J Dilla: The Diary

Fifteen years after J Dilla signed a two-album deal with MCA, his solo rap album The Diary is finally seeing release.

J Dilla

The Diary

Label: Mass Appeal / PayJay
US Release Date: 2016-04-15
UK Release Date: 2016-04-15

“Jay Dee may be the worst rapping producer since Warren G,” Jon Caramnica wrote for Spin in 2000. That was the general sentiment regarding the mic-controlling of Slum Village’s own J Dilla at the turn of the century. When the Detroit native signed a two-album deal with MCA in 2001, the implicit directive -- as is the case with nearly all major label deals -- was not to get any rash ideas about breaking the mold. But instead of submitting two conventional releases to the label, Dilla decided for his first MCA project to produce a bunch of beats for his friends from Detroit, Frank-N-Dank, to appear on an album under their name called 48 Hours. For his second release, which was to be his sophomore solo album The Diary, he commissioned several high profile beatmakers -- Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, Madlib, etc. -- to produce songs for him to rap over.

“[The Diary] would have been a deliberate thwarting of expectations,” writes Jordan Ferguson in his book on Dilla’s opus Donuts. Suffice it to say, neither the Frank-N-Dank album nor the vocal project really delighted label execs. It didn’t help when MCA was absorbed by Geffen in 2002, leaving many artists in the lurch. Both 48 Hours and The Diary were shelved indefinitely. Now, 15 years after Dilla signed his deal with MCA, The Diary is finally seeing release.

Unlike many posthumous albums, we know for certain that the artist actually wanted this one in the hands of the public. The Diary highlights an oft-overlooked aspect of Dilla’s legacy, encouraging listeners to approach his oeuvre with a new outlook. “Despite the criticisms, MC’ing was an essential part of Dilla’s musical identity,” says Ferguson, “a way to let loose, to have fun with the music in a way that his relentless creative drive might not have allowed.” While The Diary is undeniably an important piece of Dilla lore, and one that needed to be properly uncovered, it’s not always a captivating listen.

The album’s opening cut, “The Introduction”, has Dilla rapping ferociously (“So contagious / Call me J Isley”), but it’s rare that he replicates this febrile energy elsewhere on the LP. “The Shining Pt. 1 (Diamonds)”, a song produced by Nottz that was previously extant in bootleg form, has an opulent beat, with a jarringly commercial R&B hook from Kenny Wray. Meanwhile, “The Shining Pt. 2 (Ice)”, is augmented by an excellent Madlib beat, resembling something Moe Luv might have cooked up for the Ultramagnetic MCs at the end of the ‘80s. “So Far” is the emotional nucleus of the album; its chipmunk-soul sampling is redolent of the early 2000s. Once you’ve been lulled into a daze by its dreamy sonics, Dilla knocks you out with the next track, “Fuck the Police”, the only instance on The Diary where he assumes sole production duties. Inspired by his less-than-pleasant encounters with Detroit law enforcement, Dilla here loops a flute and a drum break, piling on vicious raps that are of a piece with those found on the opening track.

Unlike his close friend Madlib, who disguises his weak voice with pitch modulation, Dilla’s vocals are distinctive, making him well-suited to rap music. But this doesn’t change the fact that his cadences and his charisma on the mic are simply never that impressive. Most of the songs on The Diary work far better in isolation than they do when treated as part of a unified whole. Dilla’s MC persona is only really palatable in small morsels, and so it’s not hard to see why this album was shelved for as long as it was. The Diary does represent a formative chapter in Dilla’s career, however, and thus deserves posterity.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.