The very concept of a posthumous album is a contentious one. If an artist’s name is on a record, surely the artist should be able to consent to its release? The Diary finds an interesting position, as it is a record originally created by J Dilla as his “mainstream debut” in the early 2000’s, but was shelved by MCA Records, when it turned out to be of a different style than they expected. Releasing it in 2016 inevitably places a weight of expectation on the album’s shoulders, and it is a weight it isn’t designed to bear.
Whilst J Dilla was hugely influential in the hip-hop industry, most would agree his true talent was not as an emcee, but as a producer. This renders The Diary as something of an oddity in his canon, as he barely produces any of the tracks. Of the 14 tracks on the record, he produced 4, with producers like Madlib and Nottz filling out the other 10. Dilla raps on every track, but listening to them, it becomes clear that his skills as a rapper were not up to the same standard as his production.
In spite of working with endlessly ambitious, political rappers, J Dilla’s lyrics on The Diary largely consist of garden variety braggadocio and boasting, with some misogyny peppered in – “in the trucks all day, them girls be on / bounce all day til the early morn”. Most of the tracks on the album are well produced, and Dilla’s flow is serviceable, but the album noticeably lacks standouts. Stronger songs like The Anthem and The Shining Pt. 1 (Diamonds) still aren’t particularly memorable, and the entire album feels lacking in cohesion. Trucks and Gangsta Boogie are both notably weak, with the latter’s attempt at G-Funk feeling wholly unconvincing.
Whilst J Dilla was a masterful producer, The Diary is far from his best work, showcasing almost none of his strengths, and highlighting many of his flaws. Dilla’s instrumental work remains peerless, but by attempting to play into gangster-rap stereotypes, he loses what makes him special.