J Dilla’s lost vocal album shines light on the late producer’s rap game

Chris Duncan

During his rise as one of hip hop’s leading producers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, J Dilla became known for his colorful and vibrant beats created for rappers such as Common and A Tribe Called Quest. His beats sound effortless, combining hip hop and soul to create some of the best tracks in the history of rap.

However, when he signed to MCA in 2002, he turned his attention from production to rapping, allowing others to create beats for him. Unfortunately, MCA never released Dilla’s album, dubbed Pay Jay, shelving it and dropping him from the label.

Since his death in 2006, Dilla’s catalogue has slowly made its way to the public, and Pay Jay, renamed The Diary, is the last of Dilla’s music released to the public.

Serving as a lens into Dilla’s past, The Diary is in part a reissue of long-lost tracks from one of hip hop’s most enigmatic characters. Songs such as the 2001 underground classic “Fuck The Police,” are in a formal release,and it’s hard not to feel as if The Diary is a sort of closure for Dilla’s career.

At the same time, this album is a reinvention of Dilla’s style for modern day rap. Several songs, including “Gangsta Boogie” and bonus track “The Sickness,” are obviously redone for the album’s release — Snoop Dogg raps about meeting Obama while wearing his house shoes.

The combination of these two elements creates an ambitious listen that represents Dilla without complicating his legacy as a producer.

Although he might have a standing legacy as a producer, Dilla certainly doesn’t become an untouchable MC with this release. In a way one might expect after hearing his beats, Dilla is a technical rapper, flowing seamlessly through any given song with lyrics that sometimes hit the mark but occasionally fall flat. In one moment, Dilla proclaims his potential, rapping “I’ve been observing the game, came to save it now” but then falls on his face, wasting two entire tracks some strong beats with mediocre lyrics such as “shinin’ with my girl’s best friend.”

The few tracks Dilla produced on this album are intimate and subtle. “The Anthem” feels like a throwback to early Jay Dee, and “Trucks” shows the true music nerd inside Dilla, reworking Gary Newman’s “Cars” into a track that glides along with ease.

If there’s one negative critique for this album, it’s the lack of consistency on the mic from Dilla. Although this could have been from a general lack of experience, it’s hard to point out moments where J Dilla shows progression as a lyricist throughout the album. It’s tough to admit, but Dilla wasn’t meant to be a rapper, and if this album had been released in 2002, the world would have likely said the same thing.

The Diary could have also been a horribly failed and discouraging experiment, but then again, it could also have been Dilla’s The College Dropout, propelling his music career into rap stardom. Who knows where Dilla’s career might have gone if The Diary had been released by MCA, but now it serves as a fitting reminder of the legacy Dilla left behind.

Album: The Diary

  • Genre: Hip hop
  • Tracks: 14
  • Rating: 7/10