J Dilla (James Yancey) has always been recognized as one of the most prolific producers in hip-hop, even still today—ten years after his death. PayJay Productions, Dilla’s longtime recording company, has been restored by his estate as an imprint to release his “long lost vocal album, The Diary on April 15th, in conjunction with Mass Appeal Records.” Eothen Alapatt, the creative director of Dilla’s Estate, told Rolling Stone that this was the “last record that [Yancey] actually wanted out.” This is the sixth album to be released posthumously. The Diary is the first vocal release from Dilla since his first rap albums from 2003. It is the only rap album released after his death, the others all being composed of instrumentals.
“Initially intended for release in 2002, The Diary is the final batch of unissued material that Dilla had assembled for release during his lifetime, lending crucial insight into the producer’s prowess and thought process in the period leading up to his break with the major label system and the extremely fertile period that followed (which encompassed the making of the canonical classics Ruff Draft, Jaylib, and Donuts). The Diary features vocal performances by J Dilla, Snoop Dogg, Bilal, Kokane, Frank and Dank, Nottz and Boogie, over production by Dilla, Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-tek, Nottz, House Shoes, Supa Dave West, Bink! and Karriem Riggins. The album was announced in an interview with Nas on Zane Lowe’s show on Beats1 with the never-before-heard song ‘The Introduction.’”
With multiple producers throwing in on the album, it seems a bit disconnected as a whole. It is pretty interesting to hear Dilla’s vocals presented in many different ways, but fans of his own production style may be disappointed. The album feels like a sample platter with some very obviously delicious things to offer, and others tasting stale after hours of being rejected by everyone at the party.
The opening track is probably one of the best, titled “The Introduction”. Production credits come from Detroit hip-hop ambassador—House Shoes, as well as J Dilla. It is the perfect commencement piece, and sets a building tone of live energy and lyrics warning to “expect nothing but fire, it’s on and poppin’”.
Critically acclaimed producer Madlib, who has worked with Dilla on multiple occasions and even formed a collaborative project called Jaylib, lends his production to a track about half way into the album called “The Shining Pt. 2 (Ice)”. The song is barely over a minute long, and plays on like a looped riff from a 90s video game. Snoop Dogg and Kokane are featured on the Hi-Tek produced “Gangsta Boogie”. It definitely feels like a Snoop track. Funky bass hooks carry the verses. It feels a bit awkward to bring 2016 into an album that was meant to be released 14 years ago. Snoop raps “I met Obama in some Snoop Dogg house shoes”.
Only four songs on the album are actually produced by Dilla, but one other producer definitely catches his distinct vibe. Pete Rock is a producer out of New York known for his fusion of jazz and hip-hop. He produced “The Ex” which also features vocals from Bilal. It feels the most congruent with Dilla’s sound.
Is this album the posthumous masterpiece all the hype will have you believe? No. Is it interesting and worth listening to? Yes.
Review by Eric Stevens