Review Summary: The late Detroit producer and rap legend posthumously releases one more LP that is a compact collection of tracks that both feature an array guest MCs and different styles spanning his constantly innovative career.
Like it or not, if there is one thing that can be crudely generalized about mainstream rap, its that there is an absolutely gargantuan tendency for martyrdom of artists whom have long since passed. Tupac? Biggie? Jam Master Jay? Big L? Though their legacies as rappers and pioneers of the genre certainly deserve the utmost of tribute possible, said homage by the industry, and specifically contemporary rappers, have devolved into a bizarre Oedipal complex sans the gratuitous incest. What I mean is that such artists have become the cultural and stylistic yardstick for success in the industry. Rappers trying to prove their relevance today (and quite possibly cement their legacy tomorrow) often allude to these fallen greats in their rhymes and model themselves under these supposed precepts (Remember that whole “King of New York” fiasco between Jay-Z and Nas and any other rapper scrambling for the “crown”? bingo). At its worst, the blatant glamorization of death in the hip-hop world has led to the seemingly limitless marketization of these identities through merchandise, biographies, VH1 specials, and of course “newly discovered” CDs. Tupac had 6 albums released before his death. He has posthumously released 8 since (officially, thus not taking into consideration the dozens of unliscenced and unofficial mixes, compilations and hits).
Of course, this isn’t to say that this morally wrong or that these artists don’t deserve any credit or reverence, but it certainly reflects: A) the ruthless marketing practices of the industry, and B) the megalomania of contemporary rap artists in trying to assess themselves as the greatest since Tupac, Biggie, Jam Master Jay, etc.
On February 10, 2006, James Yancey, also known in the rap industry as Jay Dee or more recently as J Dilla, passed away from Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) spurred by Lupus. He had just turned 32 three days earlier. At this point in time, J Dilla is primarily being remembered for not only his seemingly limitless innovation as a producer, but for a personal quality he carried that cannot be crudely generalized about mainstream rap: humbleness. Dilla worked in a field that was increasingly being dominated by an attitude of producers pining for the spotlight whether it be DJ Clue’s heavily reverberated “shout-outs” in the middle of songs or Kanye West’s opinions on Jesus and um, the current administrations attitude towards minorities (like that needs to be discussed). Yancey preferred working behind the glass and rarely, if ever, showcased himself before the artists he produced for. Though he began his career with the influential rap outfit Slum Village, J Dilla’s resume feature extensive collaborations with Common, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul among countless others. Even his occasional spurs with pop success were largely unwarranted (he is the uncredited producer for Janet Jackson’s hit single “Got ‘til its Gone”).
Nonetheless, The Shining
has been perceived as his final opus—a concise and compact collection of beats that underscore his seemingly limitless potential as a producer. Where his earlier release of 2006, Donuts
presents itself as a raw mixtape of brilliant beats and samples; an almanac of grooves to be used and referenced for future tracks by rappers, The Shining
is a finished product that is dominated by guest vocals, particularly those that J Dilla often saw himself as working best with. In this sense, each track is curtailed to the styles of each rapper and as a result, the expansive palette of Dilla’s repertoire is fully realized without overwhelming sense of the album stretching itself into a grandiose finale of epic proportions. The concept is simple: 12 tracks, some instrumental, some with guest vocals, all reveal a different perspective on the Detroit hip-hop prodigy’s career.
Most importantly, The Shining
is able to equitably balance the most extreme points of the sonic qualities of Dilla’s production spectrum. Though his early career placed strong emphasis on breakbeats and heavy use of pristine soul and jazz samples, the latter part of his career was a journey of great experimentation and sonic manipulation they often saw itself toying between extremely difficult technical precision in sampling and beatmaking, bizarre atonal melodies and rhythms, and a indulgence in live instrumentation. This album documents it all in one comfortable smooth listening.
The latter of styles is presented wondrously in the opening track, [BGeek Down[/b] featuring Busta Rhymes. A raucous symphony of kazoos playing excerpts from Beethoven’s 5th and “Flight of the Bumble Bee” provide an unheard degree of intensity that is barely equaled by Busta’s incessant barking and a thunderous beat. Simple and brief, but endlessly creative and infectiously head-bobbing, it provides the perfect ear-grabber. The more bizarre side of Dilla is reinforced with the Common-collaborated E=MC2
that features a ridiculously heavy and distinct beat that sounds like ?uestlove replaced his kick drum with a Nintendo and his drum pedal with a fuc
king hammer, bashing it over and over again creating a relentless groove. Coupled in with an beautiful digital wash of synthesized vocals, the resulting robo-funk its wonderfully arrhythmic but extremely catchy. The icing on this cake is Common’s confident and ferocious rapping that cements this track as one of the best songs that either artists has produced.
Meanwhile, the more laidback soulful edge of Dilla is presently beautifully in the brief interlude of Love Jones
that feature Al Green-smooth horns and a punchy melody over a crisp drumbeat. The clarity of sound presented is simply astonishing and the only complaint that can be provided is that at one minute, it is simply too short to thoroughly enjoy. Segueing into Love
featuring Pharoahe Monch, the sparkling r&b mood continues unabated as the baritone heavy raps blend nicely with a series of hazy soulified vocal samples and fragile strings.
Such laid-back moods come to a head with the invigorating Baby
in which a catchy vocal loop is chopped-up wonderfully between a suave Philly template of strings and horns. The result is a seriously upbeat and momentous groove as guests Guilty Simpson and longtime Dilla-collaborator Madlib provide an equally smooth tag-team rap.
Elsewhere, J Dilla is able to illustrate his rawer side with tracks like the primal Jungle Love
in which the heavy kick drum-and-jingle beat is more than apt for the braggadocio-laced rhyming of MED and Guilty Simpson (who proclaims to have more hos than firemen). The upward intensity of the vocals and the beat meshes together to provide a gritty head-bobbing piece of hip-hop pleasure. Elsewhere the simplistic clickaty-clack percussive-heavy textures of [b]Love Movin’[b] makes the one thing that the Roots often have extreme difficulty in doing: making Black Thought sound charismatic and genuinely unique as an MC, despite the blandness of his battle rhymes.
The last stretch of this album features a few more gems, the mellow and almost formless Dime Piece (Remix)
being one. The cool washes of Rhodes piano, thick bass cut out into sonic wedges and minimalist rhythms is akin to a drifting cloud as Dwele’s buttery crooning is pure soma. Lastly, the final track, Won’t Do
is almost a betrayal to Dilla’s work ethic as it features the producer himself rapping on his own for the first time. Though Dilla doesn’t sound quite so confident behind the mic and his flow is a tad jilted, it is a fitting end for a producer whose constant method of work was to reinvent oneself as the scene would change and try to adapt to his own standards of production and in this instance, Dilla is merely once again displaying how he was always ahead of the curve, but this time with the listener’s expectations. With the ensuing psychedelic beat of spacey reverberated guitar, pulsing grooves and bubbling sonic textures the final rap is fitting bookend to not only a great album but also a dignified career.
Though this album is seemingly brilliant, there are a few dents in its finished product. For one, only 75% of the album was completed at the time of Dilla’s death and though the final portions were completed by Dilla’s longtime associate Kareem Riggins, the briefness and rawness of some of the tracks (as well as the track ordering) suggests this certainly. Additionally some of the songs in this sense feel unwarranted within the larger context of the album. The breezy So Far to Go
is nice and dreamy for a few seconds but then drags on. Body Movin’
similarly feels like the B-side to E=MC2
. Nonetheless, despite these setbacks, the positives of this album are by far more prominent and memorable.
Within the liner notes to The Shining
, Roots drummer/mastermind and world’s only black music geek, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson illustrates his reluctance to visit Dilla during his final months in the hospital not because he was unable to face the harsh reality of terminal disease, but because he knew he would be completely unable to refrain himself from asking Dilla a variety of technical production questions in regards to his ever evolving methodology. Similarily, I originally wanted to write this review without putting a great deal of emphasis on Dilla’s passing; the music, not the spectacle should be more important. However, what remains is that The Shining
provides not only a fitting end to expansive career of one of modern hip-hop’s most influential minds but during the course of the album’s 36-odd minutes, the notion of inevitable death becomes a minor element. Though Yancey left his opus unfinished, The Shining
provides not only strong feelings of atonement and closure, but makes the very boundaries of life and death just an obstacle in the creation of great music. This probably won’t be the last LP of music to be released by J Dilla in the near future; his establishment as a cult favorite in the hip-hop won’t go unnoticed for a long time. What is more important is the realization of this final piece of music as simply as a great album with the possible hope that it will be humbly remembered in the future as rap classic. Nothing more, nothing less.