather feels like, well, a long-lost diary belonging to an old friend. Far from purely nostalgic, it also holds its own in the top tier of Dilla’s work through its “audacious” notion that a producer can spit against his rapping peers. He’s long told stories through his beats, but hearing him in such immediate terms paints a larger picture of the person he was.

On “The Introduction” he gives us a brief but poignant look at his origins, opening with an anecdote about his uncle letting him shoot a gun before lifting a Q-Tip line relating his listening to hip-hop to his dad’s “jazz cats.” These insights are slight, but they speak to everything we’ve known about Dilla so far, with his jazz-influenced beats and sense of rebellion. Dilla’s bravado bursts through later, as he pronounces “I’ve been observing the game, came to save it now.” It’s easy to paint Dilla as a humble soul in the wake of his death, but it’s undeniable that he had confidence and an edge ready to emerge whenever he needed it.

Dilla doesn’t tell his story on his own. Alongside a remarkable cast of guest verses, most of the beats were crafted by his producer contemporaries. This seems like a curious choice at first. Why would one of the hottest producers in the game let anyone else craft beats for his own vocal album debut? The intentions are unclear but the results are tangible. Dilla was such a great producer because he was a master curator. He knew how to nail an aesthetic and inject it with authenticity, continuing to create each beat and measure by hand from vinyl, even when programs like ProTools emerged to allow copying and pasting. Surrounding himself with the likes of Pete Rock, Madlib, and Hi-Tek allowed him to extend these ideas.

Nottz’ beat on “The Shining Part 1 (Diamonds)” is injected with that same shimmering, transcendent sound that Dilla would orchestrate for artists like Common or Erykah Badu. It’s his twist on a jewelry brag track, boasting that he’s “shining with my girl’s best friend.” Pete Rock’s contribution, “The Ex”, sees Dilla spitting against the soulful voice of Bilal. Dilla plays the heartbreak kid well, reveling in the snapping drum and falling guitar loops.

The Dilla-produced tracks, however, show some of the more intimate sides of Dilla. “The Anthem” feels like an ode to his Slum Village days, bringing in frequent collaborators Frank ‘n Dank — who very well may be his most underrated muses. “Trucks” is a rework of Gary Numan’s classic “Cars”, revealing Dilla’s inner nerd. A noted Kraftwerk fan, he was known to spend hours messing with synthesizers and trying to put his spin on that synthpop sound.

Most notably, however, is the inclusion of “Fuck the Police”. One of the most highly regarded tracks in Dilla’s discography, it’s finally given a proper album release here. The timing could not be more appropriate. The song echoes N.W.A. in both title and sentiment. It’s been a decade since it was initially released, yet unfortunately the message feels relevant to today; it was written right after Dilla was pulled over and harassed by the police because he was young and clean-cut — making the police assume he was selling drugs. His mother, Ma Dukes, encouraged him to record the song when he came home so enraged, giving birth to heart-aching and infuriating lines like, “Now tell me, who protects me from you?”

Over the course of the record, it’s not as if Dilla becomes an unmatched MC. He’s much more of a technician, knowing what rhythms and flows work on any given beat, and at best going toe-to-toe with Snoop Dogg on “Gangsta Boogie”. However, getting to hear Dilla in his own words is invaluable. His personality oozes through every beat. If this album had come out in 2002, it might have been a revelation. It could have been the start of a lucrative career as a rapper, his own College Dropout. No doubt young hip-hop heads will hear this and appreciate it, but feel like they’ve heard some of these musical ideas better communicated by Dilla’s successors. We’ll never know how it may have been received in its time, but we have it now, and that’s something to celebrate. Dilla is gone, but we now have these stories from him that we know he wanted to tell. His legacy was going to live on whether The Diary was released or not. This just broadens the scope of the legend and gives us even more to appreciate. Long live Dilla, producer and rapper.

Essential Tracks: “The Shining Part 1 (Diamonds)”, “Fuck The Police”, and “The Introduction”