“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.