Artist: J DillaTitle: Ruff DraftRating: 4 StarsReviewed by: Alex Thornton
A musician’s death will inevitably cause debate over their unreleased work. The often incomplete music no longer has the artist to guide its exposure to the public, leaving record labels in the difficult position of faithfully carrying on the artist’s legacy while still releasing something people might actually enjoy. Luckily, J. Dilla’s Ruff Draft (Stone’s Throw) was already completed in 2003 as a vinyl only EP and remains largely intact with this year’s reissue.
Stylistically, Ruff Draft is aimed squarely at crate-diggers and beat junkies, deviating from the smooth, minimalist sound that some may be used to. The mellow soul samples mostly give way to urgent synths and sound effects layered over syncopated drums. Despite the departure, Dilla’s talent still shines through the jumble. On “Nothing Like This,” he packs more into the beat than usual but doesn’t over-crowd the sequence to the point that the bizarre, mesmerizing break gets lost. The same goes for the far-left “Shouts” outro where, despite an unconventional rhythm, the brief backdrop to Dilla’s shout-outs holds together well.
Rather than focusing exclusively on instrumentals, Ruff Draft features a fairly large amount of rapping from Dilla. Producers have a hit-or-miss track record at best as MCs, and while Dilla’s rhymes don’t stack up to his production, the good news is that they don’t detract from the beats either. A full time MC may have been able to add more creative concepts to a track like “Crushin,” but the lyrics are overall passable and Dilla’s feel for rhythm and cadence shows itself in his ability to flow with the beats instead of against them. There may have been a temptation to add guest verses from some of Dilla’s high-profile collaborators, but Dilla stands up well enough as an MC that keeping close to his original vision was the better idea.
Even with the extra tracks, Ruff Draft is over in less than thirty minutes, but the succinct presentation keeps the album from getting boring or repetitive. J Dilla of course deserves praise for the work, but Stones Throw also deserves credit for showing restraint and not diluting the album with questionable additions, simply making the EP easier to find (along with additional) instrumental versions0 rather than perverting it for the quick buck. It’s usually a a difficult task for any posthumous release, but Ruff Draft leaves the producer’s legacy firmly in tact and is certainly worth listening to if you missed the original.