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J Dilla - The Shining

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Artist: J Dilla

Album: The Shining

Label: BBE

Review date: Aug. 6, 2006

J Dilla, the hip hop impresario born James Yancey, passed away this winter, finally succumbing to the complications of lupus. In the wake of his untimely death, two albums have been released, with a third slotted in the near future. The Shining, the second of these posthumous works, may inspire less awe than Yancey’s preceding Donuts, but it is, perhaps, a more forthright testament to the collection of songs Yancey released in his lifetime, thus providing a richer, more telling eulogy for a man so well respected by his peers and fans.

Donuts, an album of 31 instrumental tracks, is the most impressive hip-hop recording of recent memory and will most likely serve as both the capstone and legacy of Yancey’s storied career. As such, comparing The Shining to Donuts is a tall order and, given the content of the two albums, weighing the former against the latter offers little more than an exercise in incommensurability. Donuts was refreshing because of its break from the aesthetic standards listeners have come to expect from a hip hop record. The absence of vocals was Donuts’ most striking feature and the brevity of its songs – only one clocks over two minutes – stood apart from the usual robust time lengths of pop music. On its face, Donuts might have appeared like nothing more than half-finished basement tapes, unrefined and in want of a rapper to hold listener’s attentions and lend an identifiable presence. After a full listening, however, this interpretation could not have been more wrong. Donuts functioned as a full and beautiful work, its scrapbook method more aphoristic than slapdash in character. It was a rarity among hip hop or, for that matter, pop records: an album whose whole glowed more greatly than the sum of its already radiant parts.

The Shining casts a different, more diaphanous light, sparkling less, yet, like a viewing glass, providing a frame through which listeners can glean the breadth of Yancey’s career. With Donuts as the exception, Yancey made his name providing tracks for other hip hop artists, often for a cabal of erudite rappers – Yancey began his production with A Tribe Called Quest and would later work with other luminaries like the Roots, Talib Kweli, and Madlib – many of whose salad days ended half a decade ago. (Yancey also rapped occasionally, though his rhymes paled in comparison to his work behind the boards.)

The Shining is representative of Yancey in this production capacity. Half a dozen rappers provided verses for the album, to mixed effect. Guilty Simpson, an upstart from Yancey’s hometown of Detroit, is The Shining’s lyrical gem. While the jury is out on whether he has the creativity and charm to be a star, Guilty Simpson’s two appearances here suggest that he is, at the very least, consistent. On the other hand, Common is as cheeky and sentimental as ever. Perhaps Yancey’s greatest feat as a producer was “The Light,” a kid-tested, parent-approved piece of bubblegum on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. “The Light” was, and will always remain, a guilty pleasure. To Yancey’s credit, however, there has been no other producer who has so deftly taken Common’s saccharine and made sugar. “The Light” was a paragon of production: Yancey magnified Common’s endearing qualities, and, in the song’s insouciance, diminished Common’s neo-soul man routine. Had Yancey survived to see The Shining’s end, I pray he would have convinced Common to mute his Cyrano on “So Far So Good,” a fuzzy riff on Donuts’ “Bye” featuring D’Angelo’s well-placed cooing.

Besides providing his beats as a stage for rappers and singers to ply their trades, Yancey was also a master sampler, conjuring regal tapestries from the vinyl flotsam of years past. There has always been elegance in Yancey’s work, suggesting both a confidence in his own abilities and a reverence for the original recordings he was using. Rare is the J Dilla track that confuses the ears with a bevy of excessive or clashing sounds. Rather, his songs are orchestrated most harmoniously, allowing the listener to reap the benefits of both the musicians who first created the samples and of Yancey, himself, the musician who webbed those samples together years later. “Baby” and “Body Movin’” are two such songs, and “Dime Piece” affirms Yancey as one of the genre’s masters of drum programming. Without much more than a snare and a skittering cymbal, “Dime Piece” is as compelling as it is simple. May future producers in this increasingly overwrought genre take heed.

The Shining welcomes listeners to reflect on the magnitude of Yancey’s career, as any posthumous work is apt to do. Unlike Donuts, however, this newest offering will not leave Yancey’s listeners despondent about what could have been but, rather, will provide a fitting epitaph for what was. Acknowledging that the album is unexceptional is hardly a criticism. As his proponents well know, the spectacular was often the norm when Yancey was at the helm. The Shining is one more instance of Yancey’s greatness.

By Ben Yaster

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