When some of the most influential hip-hop over the past 15 years has been created by your older brother, it can sometimes be hard to get out from under that shadow and create on your own. But that’s exactly what Illa J has accomplished on his recently released debut album, Yancey Boys. Active in the hip-hop scene from 1992 to his untimely death arising from medical complications in 2006, Jay Dee, also known as J Dilla, was a mastermind at production, creating music for the likes of Slum Village, Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, Common, Madlib and Janet Jackson among others. Starting as a DIYer making beats with a tape deck, J Dilla quickly rose among the hip-hop ranks and infused the genre with the soul based inflections that have become so big today, especially in the most recent Common releases.
But most overlooked about J Dilla and his career is the fact that he comes from an extremely talented and musically well educated family. It is this depth of familial music that comes out in vibrant colors on younger brother Illa J’s new release from Delicious Vinyl. Having moved to LA from Detroit and constructing a studio out of his older brother’s equipment, Illa J met Mike Ross who provided him with a CD of unused Dilla beats, which this album draws heavily from. Produced by J Dilla and the legendary Mike Ross, Yancey Boys, while brief (14 tracks, 47 minutes) is one of the most consistent hip-hop albums of the year from start to finish, and succeeds because it never tries to do too much or be more than what it is.
The album starts with “Timeless,” taking lazy piano flourishes into a laid back beat with Illa meandering vocally like D’Angelo. Indeed, the neo-soul and hip-hop hybrid comes through continually on the album, producing the smooth and effortless sound that makes listening to it as easy as bobbing your head. The first single, “We Here” comes next, and immediately steps up the tempo and introduces you to Illa as a rapper. His rhymes are simple in content but complex in rhyme scheme, never sounding forced, but at the same time coming off skillfully crafted. At times however, this is a weakness in the album as it seems that the mellow melodies sometimes leave Illa feeling content and therefore failing to challenge himself to stretch for something a little harder to reach.
“R U Listening” comes next with a low bass rift and a cameo appearance by Guilty Simpson. The lo-fi feel of the beat combined with the under-water sound of the melody leaves this song feeling decidedly retro without sounding cheesy. With a deeper tone to his voice, Simpson on this track provides a nice and slightly more forceful contrast to Illa’s dazed out and light sounding style. On “Alien Family,” Frank Nitty tells the story of the Yancey boys, talking about their family and history. “Strugglin,'” “Showtime,” and “Swagger” follow, all in various forms expanding on the silky and backroom feel of the soul and jazz overtones of the album. “All Good” utilizes the jazz background to the best extent, with simple drums and a melancholy, repetitive horn sample. “Sounds Like Love,” featuring Debi Nova is the ballad on the album, a poppy R&B cut with hip-hop lyrics and steeped in record static that could surely find its way to an after hours radio show.
The album finishes up with “Everytime,” “IllaSoul” and “Air Signs.” “IllaSoul” provides the most moving track on the album, the bass line and spacey synth trills throughout allow Illa to sit back and rap effortlessly. “Air Signs” talks about his family and ends the album on a positive note examining just how much talent exists there. If there is one drawback of this album, it’s that we never get to hear Illa J break out from beyond the chill, soul, jazz, and R&B tinged tracks that make up the entirety of it. With his lyrics and musical knowledge, a track or two that delved more deeply into the harder edges of hip-hop would be welcome, perhaps even a party track. But this shortcoming aside, the lack of these types of songs seems deliberate on the part of Illa. He’s not looking on Yancey Boys to create tracks that find massive radio airplay. He’s set out to create a coherent album, one that you can listen to from start to finish without feeling overwhelmed, allowing you to be absorbed by the mentality of relaxation that exists here. And in this goal, he has succeeded in creating one of the most solid hip-hop albums of the year.