Before one even considers the individual merits of J Dilla's The Shining, one must first dispense with any preconceptions that to criticize the record is to besmirch Mr. Yancey's legacy. In hip-hop parlance, such presumptuous self-aggrandizement would be met with a rightful reminder that no one's arms are long enough to box with a god.
The Large Picture
Mr. Yancey, who was often invoked by his recording and producing names, Jay Dee or J Dilla, passed away this year on February 10th, and Dilla Dog can rest assured that his legacy is safe from assault. Jay Dee's passing, though tragic (he was just 32-years-old), was a poignant reminder of just how much he had contributed to hip-hop. On record, on paper, and on the internets, the deluge of support that followed Dilla's death was a collective testament to how deeply hip-hop heads were affected by a singular individual. When one can summon such resonant emotions in complete strangers--or, if you want to have a pissing contest, when one can list seminal works produced for Common, Slum Village, De La Soul, Pharcyde, the Roots, Busta Rhymes, and A Tribe Called Quest as just pieces of a much larger and influential catalogue'there is no need to worry about history's fickle nature.
A Musician's Mind
Relieved, therefore, of such an erroneous burden, once can freely approach The Shining with honesty, likely arriving at the somewhat regrettable conclusion that it is an adequate compilation record from a god-body producer.
The common thread that runs through each piece of the larger sonic tapestry that comprises The Shining is Yancey's production, but that is nearly the full extent of the album's musical cohesion. There are no awkward juxtapositions, such as loud and gimmicky Mike Jones rhyming with soft-spoken and bland Masta Killa; nor are there uncharacteristic forays into the trap and studio-gangster sounds glorified by the contemporary hip-hop zeitgeist. The Shining does not suffer from any crises of identity so much as it is almost an unfortunate articulation of Jay Dee's many influences and a platform for a series of middling lyrical performances. A listener can never get fully comfortable as the album meanders from sample to sample, drum program to drum program, and aesthetic to aesthetic. The album has an overall feel of a musician's mind searching for the right sound and never finding it.
While overarching themes are commonly hard to come by on compilation albums assembled by a producer and featuring a procession of guest MCs, those which emerge, paradoxically united by the overall diversity, as The Shining's twelve tracks unfold are ambition and experimentation. The album is an impressive repository for Jay Dee's creative impulses, with ambient percussion, bare hi-hats, and dulcet samples working in conjunction with many other musical inputs to create a healthy array of sonic styles that clearly represent the grand vision of an acknowledged hip-hop genius. This usually impressive and generally noble quality is diminished, though, by the unrefined nature of the record: almost every beat sounds nearly empty, missing the soulful energy that helped characterize Jay Dee's best work. It is not a coincidence that stronger tracks such as Madlib and Guilty Simpson's "Baby," the emotive "Love" with Pharoahe Monch, and the Black Thought showcase "Love Movin'" have palpable energy that is missing from the more vacant fare, including the instrumental "Body Movin."
The underwhelming and confused direction of the album is present right away. Inauspiciously, the record begins with a grating, profanity-laced Busta Rhymes tirade meant to serve as a rallying cry. Placed over an electronic rendition of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" with a Flight of the Bumblebee flair, though, Busta comes off sounding hollow, his trademark aggressive posturing nothing more than cartoon bravado. From there, the record travels back to 2002 as Common flows generically over a beat that sounds as though it were intended for his Electric Circus, it's electronic and brooding and sterile, despite (or perhaps because of?) the synthesizer-driven vocal swells. And as Common's recent resurgence under Kanye West's direction has demonstrated, the dude needs a little more soul to assist him as his potential becomes manifest.