In most cases, posthumous work is never as strong and as well developed as an artist’s work while they’re living. This statement seems like something that doesn’t need to be said. Collections of B-sides and unreleased material are often a disjointed money grab by the labels that own the rights to the works of an artist. The latest example to come to mind would be Amy Winehouse’s Lioness: Hidden Treasures.
Now, I don’t think this is the case for J Dilla and his brother Illa J, aka the Yancey Boys. Sunset Blvd is a release that highlights just how far ahead of his time Dilla was by choosing some of the most boundary-pushing tracks that still fit into that time period of hip-hop through incorporating a boom-bap feel.
It’s unfair to characterize his other releases as unnecessary, but they don’t offer anything new in our perspectives of Dilla’s music. Nor do these releases properly deliver a perspective that new listeners can use to understand him better.
They do, however, show how consistent and prolific he was in producing beats. The amount of work he’s recorded is so prolific and the amount unreleased is so large that it’s easy to picture a great release from him every year for the next 20 years. Yet, some of these releases have not lived up to the legacy that he left, other than Jay Stay Paid and the EP Yancey Boys.
Every posthumous release has featured numerous tracks that showcase what made Dilla’s work the foundation for some of the most innovative contemporary producers, especially in the soul and jazz spaces of hip-hop production. But sometimes, even with the purest intentions, things don’t work out right, most notably in how his work has been curated.
On those accounts, Sunset Blvd is a success because it corrects those issues. It does a great job of curating a specific period and highlighting what made Dilla’s work so intriguing in the first place, whether it’s how he chopped his samples, patterned his drums, or let a vocal loop hypnotize you. It doesn’t have a disjointed feel nor does it lack the focus a lot of his other posthumous releases have. The album really hones in on specific characteristics, which is great when it’s examined through the lens of Dilla’s whole career.
Another aspect of the album that really helps brings Dilla’s vibe to life is that the majority of rappers on the album are artists that Dilla developed working relationships with. Hearing Common go into his old flow on ‘Quicksand’ with the same type of lyrical position he had when they worked together only brings positive nostalgic highs.
With that being the case, Sunset Blvd provides a throwback experience while curating a perspective of Dilla that is useful for those trying to understand who he was as producer, yet didn’t get to experience his production in that moment.