Over the past three years, the cult of J Dilla has developed into one of underground hip-hop’s dominant religions. Tributes have poured in from acolytes like Busta Rhymes, Madlib, and The Roots, and a shout-out to Dilla has become a staple of hip-hop concerts. His ascent from cult hero to icon came with posthumous releases like Donuts, Yancey Boys, and now Jay Stay Paid. Posthumous projects are often ethically iffy, but the presence of Dilla’s hero Pete Rock as musical supervisor should reassure fans that Paid is about celebration rather than exploitation of Dilla’s life and legacy.
Half trippy Donuts-style instrumentals, half rap tracks featuring usual suspects like Doom, Phat Kat, and Illa J, Paid is structured like a radio station that’s transmitting nothing but Dilla tracks. The format suits the free-associative dream logic of his late work, with one casually ingenious sound and idea flowing effortlessly into another in a state of blunted harmony. Toward the end of his life, Dilla wasn’t making beats so much as miniature iPod symphonies, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the rap songs are weaker than the free-form sonic explorations. Black Thought dips into the Big Book Of Corny Song Concepts for “Reality Check,” a simultaneously cheesy and charming attempt to cram as many reality-show titles as possible into his verses; not even Thought can sell a concept so gimmicky. Thankfully, though, “Reality Check” is the exception rather than the rule, as Dilla and Pete Rock make a fantastic voyage out of this final trip through a hip-hop legend’s vivid imagination.