Bittersweet symphony 

It sounds unfinished, and I guess that's the saddest thing. You get engrossed in the brassy, funky "Love Jones" and then it's over, a minute of inspiration left looking for an emcee. But even though some of it feels like a sketch, as the final proof of J Dilla's artistry as a hip hop craftsman, The Shining more than holds up. It whirs up from the underground — those Cylon robots chanting the title in "E=MC2"? You're not going to hear that on Diddy's new joint. But it's overground too — the same track pulses at a perfectly smooth meter, a candy apple red Monte Carlo on dubs changing lanes on the Ambassador Bridge, and Common's flow is like a breeze on a late summer Midwestern evening. Later, on "Jungle Love," Guilty Simpson continues the hot streak that started with his appearance on Dabrye's recent Two/Three, riding the track's anxious percussion with his usual flair for being the loudest guy in the room. "If I was any hotter, I'd drink straight vodka/Spit out flames and piss lava." It's nice to hear a new local favorite in Guilty Simpson alongside longtime Dilla confidants like Common, D'Angelo, and Busta Rhymes; it gives The Shining context, and suggests where Dilla's muse might have taken him.

It won't now, but the outpouring of respect, props and tributes that have made the period since Dilla's death a six-month eulogy have brought us to The Shining, a succinct if sadly unfinished representation of why this guy was really so great — subtlety and coolness in equal measure. The Shining's so important, we're reviewing it three times.

 

The first time Metro Times interviewed Dilla in 1996, he was asked what he was listening to. "Nirvana," he said with a mix of awe and pride. It was the Unplugged album. Well, The Shining is Dilla's Unplugged. It'll be seen as his swan song, but ultimately it should just show how Dilla, like Cobain, repped the underground that spawned him but could still claim the whole of pop music as eminent domain. For all the crate-digging on The Shining (those dirty bumps in "Body Movin'," etc.), it's the anything-and-everything spirit of Dilla that produces the alternately wistful and hopeful future-soul that defines it. He straight-up unplugs for "Love Jones," an instrumental featuring drums, keys and trumpet, where "Love" is a shout-out party jam with New York City hard-ass Pharoahe Monch crooning over a "We must be in love" chorus. And, sure, the "Baby" sample on "Baby" is so chopped-up that it becomes a pun only heads will notice. But emcees Madlib and Guilty Simpson still turn it into a radio hit from a parallel universe. Underground and overground. While you could fault the scattershot catholicism of The Shining — and Busta Rhymes' F-bomb-laced opener "Geek Down (Intro)" seems incongruously hostile — you'd do better to enjoy Dilla melding hip-hop breaks with techno's icy soul, "The New Dance Show" with Electrifyin' Mojo. Then dig the after-the-rain walk of "So Far to Go," where Common and D'Angelo trade wistful and sexy couplets, followed by the chain-driven beat of "Jungle Love" — it's a crazy rhythm collision not just of the best hip hop, but a future of music as inspiring as it is original. —Hobey Echlin

 

One can't help but be skeptical of J Dilla's The Shining because pop music has made us all cynics of posthumous releases. Everyone from John Lennon to Tupac Shakur released post-mortem material that ranged from awesome to awful. But BBE has promised Shining will do nothing but add to the legendary legacy of James "J Dilla" Yancey. The album opens with "Geek Down (Intro)," a typical Busta Rhymes rant that sounds slightly forced over Dilla's funky, synthesized Beethoven background. "E=MC2" features a pre-Kanye West (a la Electric Circus era) Common that reminds us how well these two worked together. "Love Jones" is an instrumental that doesn't sound finished, while "Dime Piece" and "Baby" do little more than show off Dilla's superb drum programming skills. The album's biggest flaw is its inconsistency. The Shining doesn't know if it wants to be a funky roller coaster ride or an easy cruise around Belle Isle. The energy Black Thought brings to "Love Movin'" and the melodic softness of D'Angelo on "So Far to Go" stand out too much from the rest of the album. Local favorite Guilty Simpson spits the fire on "Jungle Love," and Pharoahe Monch comes out of hip hop's lost-and-found department to make a solid appearance between the ambient strings and horns of "Love." Overall, The Shining is good. And it certainly won't harm the deceased superproducer's legacy. But fans will wonder for years how the album would've sounded if Mr. Yancey himself had only had time to finish it. Because in its complete moments, it's amazing. —Kahn Davison

 

Jay Dee's musical genius is always hard to write about. It's easy to pretend that you understand where he was coming from, but there are few human beings on the planet that can legitimately speak to Dilla's brilliance without talking out of their asses. It's like trying to write about the methodology of John Coltrane or Lee "Scratch" Perry — frankly, it's bullshit. The reality is, Dilla's music speaks for itself. And despite all of the intricate production tricks he was famous for, the end product was always simple. Yes, The Shining bangs out with impossibly syncopated stutter kicks, and samples looped backward. But it also resonates with a simplicity that few albums achieve. It's street when it needs to be, yet bohemian too. Listen to the track "E=MC2" as his former roommate Common lays vocals down, and you can literally hear those two worlds coming together. Peep the cosmic genius on "Geek Down (Intro)," the album's intro, as Dilla speeds up a sample of Beethoven played on a chorus of kazoos. There wasn't much he couldn't do in a studio — and Dilla plays all the Moog keyboard parts on The Shining too. What's even more amazing is how uncompromising this record is as a whole. He's got no problem putting Guilty Simpson and Madlib on the same track because his ears sensed that they complemented each other. He knew exactly how to chop up the Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark" record to make "Won't Do" sound soulful in exactly the right places. And that's what makes The Shining such a fun album, despite the ellipsis it puts on the man's career. Even from a hospital bed, Dilla could still make the neurons in your face start tingling. —Jonathan Cunningham

Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to jloftus@metrotimes.com

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