J Dilla

The Shining

(BBE; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

Another Dilla album for the Glow to fuck with.

When Chet Betz, in his since-fraught review of Donuts, proclaimed the album “an intensely present listen,” he forecasted not only the emotional confusion one feels listening to this rich music but also the problematic notion of writing about it. Jay Dee’s posthumously released music has been, even in its sparest moments, too profound, too vivid, and too full to share space with ghosts. Like February’s Donuts, The Shining refuses to eulogize its creator; this review will likewise attempt to regard the vitality of the music, not the mortality of the musician. If Betz took a false step in his review, it was only in submitting to the massive, humane urge to mourn a man by summarizing his beloved career. And since Betz’s review was one of many that already attempted that capably and respectfully, I can approach The Shining without the same burden. I can review the fucking record at hand, in other words. It’s a wonderful feeling.

How and why this album came to share its name with Kubrick’s haunted picture remains, perhaps, one of those mysterious curlicues of fate that makes a critic’s mouth froth, and, to be fair, there’s very little on the planet that appeals to this one more than Kubrick, horror, and hip hop. But I digress. Aside from fuzzy samples of Jack Nick hissing about us breaking his concentration, the odd percussive “Here’s Johnny!” and the murky ilk, this album is a vibrant thing: none of Kubrick’s measured, paranoiac steadiness carries over. Check those song titles: from the midnight groove of “Love Jones” through the loverboy croons of “Dime Piece,” the middle stretch of this album is, if anything, outright sensual, full of pillowy synth lines and those inimitably tactile Dilla drums.

Many listeners will be turned away before they get there, though, by Busta Rhymes’ excruciating braying on opener “Geek Down.” The primary revelation of The Shining is the way that, by sampling live instruments, Dilla imbues warmth and humanity into the very DNA of the beats. Why an album of such soulfulness would begin with this slobbering fucktard is beyond me, but “Geek Down” is graciously sequenced as the imminently skippable first track. I suggest doing so on first listen, in order to preserve the integrity of the remaining music as, thankfully, none of the other guests penetrate the sonic experience with Busta’s hateful intensity. Black Thought does the Black Thought thing, which is, of course, to battle rap unobtrusively while getting depantsed by the surrounding music: an endless, minimalist melodic line at the start of each measure and simple 1-2-3-4 percussion. Common, meanwhile, does the Common thing, which is to ride the beat dumbly (but appropriately) on standout robofunker “E=MC2,” and then try to get in my pants by telling me how much he respects my mind on “So Far to Go.” If I hadn’t just heard him spit the same game to Kanye, I mighta been swooned; as is, he sounds like a tired pro on autopilot.

The standout guest spot comes from Pharoahe Monch, who, despite the cultural spotlight having long moved on to more bullet-ridden targets, remains a formidable emcee, flow and charisma skipping in blissful tandem over Dilla’s sweltering, lovesick strings, horns blurting, Pharoahe the dripping wet preacher on his knees, testifying before a choir shouting exuberantly the name of the song. “Love” -- which is the name of the song, by the way -- is barely three minutes, but it explodes with musicality; Dilla’s limber, on-the-beat drums are the anchor, and if it weren’t for them the song might dissolve into an orgiastic miasma of buttery…uh, let’s just leave it at butter.

And, you know, that’s it: a few scattered guest shots, whispery film samples, and Twelve Good Dilla Beats. The Shining is not a masterpiece, obviously, and nobody ought claim it as such, but it does show the producer striking out in a moderately novel direction and finding consistently satisfying results. I point those looking for a musical eulogy toward the Roots’ career-high Game Theory LP; on “Can’t Stop This,” they rock four minutes of wistful Jay Dee musicalia and then another four of aural montage in Dilla’s honor, providing a long step toward the closure rap fans desire. It’s a chill-inducing rush of authentic grief, which means there isn’t an ounce of sadness to it, but instead a strange, fluid commingling of celebration and guilt. It works for the Roots because it comes from a natural, broken place, and that’s as good a point as any to draw the conclusion here. What those of us not close to the light are left with is this lively disc to add to the Jay Dee stack. Floating about are a bevy of as-yet-unreleased beats, the vibrancy of which -- if we’re lucky -- will again render criticism inconvenient.