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J Dilla - Jay Stay Paid

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Artist: J Dilla

Album: Jay Stay Paid

Label: Nature Sounds

Review date: Jul. 9, 2009

On a Friday night in New York City, a tall man was spotted in the middle of the floor of Santos Party House, the nightclub owned by Andrew W.K. The man stood inert and clothed in black from the base of his denim ankles, across his leather sleeves, along his trimmed beard and the rims of his glasses, up to the summit of his fitted, precisely cocked cap. He carried the proportions and expressionless face of a bouncer. DJ Rich Medina’s loud hip hop only occasionally nudged him from his stillness to a mild sway, his heavy arms dangling like the hem of an upwind sail. The massiveness of this beam of a man was broken by just one detail. Upon his black t-shirt, framed by the oval of his unzipped jacket, were two lines of text, captured in large, white, all-caps font. The words were earnest, plaintive, a statement of sentiment unexpected from this man and his blank, taciturn presence. But in their phrasing and size, there was little doubt that these words were sincerely meant:


Such frank statements of acknowledgement, indebtedness, appreciation – they have been the custom for the last three-and-a-half years since James Yancey’s death. Again and again, words like these have been uttered and posted by audiences that might be assumed too stoic or fickle to linger on a man who was primarily a producer, and a publicity-shy one at that. But even the most hardened have their soft spots, and for the hip hop community, Dilla was it. His memory has been held (a bit like Tupac’s well after his end) by a succession of posthumous releases.

Jay Stay Paid is the most recent. (The subsequent Dillanthology volumes are a collection of songs published during his lifetime.) Yet the new material does not account for the whole of Dilla’s continued relevance. Rather, albums like Jay Stay Paid keep Dilla in the discussion by reminding us of his total mastery of hip hop’s traditional form. They add more evidence – as if it were needed – for the case that Dilla’s works are the culmination of the method Marley Marl first devised. One need only hear Jay Stay Paid’s “Lazer Gun Funk,” 80 seconds of expertly coordinated bass drum and handclaps, to appreciate that Dilla marks the meridian for what the Juice Crew started more than 20 years ago.

But let me refrain from boxing Dilla into the corner of the old school. Hip hop has trailed off in directions far and wide from the James Brown and Meters drum approximations that kept the genre in place from the mid-1980s and through the decade that followed. And as hip hop artists diverted into techno, aural robotics and geographical territories, Dilla remained somewhat conservative. Though his late material was punchier and more inventive than his earlier neo-soul productions, he never steered that far from the latter-day Native Tongues style. But, somehow, Dilla never sounded dated. Even without today’s hi-jinks (though, as tracks like “Expensive Whip” and the sci-fi “Dilla Bot vs. the Hybrid” show, he could play the futurist card well enough) Dilla sounds very much of the moment, resonating with songs that are skillful and substantial. Being an older artist a few steps behind the newest innovations didn’t put him off-pace. It allowed him to achieve depths, subtleties and connotations that others could not reach.

Jay Stay Paid is not the best of Dilla’s postmortems. It lacks the complexity and comprehensives of Donuts or the more polished, fully envisioned moments of Ruff Draft, such as that album’s transfixing “Nothing Like This.” Though much of Dilla’s later works were quick jots, Jay Stay Paid sounds too much like the unrevised pages of a journal. (One hopes that the title of this album doesn’t refer to a venal intent behind it – it would be a pity, even if an understandable one, for Dilla’s body of work to be diluted by unfinished record after record released to fill his estate’s coffers.) But despite Jay Stay Paid’s overall need for completion, the album’s high notes soar; take the sneaking “In the Night (Owl n Out),” or the Chi-Lites-inspired nightcap “Coming Back” that leads into the dreamy “Mythsysizer,” a set of beautiful, somnolent twins at the record’s end. No surprise, of course. Consistent with his career output, these moments are short in length but long in significance, like foreshortened peaks at the horizon’s edge for audiences to gaze upon and think over. Maybe these works aren’t enough to move the earth. But, at least for a few, they will prove personally moving, life-changing perhaps, in ways that few other hip hop recordings ever do.

By Ben Yaster

Other Reviews of J Dilla


The Shining

Ruff Draft

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