Saturday, February 10, 2007

Donuts: J. Dilla's Finest Work

[To commemorate the one year anniversary of J. Dilla's passing, I finally bring to you my review of his album Donuts.]--Sterfish

On February 10, 2006, James Yancey, better known by either Jay Dee or J. Dilla, passed away from cardiac arrest. At the time of his death, he was also suffering from the disease Lupus. J. Dilla was one of the premier producers in hip-hop. He worked with some of hip-hop's best artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Common, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, and De La Soul. This producer's producer was also an artist himself as a member of Slum Village, as one-half of Jaylib (a collaboration with producer Madlib), or solo.

The final album Dilla released before his death went into stores only three days prior to his passing. Donuts was released on February 7, 2006 on Dilla's 32nd birthday. It is a collection of 31 hip-hop instrumentals. Donuts might not seem all that special initially. Other hip-hop producers have released instrumental collections including Dr. Dre, Madlib, Pete Rock, MF Doom, and RJD2. The idea of an instrumental hip-hop album is not unique. However, Donuts transcends the simple notion of an album of beats. It is unlike any other instrumental collection in both content and construction. It is a beautiful, detailed, and innovative album that will influence producers and artists for years to come.

Your first listen to Donuts might throw you off a bit. Every song on Donuts is less than three minutes long and most are under two minutes long. It doesn't have a clear flow to it. Just when you really get into one song, the album has moved on to something else. It's a messy ride for the uninitiated and it might just underwhelm you. Like a lot of great works, it takes a little time to really enjoy this album for what it is. Once you get past the first listen, though, you begin to notice the things that make this album great.

The first thing you will notice are the album's standout tracks. Although virtually every song on this album is great, there are a couple that standout from the rest. One such standout is “Workinonit,” the first full song on the album and its longest. What sounds like revving race cars drop you right into the action as things get started. This song straddles the line between a beat and a “real” song and also straddles the line between hip-hop and the various genres of dance/electronica. It also gets you acquainted with Dilla's technique of unexpectedly dropping elements into a song. Guitars pop in out of nowhere as do the chants of “Workin' on it!” Even with all the disparate elements, nothing feels out of place.

Another thing that will stand out is the use of vocals. This album is only instrumental in the sense that no one is directly rapping or singing over the beats. Sampled vocals play a very large part in this album's success. Dilla treats the vocals from various soul songs the same way he treats everything else and the result is often unusual and almost revelatory.

On “Time: The Donut Of The Heart,” vocals come and go quickly. The singers are actually cut off mid-line. The vocals present on “Waves” are cut and mixed to the point where they actually resemble...waves. The effect is mesmerizing and a bit jarring at the same time. The way vocals are layered on “Airworks” is just jaw-dropping. They are stitched together to make a beat and the construction is played with throughout. Words are twisted and combined while other vocals (from the same artist) are put over the proceedings. In all these cases, everything stays on beat and the vocals add to (rather than distract) the beat.

Once you get past the unique and interesting ways that vocals are used, you can dig deeper at the overarching elements of the album. One sound that is prevalent throughout Donuts is the siren. The siren is actually an important sound in hip-hop and not because it's the sound of the police. At clubs and parties, the siren is the signal that lets everyone know that things are getting started. It pumps people up and helps keep things moving. When you hear a siren at a party, you know things are about to get good. The siren serves the same capacity on Donuts. It appears at the beginning of “Workinonit,” “The Diff'rence,” and “Gobstopper” and in the middle of several other songs. It sometimes appears multiple times in one song as it does on “Lightworks.” Given that Dilla was ill during the making of this album, you also must wonder if the sirens have any deeper meaning.

Many J. Dilla fans believe that there are hidden messages in Donuts using the various vocals that are sampled. There are a few instances where the fans' theory isn't so hard to believe. “Stop” features the lines “You're gonna want me back in your arms” and “You're gonna leave me one day.” “Don't Cry” begins with sniffling sounds and the line sung may be a response to those worried about him: “I can't stand to see you cry.”

The stretch of songs towards the end of the album that begin with “U-Love” also add more to this theory. “U-Love” features the words “I love you” repeated over and over. After a long vocal sample, the word “hi” is repeated over and over on “Hi.” The lines repeated on “Bye” feel like things you want to say but somehow can't finish: “I really,” “I wanna,” “Don't ever...”

In addition to the aforementioned lines, there is also an eerie voice present at the end of some songs saying what sounds like “Sure, it strains...” It appears at the end of “Glazed,” for example and you wonder if it represent Dilla working through his illness in the last years of his life. The final message, though, may be in the fact that the first song is “Donuts (Outro)” and that the last song is “Welcome To The Show.” The end is not an ending but a new beginning.

As someone who first listened to this album after J. Dilla's death, I must say that Donuts really makes you miss him. There is more depth and variety on this one disc than in some hip-hop producers' whole careers. It feels hands-on, almost like Dilla jumped directly into his music and molded it like a sculptor. You don't just hear a producer/artist at the top of his game, you hear one that could have gone even higher. He probably had it in him to create the next great hip-hop masterpiece. Donuts may not be that masterpiece, but it comes very, very close.

It's a testament to Dilla's legacy that various artists have used the beats from Donuts. “Hi” and “One For Ghost” appeared as “Beauty Jackson” and “Whip You With A Strap” on Ghostface Killah's album Fishscale. “Time: The Donut Of The Heart” became “Can't Stop This,” a tribute to J. Dilla by The Roots on their album Game Theory. “Bye” became “So Far To Go” featuring Common and D'Angelo on J. Dilla's posthumously released album The Shining. Busta Rhymes and Rah Digga also used tracks that appeared on Donuts for songs of their own.

Even though one year has passed since its release, Donuts has not lost any of its power. In fact, it gets better and better with each listen. New things catch your attention even after the tenth or twelfth listen. Any fan of good music whether hip-hop or otherwise should check out this album. I cannot recommend it enough.

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