“Yancey Boys” sees Illa J creating songs using old beats by his late older brother James, aka J Dilla. The beats date from ’95-’98, when Dilla was working on the Pharcyde’s “Labcabincalifornia.” Dilla’s little brother rhyming and singing over ten-year-old beats? It could either be a heartfelt tribute to someone who died too young, or a crass cash-in. Of course, J Dilla’s talent didn’t come from nowhere, so it’s reasonable to assume that Illa J might share some of his older brother’s musical gifts, and that “Yancey Boys” will be a better in execution than it sounds on paper.
The album starts off with the mellow “Timeless,” and right off the bat Illa J proves that Dilla wasn’t the only Yancey boy with musical talent. Over a mellow piano-laced beat, Illa J gets his soulful crooning on. He has decent singing voice, and the song works well. The following track “We Here” is more uptempo, and shows the biggest chink in Illa’s armor: his lyrics.
I said we here
Let’s buckle up and enjoy this crazy year
The check is cleared
We poppin’ bottles like it’s the first day of the year”
It’s disappointing that Illa J wastes the opportunity to collaborate with his brother to make such a generic ode to the good life. Of course, Dilla himself wasn’t always the world’s deepest lyricist, but still, I was hoping for more. It’s not that Illa can’t rap or can’t sing; he drops some clever lines, and shows himself capable on the mic. However, the lyrical content for the most part fails to impress. The beat on “We Here” is also less than stellar. Sure, it has that classic J Dilla sheen, that slightly understated soul, but it also sounds like an idea he hadn’t fully developed. In short, the beat on “We Here,” and several other tracks sound like thingsDilla pushed to the side on purpose because they were not quite ready for prime time.
That’s not to say that any of the beats on “Yancey Boys” are bad. They are all Dilla beats, with his classic drum sound and his meticulously constructed instrumentation. Dilla was always a more subtle producer than people like Timbaland or the Neptunes. A Dilla beat doesn’t hit you over the head in a loud or flashy way. His beats tend to be slow burns, sounding deceptively simple at first listen. The work here is mostly mellow, and leans towards neo-soul, not unlike the stuff he did for Tribe Called Quest. There is a sameness to the beats, and they do sound a little dated, in that they don’t have the experimentation that Dilla would show with his later work. Some of the beats are merely good, but a lot of them stand up with the rest of Dilla’s work from the period. Having an entire album worth of Dilla beats makes “Yancey Boys” worth the price of admission.
While Illa J’s lyrics may not be totally impressive, he is an able rapper and singer, and he adapts both gifts well to his brother’s beats. The album sounds like a true collaboration, and it’s clear that Illa J was connecting and communicating withDilla in some spiritual sense. This must have been a very emotional and cathartic experience for Illa, a chance to spend some time creating art with his brother from beyond the grave. “Yancey Boys” is a tribute to J Dilla in more ways than one. “Air Signs” is all about the Yancey family. One of the most moving songs is “Alien Family,” which is basically a skit in which Frank Nitty talks about J Dilla and the Yancey family, handing the torch to Dilla’a younger brother.
Illa J nails it on tracks like “R U Listening?” which has a solid, slow-burning beat and a nice verse by Detroit MC Guilty Simpson. Simpson was collaborating with Dilla when Dilla passed. It’s great to hear Guilty rapping on a Dilla beat, and he doesn’t disappoint. “Struggling” “Showtime,” “All Good,” “Illasoul” and “Air Signs” are other highlights on the album, and see Illa J perfectly meshing his singing/rapping style with Dilla’s beats. These tracks won me over to “Yancey Boys,” and convinced me that it was more than just an attempt by an unknown artist to cash in on the fame of his sibling. “Yancey Boys” is a worthy tribute to a producer who is greatly missed, and a solid listen. The beats may be the main attraction here, but Illa J’s contributions make for a nice package.