How do you talk about an album like this? For a while I knew I that I wanted to write this review on the album’s 10th, anniversary as it’s a clear favorite of mine, but this one is especially hard to write about. What route do I go? Do I write sentimentally or objectively? Do I attack the bandwagoners who listen to this album once and never explore the rest of his work but still praise him? Do I also attack the cynical assholes who say that Dilla only gets praised because he died? Do I lament his death and let it overshadow the music? Do I not talk about it at all? I definitely don’t want to dwell on his passing too much, but I will say this: the loss of Dilla cuts to my heart like no other death does, and it’s not just because he’s a huge inspiration and I adore his music. Maybe it’s the image of him with a breathing mask on, laid up in a hospital bed, spending his final days making this album for us that gets me. Maybe it’s the look on ?uestlove’s face whenever he talks about him interviews, and acknowledges him as his hero. Maybe it’s the fact that he was only 31. I know it’s cliche, but why did J Dilla have to die while people like James Holmes are still alive? It’s bullshit and I’ll never understand.
But “Donuts” isn’t about that. Despite Dilla’s condition, this album doesn’t wallow in misery and impending death. In fact, it’s a celebration of life, love, and especially the magic of music. Just look at Jay’s bashful smile on the album cover, looking like you just complimented his beats and he’s turning his eyes away from you saying “nah, man” with a knowing smile. And then you open the case and you see the cartoony drawing of doughnuts, and then get embraced by the sounds of the opening tracks. “Embraced.” That’s a good word. This album is like a warm hug, so comforting, so celebratory of life. Of course, it’s all a little bittersweet, especially the track “Don’t Cry” which sounds like a message to his grieving mother and never fails to get me all choked up. But despite the feelings of grief you may feel during this album, “Donuts” is filled with so much love at its core that it trumps sadness. With this album Dilla overcame death. This is an album that sidesteps labels, but surprisingly life affirming is one that sticks.
But for all of the backstory and weight this album has, it’s really all about the music. And the music is so fucking good. Dilla was a master crate digger, and this album sees him working with basically nothing but samples (usually of the obscure soul variety), and finding dope loops and sounds, and then quickly moving on to the next one. There’s 31 tracks here, each running about a minute and a half in length, so there’s a lot of ideas presented and it risks being disjointed. However, with each song flowing immediately into the next, the album feels like one big experience instead of a bunch of ideas thrown together. That would even be okay, considering that every idea here is dope as hell. Check out the groove on “Workinonit” and the awesome vocal sample that repeats the title. Check out the strangely catchy wordless vocal samples on tracks like “Waves” and “Airworks.” Check out the shot of space after that vocal sample on “Airworks.” Check out the way the music literally stops for a split second in the song “Stop!” Check out the ridiculously catchy “Two Can Win” with that heavenly falsetto. Check out the dusty, dirty drums all over this album. “Donuts” is so packed with fantastic music that describing these songs becomes impossible. But just know this: this album at points takes me to places very few albums can, and it does it with deceptively simple and short songs. “Two Can Win” just melts me and sends me to heaven, and the grooves on nearly every track make get me moving every time, and snapping my fingers and making that face like I smelled something really bad. (When in fact, I’m just listening to Dilla’s hard ass grooves.)
“Donuts” is one of the most beautiful albums ever made. It’s so full of life, so full of magic, and so full to the brim with great music that resistance becomes futile. Obviously, some people like myself love it more than others, but this is one of those universal albums. No album this loving can be looked down upon by someone. And people can be assholes and say that we only like it because he died, and I’ll just casually tell them to fuck off. Regardless, Dilla didn’t die. He simply went to the place his music came from. And you know he’s up there cuttin’ up samples for Pac and Biggie and ODB, and you just know they love it. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s Dilla, man.
My Favorite Tracks: “Workinonit’ “Waves” “Light My Fire” “Stop!” “People” “Time: The Donuts of the Heart” “Lightworks” “Two Can Win” “Don’t Cry” “Anti-American Graffiti” “Gobstopper” “One for Ghost” “Bye.”