Briefly, in the ’80s, a bullish stock market collided with an ebullient art scene. Art snobs battled each other in bidding ciphers, sending prices into the stratosphere and, in the process, putting some gutter, boho artistes into some well-heeled boots. Basquiat was one such soul brother who went from living on the streets to getting between the sheets with some of NY’s top brass on the art scene — metaphorically and literally. His work inspired such hysteria that people would purchase canvases before he finished painting them.
I don’t know if hip-hop is ever going to achieve this degree of filthy-rich fetishism but crate diggers are known to throw dough at rare Sir Muzic & the Dance Attraction or Baritone Tiplove singles. Since his untimely death in 2006, unreleased Jay Dee (a.k.a. J Dilla) beats have become a rare commodity (though producers like Black Milk would have you believe otherwise, they ain’t making no more!) and I believe his rarest cuts could attain this elite status in some not-so-distant hip-hop future. If you’re unfamiliar with his wobbly, Mad Hatter, purple-hazed-funk, his prolific beat-conjuring juju affords you the opportunity to hear at least one Jay Dee banger a year — Q-Tip’s new single “Move” is a good place to start, if you’re curious. For any rapper, having a Jay Dee beat on your album is a lot like having Basquiat’s “Arroz Con Pollo” in your hallway. It’s a conversation starter, a game changer, a status symbol on which you should brag vociferously.
So, how does Illa J get 13 such jewels for his full-length debut, Yancey Boys? Shared DNA. Delicious Vinyl recognized the birthright and laid these unreleased tracks from their vault on Illa J. While being Jay Dee’s younger brother will earn ya, it’s a double-edged sword. Much of the attention surrounding this release is on the strength of Illa J playing little sib to one of the greatest beatsmiths to touch an MPC. I ain’t mad at him; he deserves these beats. And Yancey Boys is both a moving tribute to a lost loved one and a coming out party for a new voice. But the question remains: does Illa J have the chops to hang with big bro’s music while distancing himself from Jay Dee’s offshoots like SA-RA, and Jneiro Jarel?
Resisting the urge to treat this album with complete and utter reverence, nothing here really comes close to Jay Dee’s best work (these are tracks that were shelved for 10 years, after all), lacking the Gore-Tex ruggedness and eccentricity of the Ruff Draft EP, the seamless grooves of Fantastic Voyage Vol. 2, and the neck snapping power of Welcome to Detroit, but it still delivers a nostalgic treat for fans of his Slum Village, Pharcyde, and Tribe output (these beats are all from that influential ’95 – ’98 period). For his part, Illa J takes a singer/rapper approach, his pipes are in tune, and when harmonizing he sounds a lot like Dwele and fellow singer/rapper Aloe Blacc.
But, his mic persona lacks spice. Lyrically, Illa J parses braggadocio and positivity into jagged vignettes. His stream-of-consciousness flow finds him making non-narrative links between Listerine and Krispy Kreme on “We Here” and dropping the couplet: “My favorite White Stripes album is Elephant/OK, I know that’s irrelevant.” On paper, this may seem like classic Q-Tip non-sequitur abstraction, but the lines lack the swerve that made former Jay Dee compatriot Q-Tip so damn abstract poetic.
Illa J’s best rapping comes on “Showtime,” a jazzy chop job which may make the Showtime Lakers a metaphor for a beat down, and the sultry “All Good,” where Jay Dee wrings every drop out of a woozy “Look of Love” sample, dragging the whole nasty collage over bass hits and guiro. Illa’s at his best over slow, prominent tracks where he doesn’t have to flow as much as accent the beat — ironically, this is the same approach Jay Dee employed when spitting on his own beats. Elsewhere, an ever welcome Guilty Simpson shows Illa J how to make a herky jerky verse over a herky jerky Jay Dee beat sound like hip-hop gold — Illa J on the hook with Guilty Simpson on the verses is actually a nice combo (“R U Listenin’?”).
For fans, new Jay Dee is always welcome — the slow grind of “All Good” and the moody simplicity of “Everytime” in particular are welcome additions to the Dilla library — but Illa J lacks the presence to be more than a side note to the tracks. He’s got the tools to be a decent artist, an uplifting vibe, and definitely the pedigree. Yancey Boys makes for smoky head music and another nice conversation piece for the collectors. But like them Basquiats, consider this canvas incomplete.
Illa J: illajmusic.com