J Dilla is undoubtedly one of hip hop’s finest beat makers, musical innovators and production geniuses. James Yancey is also, arguably, hip hop’s greatest producer; nobody can argue that he doesn’t take a top ten spot. Unfortunately, he left too soon, however, as Jay Dee passed away in February of 2006 due to a rare blood disease. But what he left behind was not only a legacy, but a catalogue of some of hip hop’s most heralded gems.
Since it is J Dilla Month, eLL. and Stone – two avid J Dilla fans and knowledgeable listeners – decided to settle the score and rank each one of Dilla’s albums. We broke down each product and put them in their own unique light and perspective. Find out what we think is the best J Dilla album as we go through each and every one of Dilla Dawg’s solo projects, from Welcome 2 Detroit, all the way to Jay Love Japan – his last self-completed album.
7. Vol. 1: Unreleased
After Dilla went solo from Slum Village, he gave us a dose of his rapping skills and solo instrumental skills. The “exhibit A,” if you will of his instrumental skills manifested itself as his album, Vol. 1: Unreleased.
Of course, the beats on here were dope, what with “Flyyyyy” and “Vibe Out,” but that’s all they were…beats. Any producer can put out a beat tape and yeah, it can be hella dope, but when it comes down to it, this project was just some tracks Jay Dee threw together and put out. It falls short of his later instrumental efforts solely because it comes off as a beat tape, and nothing more.
6. Jay Love Japan
“Say It” was fucking dope. Plain and simple. But when it comes down to it, that’s all Jay Love Japan really has to its name.
Although many say that Dilla finished this before his death, we can’t really be sure of that fact, but I could see if it wasn’t done before he passed because it has a certain quality about it that makes it sound barely like an album. With more tracks like “Say It,” this album would surely surpass a few others on this list, but one mighty track won’t beat out multiple solid tracks.
5. Welcome 2 Detroit
I compare Jay Love Japan and this album to Illmatic and It Was Written. Every song on Illmatic was a classic, but It Was Written had three or four tracks on it that beat all of Illmatic. Welcome 2 Detroit had dope songs for sure, but barely any that are memorable. Jay Love Japan had “Say It,” but nothing more.
So, just like Illmatic, Welcome 2 Detroit will always get the extra love because, overall, there were more great songs on here than on JLJ. W2D also had a really raw, dirty sound that makes it a lot better quality-wise than the preceding albums.
4. The Shining
The first album to be released after Dilla’s unfortunate passing was The Shining. Now this was a great album; above all the others, there was a true consistency here. Not only did the album have a cohesiveness unlike most of Dilla’s other releases, but it’s sound was soulful, smooth, pretty much everything we love about Dilla beats, all in one, little red-and-gold package.
Stand-out Jay Dee classics like “So Far to Go” with Common and D’Angelo, as well as “E=MC²” with Common again and, my personal favorite, the soulful jam, “Won’t Do,” all canvassed this diamond-studded showcase of fine, J Dilla production. There’s no denying The Shining as a top-notch Dilla Dawg project.
3. Vol. 2: Vintage
Vol. 2: Vintage, contrary to its predecessor, featured a more consistent sound. While it was still a beat tape the beats were a great deal more developed, executed and displayed on Vol. 2 than they were on Vol. 1.
Some of Dilla’s finest, underground joints were put out on this project. “Kamaal,” “Get Down,” “Coastin’, “On the 1,” “Trashy;” every instrumental delivers that raw, old school Jay Dee sound that everybody loves about the Detroit producer. Funky basslines, lo-fi sounds (or as he said, “sounding like it’s straight from the motherfuckin’ cassette”) and that beloved syncopation, or lack thereof, all come bursting out of your speakers on Vintage. This album has some of Dilla’s best beats from the 90s and stands as a fantastic beat tape from the beat legend.
2. Ruff Draft
Blame it on lack of funds, blame it on lack of drive, or you can be positive and thank his raw creativity, but most of J Dilla’s albums sounded like mixtapes. By mixtapes, I mean that a lot of Dilla’s albums sounded like a bunch of tracks thrown together with no real order. That was not the case with Ruff Draft, however.
This album seemed like it was a part of a well-thought out plan, a plan with a solid theme. “Nothing Like This,” “Make’em NV,” and “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!)” are just three of tons of great songs on this album. Everything flowed nicely and J Dilla certainly put his all into it because it shows through through every kick, snare and rhyme.
The unparalleled and unmatched, the beautifully crafted and divinely created, the ultimate magnum opus that is Donuts. If someone argues that Donuts is not J Dilla’s greatest solo album, they should just go back to sleep listening to Master P’s “Make Em Say Ugh” until their ears bleed excessively.
Donuts is the personification of a gifted mind realizing that his days are numbered; a changed spirit facing death that used the power of music to convey the swirling colors trapped in his head. The palette of Donuts is most-consistent (save for a track or two, but we’ll give it a pass). This isn’t just a beat tape or even an instrumental album, this is as much of a piece of work as Beethoven’s symphonies or Chopin’s preludes and mazurkas. Donuts is THE instrumental hip hop album; this album took what was in the heart of one of hip hop’s finest artists and put it to a beat.
Moreso than Endtroducing… or Petestrumentals, Donuts had heart and soul pouring out of every beat. And if that isn’t sappy enough for you, then I don’t know what it is because Dilla’s magnum opus is the culmination of everything that is beautiful about hip hop production and instrumental music in general. That is why Donuts will always and forever be, J Dilla’s best. Period.