Studied visionary hip-hop producer J Dilla (James Dewitt Yancey) is most revered for his unique soul-stirring style of beat-composing, as he is very easily one of the best producers to come out of the Midwest, Detroit to be specific, but in his late-to-surface sixth posthumous album, The Diary (April 15, Pay Jay Productions/Mass Appeal Records), Dilla’s major part played is in his booth-work, i.e. his rap verses of fun poetic rhymes, though the production, by huge names and friends of Dilla, namely Nottz, Madlib, Hi-Tek, Pete Rock, Bink! and others, is arguably worth greater attention than the vocals, no disrespect to the late Dilla and his guests. It’s a solid set of records that honors the legacy of the man, and it really does feel like his diary, if that of his loose play-life mostly.
This album actually has a long history, going back quite some time before Dilla passed away in 2006 from the rare blood disease TTP. It was evidently recorded in the years leading up to 2002, when it was originally intended to be released. Dilla deliberately designed it so that his main focus would be on the mic with outside producers primarily supplying the music. MCA, the label Dilla was signed to at the time, shelved the album because of their disapproval for it, and later on, in his declining years, Dilla apparently made it clear to close associates that he wanted it to be his last album released, and now it’s here, thanks to J’s estate in conjunction with Mass Appeal, rapper Nas’s flagship music organization.
In terms of sound-style and subject matter, the tracks on the album definitely sound like recordings from the early 2000s but in a good way, despite what the commercially systematized MCA Records might have thought. Dilla gives us some of his strong proclamatory background info over what were back then future sounds in the combustible “Introduction.” The production tends to mellow out a bit going forward, going for more of your typical sounds of the time, but a few especially mellifluous tracks do stand out. The loving “Shining Pt. 1 (Diamonds)” with its sweet chiming beat and the fun “So Far” with a strong and elegant soundscape are two good examples of nice melodic beat-music here. A lot of what Dilla raps on in The Diary has to do with rowdy hood essences and sexy times. The last two songs though are a little different. “F*ck The Police” is an important protest of police indecency, and “The Diary” is a partial history, or a light biography, of Dilla’s early life.
Even though a few parts have some pretty deep seriousness, the bulk of The Diary is devoted to fun and “getting into it,” describing the high leisurely moments in the lives of J and his friends, and yes it can seem and feel uncouth and improper, but it’s all largely for the wow-factor, the desire to penetrate listeners’ consciences and open up their small, self-constructed, walled up worlds. Dilla’s guests include Frank n Dank, Nottz, Boogie, Kenny Wray, Snoop Dogg, Kokane and Bilal – all good spots. All around, this Diary reveals very little else about Dilla that we didn’t already know, but it does well in preserving the life and times of the great hip-hop music maker. As mentioned, it’s a little too high on the “ignant sh*t” and short on real smartness, but what more can you expect topically from these particular artists? Overall, The Diary is a juicy-enough audio-booklet of personal experiences from J and company.