J Dilla’s “Donuts”: The Essential Instrumental Hip-Hop Album

j dilla - donuts
Credit: Stones Throw Records, 2006.

I have been listening to hip-hop fairly regularly since 2014. I started off with Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid m.A.A.d. city”, and then would progress to listening to more instrumental hip-hop, from artists such as DJ Shadow and Flying Lotus. It was in 2015 that I first heard of J Dilla, after seeing the vinyl copy of “Donuts” on Anthony Fantano’s record collection during one of his album reviews (his YouTube channel: theneedledrop).

“Donuts”, J Dilla‘s second and final studio album, can be considered to be one of hip-hop’s greatest musical achievements. Despite an already impressive track record, Detroit resident James Yancey (J Dilla) began working his second album, which would be a culmination of his skills as both a music producer and composer. “Donuts”, named after his favourite food, was released on Yancey’s 32nd birthday, and just three days before his death.

The album begins with a track titled ‘Donuts (Outro)’, followed by the strange-sounding ‘Workinonit’. It’s clear from the first three or four tracks that this album is quite the grower. It’s harsh, it’s abrasive, and in the later tracks, this abrasiveness gives way to some amazingly refreshing ideas.

The sound of harsh, unforgiving sampling, culminates initially into the track ‘Stop’, a rather short but gorgeous track which serves to be as much as a fleeting moment as most of the tracks on this album. ‘Stop’ features samples of Dionne Warrick’s ‘You’re Gonna Need Me’, placed in the foreground as we hear record scratches and phaser effects panning from left-to-right. Distorted, distant guitars come into the foreground as the track ends and transitions directly into the next track, ‘People’.

From ‘People’, we are greeted with many fantastic cuts, such as: ‘Time: The Donut of the Heart’; ‘Airworks’; ‘Lightworks’; ‘One Eleven’; ‘Two Can Win’; ‘Don’t Cry’; ‘Gobstopper’; ‘Dilla Says Go’; ‘ULove’; ‘Bye’; ‘Last Donut of the Night’; and ‘Welcome to the Show’.

It is no surprise that Dilla‘s music has been used as bumper music, and introduction music, to comedy shows and specials ranging from [adult swim] to Dave Chapelle’s recent 2017 Netflix comedy specials.

As we get deeper and deeper into the track listing, J Dilla’s vision for how he saw his music is shown. The final three tracks all sound stylistically very similar to the first track, ‘Donuts (Outro)’; indeed, the final track loops seamlessly into the first, meaning that the album could be played on repeat forever, similarly to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard‘s 2016 album, “Nonagon Infinity”.

In many ways, “Donuts” can be seen as all of Yancey’s musical ideas and talents culminated into a 43-minute barrage of information. While there are some strange-sounding tracks on the track listing, I believe that the tracks lead into one another flawlessly. There is no fat on the album: “Donuts” knows where it wants to go, and it gets there in the most efficient way possible. There are no filler tracks to be seen, only creative samples and brilliant engineering.

“Donuts” is everything that an album should aim to be. In many ways, the album is a journey: not just through the musical ideas of J Dilla‘s career, but also through everything that hip-hop could, and should, attempt to achieve.

Rating: 10/10

Buy or stream: Stones Throw Records; Spotify; Apple Music; Official YouTube Playlist.

EDIT: changed formatting of picture, so the article is easier to read.

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