Saturday, April 07, 2007

CD Review: Ruff Draft (Deluxe Reissue) by J. Dilla

Ruff Draft is the latest posthumous release from the great hip-hop producer/rapper J. Dilla. Making its debut on CD after an initial 2003 vinyl release in Germany, this EP is a stunning reminder of J. Dilla's talent. It's an innovative album that ranks among the best works in J. Dilla's far too short career.

Ruff Draft has a decidedly gritty, low-fi sound. It lacks the “polish” of a lot of current hip-hop albums and reminds you of hip-hop's early days. However, don't let the lack of polish fool you. There is a lot of artistry on display on this EP.

One of the amazing things about this EP is how J. Dilla managed to make something that sounds very dark and gritty but is actually quite fun and upbeat. “Reckless Driving” is a good example of this. When you hear the beat, with its layers of moody synths, you might think that the lyrical content might be just as moody or dark. That is not the case. The chorus has a lot of stuff you would hear in a “typical” party song: “Get live / Reach for the sky / For the real niggas with the beat in the ride / Nigga turn your bass up another notch if you want...”

The same thing is also true of the song “Nothing Like This.” This gem of a song features an unusual sound with its backwards (country?) sample and gritty drums. J. Dilla doesn't even really rap on this song. He sorta sings and his words are those of a simple and sweet love song: “Incomplete when you're away / You turn my nights into days / You show me the light, uh-huh / Got to have you right away...” This song really shouldn't work but it works really, really well.

This deluxe reissue of Ruff Draft features bonus tracks not included in the original and an extra disc of instrumentals. These extras give you a chance to see just how daring J. Dilla could be. I almost couldn't believe what I heard when I first heard “Wild,” one of the bonus tracks. The song is built on a truly bizarre sample of a little kid singing. The drums on this song are also completely untraditional but like the best songs on Donuts, J. Dilla finds a way to make these odd elements into a very good song.

Ruff Draft is another brilliant album from the late, great Dilla. Since it's so short (the total of both disc is less than an hour), there is no filler to be found here. Even the two interludes are okay. In addition, this album is kind of a prequel to the work that he would do later. When I heard the siren towards the end of “Let's Take It Back,” I was reminded of the way the siren was used throughout Donuts. The reliance on synths also made me think of The Shining, even though the synths on that album are a lot funkier than what's here. What really made me think about Dilla's later work as I listened to Ruff Draft was the immense creative freedom on display here. The complete disregard of hip-hop trends at the time (and even the “rules” of hip-hop beats) is something that would define Dilla's later work.

I heartily recommend Ruff Draft not just for the J. Dilla fan, but for someone looking for some truly creative hip-hop.

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