Illa J has always been a musician. As the younger brother of the late producer extraordinaire, J Dilla, he was exposed to the nitty gritty of Hip Hop production at an early age. So when Dilla passed away in 2006, Illa refused to let the tragedy hinder his ambitions. He refined his skills both on the solo tip and as an interim member of Slum Village, subsequently building a reputation as a legitimate artist, and not just Dilla’s little bro. In 2008, he released his first studio LP, Yancey Boys, a collection of verses over J Dilla production. Now, seven years later, he’s back in the fold with Illa J, his second solo endeavor.
Much has changed since 2008. Namely, Illa has narrowed his artistic focus. Illa J is a sonic musical experience treading the line between r&b, funk and Hip Hop. There are rhymes galore, and beats derivative of the Yancey family school of production, but there are also melodic hooks and a passionate emphasis on romantic lyrical content. The end result is a more confident Illa J that, despite his seven-year hiatus, only skirts the surface of his talents with a project that comes off slightly worn.
Originally a native son of Detroit, Illa J relocated to Montreal, a flourishing artistic community, where he linked up with Potatohead People, the production duo behind the music on Illa J. Stylistically, he couldn’t have found a better team; the J Dilla inspiration to their sound is quite apparent. The second track, “Cannonball” is Jazzy and reminiscent of Dilla /Jay Dee’s Slum Village production with fewer layers. Two songs later, “Strippers” is bumpin’ and synthy, with subtle Jazz carryovers from the preceding tracks. The dichotomy between these two reinforces the notion that the musical thematics are at once constant and ubiquitous. And by the sixth track, “Sunflower,” the duo speeds up with uptempo drum tracks, Jazz guitar, and vocals from Illa and guest A l l i e.
But, though the production is both multifaceted and consistent, Illa J focuses too much on a flow that finds its roots in the greatness of Slum Village. The differentiating factor is, of course, the variety of the styles and voices that Slum Ville serves up. Without that variation, the flow sounds dated, lacking the kinetic energy it needs to truly soar. So, sticking to the traditional Jay Dee script, he utilizes singing whenever possible, whether it be himself or a guest. For instance, “Who Got It” is comprised predominantly of verses, but the hook and the beat can be described only as R&B. Furthermore, within the vein of R&B, Illa opts to dedicate the majority of his verses to women. As such, his approach shifts between flattery and boasting. “Strippers,” then, is a bit too predictable in its subject matter: “Living the dream getting cookies ‘n cream / Yeah they booked me in Greece, gettin’ nookie for free.” But as a student of alternative and conscious Hip Hop, Illa J is by no means a blanket womanizer. On “She Burned My Art,” he opts for a more romantic if not slightly underwhelming approach: “Lightning on the wrist / Extra crisp, call that Aquaswiss / But I can’t deny I miss / Being with you and often I reminisce.” The music itself remains thoroughly Detroit in both form and function though it lacks the late great’s flourishes of pure creative force.
Perhaps most fittingly, on the album’s final track, “Never Left,” Illa J addresses the elephant in the room: his brother. The heartfelt tribute offers a rare chance to hear Illa J speak candidly about Dilla: “Yo, when I rep my bro, I’m reppin’ my blood / Before I rock a show or ever step in the club / It’s Yancey boys for life, man I don’t give a fuck / About the biz, but it is what it is what it is.” For many, this song will be the one they’ve been waiting to hear from the younger Yancey.
With 11 tracks, Illa J’s self-titled album is concise but does not do enough to step out from under the shadow of his illustrious older brother. The r&b inclination is appreciated but, thankfully, isn’t overly pervasive, and flanked by Jazzy production, the album is suitable for fans of most any genre. Illa knows he won’t be handed success because of his circumstances, so the work he’s put in since 2008 is more than admirable. Though, as good a start as this is, Illa J must begin to explore the nether regions of the post-Dilla Detroit sound if he’s to carve a significant niche for himself.