March 1, 2007

Shining: Heeeere’s Dilla

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Released six months after his death, The Shining contains some of the finest work of renowned producer J Dilla’s (James Yancey) all-too-brief life. In the style that defined his career, a mix of neo-soul sampling, pumping percussion and swirling electronica, Dilla’s efforts here are nothing short of transcendent. Over the twelve stylized tracks, a slew of so-called “conscious” rappers (in contradistinction to “unconscious” rappers of the mainstream) effectively pay their respects to the late beatmaker they love so dearly. Among those contributing verses to “The Shining” are veterans Common and Pharoahe Monch, and newcomer Guilty Simpson, who, like Dilla, hails from Detroit. Simpson professes a tender love on “Baby” and throws punches on “Jungle Love,” on which he delivers the sort-of-threatening “I’ll maul y’all like a shopping center.”

Love, often tough, is the prevailing emotion of The Shining. Dilla makes this known through the album’s song names, which include “Love Jones,” “Jungle Love,” “Love Movin’,” featuring the Roots’ Black Thought and, simply, “Love,” featuring Pharoahe Monch. On “Love,” Monch expands on the soulfulness of Dilla’s work: “Its soul music, solely-for-your-soul music…from your fitted [cap] to your Nike sole music, its cheese grits and filet of sole music.” Indeed, from the samples to the beats to the rhymes, The Shining smacks of neo-soul flavor. But, while it is an album brimming with love and soul, The Shining also promotes the antiestablishment message of its underground rappers and producer. Throughout his career, Dilla has remained clearly outside of the mainstream market; most of his beats are too unusual for mainstream success. His tracks are often released as instrumentals and the lyricists he works with are rarely high-selling.

Dilla takes to the mike over the bubbly beat of “Won’t Do,” the best song on the album. On it, his thoughts range from the comically boastful (“my whole body blinging like C-3PO”) to the playfully misogynistic (“I attracts them golddiggers with them big ol’ jellies smuckered out”). The beat is quintessential Dilla, with the high-pitched croon of an obscure soul tune slipping in and out of the background, a smooth percussion loop and a faint digital effervescence. Above all, this is the essence of Dilla–recording songs that, while appealing, do not conform to the traditional hip-hop beat. During his life, Dilla was successful in making music because he merely recorded what he wanted to hear. The beats on The Shining simply reflect their maker’s mood. In a brief clip on the album, asked about his inspiration, Dilla responds: “It’s just how I feel for the day, I don’t understand how this shit comes through me, it just happens.”