Very rarely does the artist get to leave this world with a storybook ending to their legacy. But as tragic as J Dilla’s 2006 death was, his parting shot, Donuts, was not only a testament to his ingenuity but elevation to the top of hip hop’s pantheon, perhaps for eternity. It managed to breathe an entire narrative with hardly any vocals attached, and left the public at large with the sick feeling that a true genius had left the studio for good. Not too many artists are able to leave as lasting a mark as this timeless masterpiece.
But The Diary is none of these things. By their very nature, posthumous albums are met with a bittersweet resistance, but usually for good reason. However, aside from standard mixing and technological reheating, The Diary was genuinely assembled by Dilla himself in the early Noughties before being shelved indefinitely due to record label shifting. But even disregarding the elephant in the room – the fact that Dilla’s ingenuity resided not in his rhyming ability per se but his ferocious production – the album is recognisable in name only. Only a few songs register in their entirety as actual conceivable moments that the artist would have presumably been comfortable releasing. 'The Shining Pt. 1 (Diamonds)' featuring Kenny Wray, bears a kinship with the bouncy, catchy rhythms that Dilla recorded with his fellow Detroit partners Slum Village. A radio-friendly hook upholsters the tune for one of the album’s rare displays of excellence.
During his brief, yet enormous life, Dilla’s production was such a towering presence that his handiwork was often the main ingredient in concoctions he crafted with other rappers, almost like a voice in itself. It was the earned arrogance of a masterful musician making the loudest and important statement on even given record in spite of the absence of actual bars. But even at his best on The Diary Dilla sounds, and at worst utterly forgettable - the latter being the most unforgivable crime. Not far into the album comes 'Trucks', a woeful misuse of talent. A severely overused sample combined with an uninspired performance makes the song an altogether difficult listen. The same stale recipe rears its ugly head on 'Gangsta Boogie', featuring Snoop Dogg and Kokane. Dilla opts for a G-Funk instrumental, a signature of the West Coast sound, but both the production and the humdrum performances make the track wholly forgettable.
At times, the music featured on The Diary is such a gross misrepresentation of Dilla’s canon that it reeks of send-up. As an artist who epitomised the concept of trailblazing, most of the tracks not only sound outdated but poor imitations as well. 'The Shining Pt. 2 (Ice)' is an unimaginative, bankrupt follow-up to its shining predecessor. In most cases however, Dilla’s production has the potential to achieve merit but is quickly drowned out by uninspired performances on the mic. 'So Far' is an expert study in the sample-heavy sound Dilla perfected in the early Noughties before moving on to different heights, but a more proficient rhyme-slayer would have accounted for a more magnetic recording. Ditto for the “The Creep (O),” which unfortunately never comes close to reaching its full potential.
Clearly, the only person that can truly account for the direction of how The Diary was actually intended is no longer around, but one can only assume that the real reason Dilla did not release way have been more than just label politicking. The overwhelming call to have the work of a deceased musician must be ultimately tempered by an even stronger desire not to have said artist’s image unnecessarily tainted. Usually, the fan secretly pines for the artist to shed their cape and align themselves more with mortality than myth, but not in Dilla’s case. Donuts is still such a fiercely living document that anything that grossly detracts from that mystique is doing a disservice to the artist at the very least. Luckily, The Diary’s missteps are not enough to blemish or blot the eternal shine of the work the artist released in his living moments.
5Kellan Miller's Score