J Dilla - Donuts LP
Stones Throw Records
Donuts was made on a hospital bed and in a home studio, on a stripped-down setup with a stack of vinyl. Released on its maker's 32nd birthday, three days before he passed away, the album has a resonance deeper than anyone could've hoped for or even imagined. Some who were close to Dilla have said that there are hidden messages in the samples, the track titles, and who knows where else. It's impossible not to speculate about some things, like the track titled "Don't Cry," the looped "broken and blue" from a version of "Walk on By," the presence of Eddie Kendricks singing "My people, hold on," or the fact that there are 31 tracks, a possible signal that Dilla survived a little longer than he expected. Then again, for every possible message, there are two or three elements that could've been designed to throw any analysis off its trail. After all, if there's one single image that the disc brings to mind, it's that of Dilla goofing off, having fun with some of his favorite records, and messing with some heads in the process. (And you could probably make the album's title out to be a metaphor for the circle of life, but sometimes a donut is just a donut.) Armed with sources that are either known to novice sample spotters or only the most seasoned diggers -- surprisingly, the former greatly outweighs the latter -- Dilla's also just as likely to leave his samples barely touched as he is to render them unrecognizable. It's fitting that Motown echoes, a predominant theme, are often felt, from the use of Dionne Warwick's Holland-Dozier-Holland-written "You're Gonna Need Me" (on "Stop"), to the shifting waves of percussion plucked from Kendricks' "People... Hold On" (on "People"), to the Stevie-like piano licks within Kool & the Gang's "The Fruitman" ("The Diff'rence"). Most of the tracks fall into the 60-90 second range. It's easy to be overwhelmed, or even put off, by the rapid-fire sequence, but it's astounding how so many of the sketches leave an immediate impression. By the third or fourth listen, what initially came across as a haphazard stream of slapped-together fragments begins to take the shape of a 44-minute suite filled with wistful joy. Like everything else Dilla has ever done, Donuts is not defining; in fact, elements of its approach bare the apparent influence of Jaylib collaborator Madlib. His mode has always been too slippery and restlessly progressive to be equated with any one track or album, but Donuts just might be the one release that best reflects his personality.