Monday, April 2, 2012

J Dilla: Donuts (2006)

(Stones Throw)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Where has this music been all my life? I don't know how or why I skirted past J Dilla's Donuts when it dropped, familiar until the last few weeks only with his work as an outside producer and some of his business with the beloved Slum Village, but immersing deeply in this extraordinary record I find that despite the universal adoration it's been afforded -- just six years after release it's already an acknowledged classic -- it still doesn't feel as if its earth-shaking, life-affirming genius is sufficiently appreciated. Stretching the bounds of dance and pop music in a manner other mashup architects -- even the greats, like the Avalanches -- couldn't reach, Donuts scores because it's so infused with passion, and because although it's an instrumental sample-based recording, it's steeped in hip hop: as an attitude, a culture, a breath of exuberance, a kick against tragedy.

Tragedy, though, is an inevitable fixture here -- Dilla, born James Yancey, was fighting for his life in hospital as he created this final album, the victim of a rare blood disease that left him suffering and wheelchair-bound during his last tour in fall 2005. The label fitted him with a sampler and a toy turntable during an excruciating inpatient stay the prior summer, and it was there that he sorted through the sounds and married the beats and grooves and eccentricities together to make Donuts, as direct and communicative a piece of craftsmanship as a producer's ever likely to conjure up, establishing a wonderfully unique relationship with the listener. There's a sense, sure, in which you can hear Donuts as the chaotic last bid for self-expression, but it's also a selfless experience -- Dilla couldn't have known if he'd ever get the chance to witness this music in its ultimate joyous application, moving and shaking people, but he engineered it all in a quiet room and knew.

Donuts consists of thirty-one semi-formed songs, typically structured nontraditionally as a marathon of hooks -- separated, fused, turned upside down. It feels like a genuine act of discovery and a manifestation of the producer's plainly unfettered love of sounds and words. There's such wit here, the way "you'd better stop" confronts a brief and funky STOP, all around the wanderings into a deconstructed and dissected soul rabbit hole. There's attitude, of course, all the vibrant hip hop of Slum Village rechanneled into the manic expressionistic energy here, defiantly original music at odds with its drab, bleak origins as much as with all notions of serious avant garde music, to which this edges far closer than 2 Many DJ's and the Avalanches and their ilk ever did, ever could. Even as a fan of Since I Left You, it's inescapable that this is the true masterpiece of musique concrete body music, no longer any kind of a contradiction. It teases you but you feel it all over.

Dilla's impromptu record collection, rumored to have been generated from flea markets near the hospital at which he was staying, gives him a motif: the addiction to groove, the kind of moments you want to loop over and over on a pop recording (the blistering heaven of "Last Donut of the Night" a standout example), here tantalizingly thrown together, absorbed, and taken apart again, usually before you're ready for them to pass. The songs nearly all flicker out after less than two minutes, Dilla too impatient and restless to bear down and fester with something, eager to move on to the next idea. The result is a frantic pace that rewards constant repeated listens, details revealing themselves gradually and always offering some new combination of bluster and noise to focus on. This last time, I was newly enchanted by the sleazy, crazed horns on "Glazed," and how I could sense the lifelong tropes of the slow-jam turned on their heads in "Time: The Donut of the Heart."

But most of the pleasures are as immediate as on any great rock & roll recording. Dilla's wit becomes evident and infectious right away, and you're in his hands by "Airworks," ready to sing along with that killer "I don't really care" L.V. Johnson sample as many times as he'll allow, which isn't many. The ballsy and magical "Lightworks," conversely, leaves you ready to reward him with all kinds of hyperbole about turning culture, Beautiful Music, futurism, nostalgia all around as not a fusion or a junky irony but as an irreverent but appreciative new art, designed to delve and consider and challenge but give unceasing pleasure. You can hear how much fun the creative process must have been, and how much it must have become something to live for -- it comes through, becomes ours, all that joy and grief that extends out to the softly melancholy Sylvers-inspired "Two Can Win" and that shattering interpolation of the obscure Escorts on the breakdown of "Don't Cry." When little moments are all the record's willing to give, you collect and cherish them all.

It's hard not to relate all the workings and intricacies of Donuts to Dilla's pending death and how much he knew or didn't know. It seems an unlikely death album until you find how much you can hear a resignation when the piano gets lifted from Martha Reeves' "Sweet Misery" or the sense of celebration on the clever "One for Ghost" comes across somehow as a Last Chance with so much abandon and grief, "U-Love" like a Jerry Butler pillow to which we retire. And the brilliant "Hi," indeed, becomes a romantic funeral march of sorts, "Last Donut of the Night" one last wistful note, but all with the surreal application of the sultriest and raw of eccentric, bold soul music. The eroticism here is nothing if not an assertion of what finally matters most, in music and everywhere. If it's a surrender to mortality and flesh, it's a balanced and mature, optimistic one.

Music had to be everything to J Dilla in those last months more than ever. Maybe busy hands were just happy hands, and maybe the creative process was just an end to itself, as it so often is for the seriously ill. But his gift to us, if we can take it as such, was a collection of a kind of new secular, found-art gospel that doesn't merely expand the boundaries of hip hop as an art form but of the medium of the album itself, as a teasing and minimal but sprawling, inventive and breathless journey that seems to almost perpetually live to explore its own edges and repeatedly move out farther beyond any perceived limit. Hard to escape the idea that we were denied so much more from this brilliant young man who should have had decades left to refine his craft, but more than half a decade after his death, he's still ahead of everyone -- by a longshot.

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