REVIEW: J Dilla, “The Diary”

Everything that we know and listen to in hip-hop stands on the shoulders of giants. Though there are so many different sounds, lyrical styles and sub-genres existing in hip-hop today, all of that stems from the artists and producers that inspired our generation to pick up the mic, and get in the booth. One of, if not the most influential hip-hop producer is without a doubt James Dewitt Yancey, better known as the one and only J Dilla. Having sadly passed away at the age of 32 in 2006 as the result of a rare blood disease, Dilla’s legacy has lived in on the constant appreciation of his beats and tapes, his collaborations with other influential artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and Erykah Badu, and the seemingly endless stream of his material and beats that gets released posthumously. Today graces us with the latest of these posthumous releases, The Diary.

From the outset, let’s make a bit of a distinction here about Dilla’s releases since he passed away. While there’s been a huge amount of lost beats and tapes that’ve been found and released by Jay Dee’s family, friends and collaborators in recent years, next to none of these were actually meant to be getting released. A lot of them weren’t finished, and we can’t be sure if they’re something that he wanted to share with the world.

The Diary however, has been waiting for its release date for over 13 years now. Originally finished in 2002, just after his breakout record Welcome 2 Detroit, The Diary was shelved by his label, which ultimately lead to his moving to California, and the creation of Ruff Draft and the incomparable Donuts. Though he stepped behind the mic later alongside Madlib as Jaylib on Champion Sound, The Diary was the first time Dilla’s extraordinary producer talents soundtracked his own rhymes.

“Motha’ fucka’ get the name right now; my live n*ggas love it like they name Bilal; I bangs it out, niggas put the same shit out; and I’ve been observing the game, came to save it now.” – The Introduction sets the tone of The Diary perfectly. Though we may know Dilla as a humble genius, his punchy delivery of lines and flow shows us a side of the man that’s more in line with current hip-hop attitudes and confidence. It comes through on a number of tracks, one which might sound pretty familiar.

Released originally in 2001, Fuck The Police makes a welcome appearance on the record. A response to his history of being racially profiled by Detroit police, the track undoubtedly remains as relevant today as it was back then, with Dilla’s words, as always, remaining timeless. The same intensity is felt on The Sickness too, with a phenomenal feature from Nas (added recently, to note, he did not appear on the original cut) and production by Madlib himself. The instrumental sounds like it could get ripped straight from Champion Sound or even a part of Donuts, and Dilla keeps it paced as the banger of the album. That’s not to say that the delivery stales or feels repetitive though; quite the opposite. Gangsta Boogie showcases his ability to switch his flow so dynamically, which he manages to do beautifully alongside Snoop Dogg and Kokane. It’s funky and bassy as anything, and straight away we get thrown into Drive Me Wild, on a completely separate end of the spectrum. It’s almost surf rock, with Dilla’s voice multi-layered and talk-singing over organs, plucked guitar and synths that all sound like they could’ve been done live.

A little bit later we’re treated to The Ex, featuring gorgeous vocals by Bilal. While everything else so far has been way more in your face, The Ex is Dilla’s telling of a very real and intimate story about a lost love. By changing up his delivery only slightly, he takes us to a whole different place, with such familiar sounds. It’s the diversity of all the instrumentals and vocal styles on all of these tracks that demonstrates just how ahead of the game Dilla was. There’s little bits of every modern artist we know and love in here if you dig deep enough. Just over ten years since his death, Dilla is still showing us why he was, and still is, the king.

Donuts will always remain Yancey’s parting gift to the world, but The Diary is what it is; a look into the life of Dilla as he was reaching his peak. In another world, it would have seen a release in 2002, and his career may have taken a very different turn before his passing, but it’s a gift for all of us now. J Dilla is one of the giants that hip-hop stands on, and The Diary is the partial manifestation of a legacy that every fan of hip-hop should concern themselves with.