Starting my new classics section, I thought of no better album to start with than Donuts by J Dilla, a modern masterpiece. Being his birthday, it’s the perfect time to cover one of the best records of all time, especially considering the circumstances. Like I said in my “Best Experimental Hip-Hop Albums” list, to truly understand this record is to understand the context. James Yancey was terminally ill, stationed at home for most days, tied to his wheelchair and occasionally leaving for shows. To think that an album like this that celebrates the simple beauties of life was commissioned by a man heading towards his final days is truly incredible. During the recording of this record, Dilla would be found lying in bed with nothing but his laptop and MPC lying across his lap, digging through old soul and jazz samples. Although his health was declining, it is clear that Dilla poured his heart and soul into creating his most vibrant and colorful piece to date.
The record consists of solely instrumentals, which may sound boring to some people, but this record isn’t a beat tape. It’s nearly impossible to rap over some of these beats, due to the amount of sound that fills up every nook and cranny of space. Dilla leaves no open areas for other people other than the pure loops and hard-hitting drums expertly placed on every track. Both head-bobbing and contemplative, Dilla explores life’s greatest questions through these jazzy and psychedelic passages that were and still are awe-inspiring today.
The short lengths of these tracks (30 seconds to 2 min each) make it difficult to pinpoint my favorites in the listing, but there are moments of absolute musical perfection here. Take “Time: The Donut of The Heart”, where at around the 1:16 second mark soaring soul vocals lather the mix of beachy guitars and heavy drums to make a moment of pure euphoria. Or the back-to-back punch of “Airworks” and “Lightworks”, which both feature definite grooves and disgustingly creative samples, especially “Lightworks,” which shows it’s genius upon first listen. Repeat listens to this album reveal countless layers and easter eggs, like flashes of a sample appearing on a track that appear on another track mere minutes later.
I insist everyone to listen to this record. J Dilla made the greatest instrumental hip-hop album ever made and one of the greatest records period through imaginative drum loops and samples that have twisted beyond recognition. It’s a shame that it took his passing for him to become a legend, but this record is a landmark moment in music history and should be treated with as high of a regard as a record like Abbey Road. It feels like the end of an era, the end of a movement. But at least we have something to remind us of why it was so great.
Happy Birthday Jay.