If the deeply-flawed rollout of all that 2pac material during the 2000s taught us anything, it’s that managing the posthumous material of legends past can be tricky. If somebody responsible isn’t paying attention, next thing you know, you’ve got a 2pac song featuring Papoose. Fortunately in J Dilla’s case, his family and close circle of collaborators fiercely guard his legacy. Like the first Yancey Boys album, Sunset Blvd., is like Illa J cleaning out his attic and finding this, an old book of his late brother’s sonic poetry. Surrounding himself with Frank Nitt and several of Dilla’s former collaborators, Illa J acts as a curator* for the latest J Dilla musical exhibit, keeping Sunset Blvd. moving along and allowing the more noted guests to shine in their turns.
If there’s a phase of Dilla’s career that most of the album’s beats could be compared to, it would be his work on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, where the sounds were warm and comforting, in contrast to the bugged-out Donuts. The trademark “Dilla horn” is noticeably absent, and it would be woefully out of place. The entire album, save for the more aggressive “Go Ask the DJ” and “This Evening”, is straight out of the mellow, soulful J Dilla playbook during the Soulquarian era. It makes you want to read while sitting in your favorite seat that the sun has already warmed.
There’s a moment on “Jeep Volume” that touches on Illa J’s willingness to play the background on Sunset Blvd.: “Who knew I’d make a career out of morning over my brother, letting all of my tears out?” It’s a sentiment that pops up throughout, but it doesn’t get to the point where it’s an overriding theme. Rather, they’re gentle reminders instead of overwrought eulogies that invariably find their way onto posthumous releases. A less-scrupulous artist would have treated such access to J Dilla beats as a shameless self-promotion opportunity. His self-awareness and humility that causes him to acknowledge that it’s about Dilla, not him, is a touching display of brotherly love.
The album guests, Talib Kweli and Common in particular, evoke nostalgia for their earlier, in-life collaborations with Dilla. Talib’s feature on “Flowers” is boosted by sultry-voiced British-born, L.A.-based songstress Nikko Gray, who floats all over Dilla’s jazzy piano and scratches. Give Common a pass for shouting out his movie Smokin’ Aces on “Quicksand” just for the sake of hearing him focused over some quality production again. Given his involvement with G.O.O.D. Music, it’s nice to hear him over a mellow Spanish guitar instead of the grandiose sounds that Kanye has been cooking lately. More of this, less of whatever he was thinking on Universal Mind Control.
A thread that strings together Sunset Blvd.’s better tracks seems to be the formula of an R&B singer plus a former Dilla collaborator, as both “Flowers” and “Quicksand” follow this, as well as “Beautiful” and “Rock My World.” The former, featuring Posdnuos and Botni Applebum, is soulful boom-bap that you could have sworn was on Like Water for Chocolate. While these are still “rap beats,” they lend themselves so well to soul and R&B collaborations that they become a testament to just how well-rounded a producer J Dilla really was. And that was precisely the objective of the album: you don’t come out of Sunset Blvd. with any quotables, but you do emerge with more appreciation for one of the greatest producers to ever do it.
4 out of 5
You can buy the album on Amazon.
*Frank Nitt is the actual curator of Dilla’s catalogue, but that’s not the point here.