A classic artist’s legacy is a sacred thing. For those who have passed on, posthumously released albums should immediately raise red flags, because all too often they are merely last-ditch cash-grabs to capitalize on a name. James Yancey (aka J Dilla/Jay Dee) is a prime example of that necessary concern, as he has provided the backbeat for just about every beloved emcee from the late ’80s until his untimely death in 2006. The Rebirth of Detroit, Dillas third posthumous release, is predictably scattershot; it listens like a piÃ±ata that has finally been bashed open, only to find three pieces of the good candy surrounded by hundreds of Smartees.
The Rebirth of Detroit boasts close to 40 mostly unknown guest emcees, and its beats span Dillas career from his early work with hip-hop group Slum Village to his legendary 2006 album, Donuts. This creates some obvious continuity issues, as Yancey shape-shifted throughout his career. Moreover, the beats used here were scraps that Dilla had archived and never used before his death. An aborted beat by Dilla is still better than those blasted by many producers, however, so there are many highlights despite the album’s second-rate nature.
Long time Dilla collaborators the Cake Boys (Illa J and Frank Nitt) provide a highlight in their celebratory boast raps on the tribute Do It for Dilla Dawg. Buzz rapper Danny Brown stops by to light up Jay Dees Revenge, whose beat rumbles with a grimey swagger that perfectly houses Browns fiery rhymes (Im fucking your momma, nigga/ You wont know). The slinky Motown groove of the Donuts-era Dilla on My Victory spotlights the extent of Dilla’s talents. This is James Yanceys show, but Detroit stands shoulder to shoulder as the albums focus. The apocalyptic Rebirth is Necessary sounds like a battle cry for the second coming of Robocop to salvage the downtrodden urban wasteland, as Mr. Wrong calls Detroit Recession Ground Zero.
This uneven and spotty collection, albeit well intentioned, points to the sad conclusion that Dillas well of leftover beats is drying up. Hopefully, the people in charge of his legacy will come to understand this. Still, we’re talking about one of hip-hops legends, and so there’s enough here to warrant a listen. The Rebirth of Detroit isnt so much a rebirth, but a memorandum of one of hip-hops fallen icons. Isn’t that enough?
Essential Tracks: My Victory