Throwback Review: Donuts by J Dilla
J Dilla – Donuts
Review by Dexter Froud
In case you’re completely out of the loop on what Donuts is, it’s an album entirely composed of sample-based rap instrumentals by legendary producer James Yancey, who is better known as J Dilla. It’s his most celebrated project, but to no fault of his own, it would also be his last. During the making of this album, he was hospitalized with lupus and a rare blood disease called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and passed away three days after the album’s release.
While I do believe that context is important for an album like this, I absolutely do not believe it overshadows the material presented here. Because honestly, Donuts is an emotional rollercoaster that travels through different genres and eras of music at breakneck speeds, oftentimes within single, isolated tracks. It’s both simple and complex, scattered and cohesive, euphoric and devastating. But above all else, it’s an inspiring masterpiece about accepting death and persevering through the hardest conditions. It urgently tells the listener “Hey! If you’re afraid of doing what you love, just fucking do it because you don’t have that much time and you’ll ultimately be glad you did it when it’s all said and done!” And while it may be true that we’ve lost a legend, we’re still left with his brilliant works so his impact will live on indefinitely. To me, there’s no better encapsulation of these ideas than Donuts.
Although it isn’t just inspiring in the general sense of the word. Many aspiring producers should also look to this album as a source of musical inspiration. Hell, the different sampling and arranging techniques in this album alone could take up an entire review. But to give a few examples (many of which show up on multiple tracks), the “Waves” beat loops after an odd number of measures, “People” has a changing tempo, “Mash” distorts the first piano note of its loop, “Time: The Donut of the Heart” plays at half speed at a couple of points, “Stepson of the Clapper” features a kick drum that sidechains the sound of an audience cheering (which is hands down my favorite example of sidechaining in any song ever), “Don’t Cry” consists of masterfully chopped up eighth-note-length segments of a soul song, and “Hi.” turns a 6/8 time RnB sample into a 4/4 beat. All of these production and songwriting tricks make these tracks so much more interesting and powerful, and they really show off Dilla’s abilities.
I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Dilla’s amazing ear for great samples. He truly has a knack for distilling the raw emotions of a sample and making them the forefront of a track, and the way that he constructs these tracks is genuinely something to behold. A great example of this is the song “Workinonit” which, after a moody interlude-like introduction, kicks this album off with revving engines and one of the most hype siren sounds of all time (a trademark of this album). The first half of this song orbits around a soft and uplifting guitar groove from a rock song that eventually switches into a wailing and distressing one in the second half. All the while, heavily edited and cut-up rap vocals are layered over top (another primary element of this project). A twinkling, chromatic synth line also aids in the intensity of the song’s final moments before it crashes into “Waves”, a meditative but metrically wonky cut with syncopated drums and a rock sample pitched down to the point of no longer sounding like one.
It seriously doesn’t take listening to more than the first few tracks of this album to hear drastic tonal shifts, and this can easily be said about the entire experience. If every emotion and genre displayed in this project could be depicted as a color on a painter’s palette, the resulting painting would resemble something close to a Leonid Afremov where all of the fine details come together to create an explosion of contrast and vibrance. It would exhibit the passion of “U-Love”, the triumph of “Gobstopper”, the chaos of “The Twister (Huh, What)”, the sadness of “One For Ghost”, the bittersweetness of “Time: The Donut of the Heart”, the sentimentality of “Bye.”, and so on.
Additionally, every single song on this project could be dissected at great length to unravel their inner genius. But for this portion of the review, I’d like to highlight some of my favorite parts of the record in no particular order: the stripped-down and abstract arrangements of “People” and “Stepson of the Clapper”, the unpredictable structure of “The Diff’rence”, the electronic sounds of “Lightworks”, the false start of “Airworks”, the straining vibrato of the singers in “Airworks” and “One For Ghost”, the off-kilter introduction to “Mash”, the head-scratching outros to “Mash” and “Glazed”, the beat switches in “Workinonit” and “The Twister (Huh, What)”, the subtle chants and ad-libs in “The New” and “Dilla Says Go”, the bar chimes in “Hi.”, and the vocal sample in “Bye.” edited to sound like it’s saying “Donuts”.
The flow of this album is also way more intricate and well-thought-out than many of its critics would like to give it credit for. I may be speaking from a biased perspective since at this point, the sequence of the album is burned into my brain and hardly anything sounds out of place. But the way these songs are constructed implies a heavy understanding of continuity. My favorite example of this is the transition between “Two Can Win” and “Don’t Cry” where the last beat of “Two Can Win” is omitted and “Don’t Cry” starts with an extra beat. Something that might give off the impression that this album lacks a sense of pacing is that some of the tracks end in unexpected ways. For example, “Stop” ends before finishing the last loop it establishes and immediately transitions into “People”. Some tracks even end abruptly and imply their continuation such as “Dilla Says Go” and “Last Donut Of The Night”. But to me, these jarring transitions are more interesting and attention-grabbing than if every single beat ended in a traditional and predictable way.
Is the tracklist perfect? Almost. Writing about my least favorite songs sort of gets into nitpick territory, but “Glazed” has always felt a little too monotonous, “Thunder” is a track that I feel indifferent about, and “The Factory” following “Walkinonit” is a strange choice pacing-wise in my opinion. But given how quick all of these songs are, nothing is skip-worthy for me.
The fact that this project is so dense and varied may put off a lot of people who are looking for projects that are straightforward and conventionally structured. If that’s you, then I would recommend trying out Endtroducing by DJ Shadow instead (which I also think is great). But if you’re willing to experience something that will challenge your perception of what an album can be, then I’d highly encourage you to give this a listen.
FAVORITE TRACKS: Workinonit, Waves, Stop, People, The Diff’rence, Mash, Time: The Donut of the Heart, Airworks, Lightworks, Stepson of the Clapper, The Twister (Huh, What), One Eleven, Two Can Win, Don’t Cry, Anti-American Graffiti, Geek Down, Gobstopper, One For Ghost, Dilla Says Go, Walkinonit, U-Love, Hi, Bye, Last Donut of the Night, Welcome to the Show
LEAST FAVORITE TRACKS: Glazed, Thunder, The Factory
Wanna check it out yourself? Listen to Donuts on streaming: