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.