J Dilla: The Shining

The problem is that while the whole of Dilla's first true posthumous release is incredibly solid and expertly crafted, it's for the most part unremarkable.

J Dilla

The Shining

Contributors: J Dilla, Karriem Riggins
Label: BBE
US Release Date: 2006-08-22
UK Release Date: 2006-08-21

J Dilla's last release, the almost-posthumous Donuts on Stones Throw, was an explosion of creative talent, an outpouring of ideas packed as many as could fit onto a 45-minute disc. The beats changed almost as quickly as they established themselves, varying almost impossibly in style and tone, a sequence of grooves and variations and samples chopped in points almost beyond belief. Most of the largely instrumental album's vocals were mere fragments, slices of breath and exhalation and noise ripped senselessly, divorced entirely from their respective contexts, shuddering like ghosts through the sounds of the tracks. It was the master's tour de force, his last creative burst: imagine what he could have accomplished with just a little bit more time.

J Dilla smiles on the cover of Donuts, his face tilted down and blurred in a distinct demarcation between the artist and the man -- a reminder that however well any one of us may think we grow to know a soul through its musical output, the main bulk of that soul's humanity will escape us. The title works similarly -- why Donuts, the question went? As the official line answered, because James Yancey, the man behind the boards, liked them.

With The Shining, J Dilla's first true posthumous release, the enshrining of J Dilla the artist has begun. One could argue that it began months back, with the endless streams of mourners typing their grief onto message boards immediately following Yancey's passing, with the memorial concerts and the tributes and the news articles. But with The Shining, only about 75% complete at the time of Dilla's death, this legend-building is given physical form. Dilla looms over the city on the jewel case cover, his clothes fresh, his face unreadable and flocks of doves flying behind him. The cardboard sleeve features a designer-style pattern featuring a child's silhouette in a portrait frame, an MPC, and the initials JD. "On August 22nd, 2006," states the press release, "J Dilla's The Shining will serve as a testament to the fact that legends never die."

While Donuts was Dilla's grand instrumental showcase, putting the man front and center while he pulled out the tricks that he had, The Shining puts J Dilla back in his usual role, crafting aural landscapes to back a range of vocalists from singers like D'Angelo and Dwele to MCs like Common, Black Thought, and even himself. With only 12 beats spread over the same running time as Donuts's 32, the format forces Dilla to be subtler, every bit as tight and well-crafted but farther from the spotlight. Busta Rhymes introduces Dilla like a hype man on the intro with terse shouts and a simple, repeated vocal hook -- "You don’t want no problems, nigga / You try'na test the fuckin' godfather Dilla" -- and Dilla handles the rapping on the album closer "Won't Do", but apart from that, some rapping on a middle track, and brief instrumental interludes, for the rest of the album Dilla mostly lets his colleagues take center stage while he illuminates their words with his signature sound.

On many tracks here, that approach works. "E=MC2" features Common in top form, absolutely tearing into a mellow, distinctive track with an eerily echoing, disembodied-sounding Dilla on the chorus. "Love", his track with Pharoahe Monch, is likewise a standout. Monch rocks it well -- "It's soul music, solely for your soul music... It's cheese grits and fillet-of-sole music" -- but the beat from Dilla is gorgeous, a silky soul groove with warm vocal samples bleeding through. "So Far So Good" features similarly solid vocals from D'Angelo and Common, but while the beat is entirely unique and almost unbelievably beautiful, it's a straight lift from Donuts’s second-to-last track, "Bye." "Jungle Love" (with MED and Guilty Simpson) and "Love Movin'" (with the ever-impressive Black Thought) take Dilla's sound in different directions, the former featuring heavy, banging percussion and higher-pitched clinking and rattling, the latter a chorus of clattering and a quiet background lilt.

The problem, then, is that while the whole CD is incredibly solid and expertly crafted, it's for the most part unremarkable. Dilla doesn't miss a step, but neither does he really impress or wow: there are none of the eye-opening, astonishing musical moments from Donuts to be found here. It would be easy to blame this on the undeniable general mood of the album -- contemplative, calm, melancholy -- or the format, which puts less of the focus on Dilla's wide-ranging instrumentals and more on the vocalists. But were a newcomer's name on the album cover, it's doubtful that the album would get as much love -- it just fails to go beyond and it feels far less like an instant classic. J Dilla raps the final track, a shimmering, almost gently mournful slide with his competent but unmemorable rhymes on top.

Yancey is dead. J Dilla is not. Legends never die. More releases from Dilla are forthcoming, his estate has told papers. J Dilla's still here if we close our eyes and we listen.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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

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