ere's a phrase I want you to think about for a minute: instrumental hip-hop album. Seriously. Roll it around your brain and chew on it. Consider all the connotations you form, all the experiences you may or may not have had listening to such things.
(No, actually do it).
Good, now forget about all that. Donuts sounds nothing like DJ Shadow, RJD2, Special Herbs, the Chronic 2001 instrumentals or anything made by Daedalus, Prefuse 73, Sixtoo, or Jel. It doesn't sound like old breaks records, 45 King loops, or the flipside of a No Limit 12-inch. Donuts is about as far away from sonic wallpaper as you can get. It's also hardly instrumental.
Looping and chopping phrases, beats, and snippets from Kool & the Gang, the Beastie Boys, Raymond Scott, the Temptations and Mobb Deep among many many others, Dilla uses the conventional hip-hop palette to paint a work of unorthodox greatness. Part all those things you thought of when I said "instrumental hip-hop album," part psychedelic jeep beats, part classic soul mixtape, part musique concrete, Donuts is entirely one unique mindfuck. Clocking in at 43 minutes, 23 seconds and spanning 31 tracks (only one is over 2 minutes), it's like a medicinal tonic cleansing your system of the toxic effects of 10+ years of boring, bloated rap full-lengths. At times smooth, bumpy or just plain jarring, it's a sick, surreal tapestry of thumps, bumps, hip-hop scratches, souljazz snatches, moans, and grunts that aims to disturb and please in equal doses. Veering erratically from ambient Africanism, goofy funk, and psychedelic jeep beats to hypnotic near-Minimalism, Dada-esque juxtaposition and stoned quasi-logic, this sure ain't your daddy's instrumental hip-hop album.
Between doses of song portions played with very little tweaking and bits cut and repeated to an almost intrusive degree, Dilla lays sirens, snippets of commercials and looped fragments of rap and soul vocals, often focusing on the tiniest pieces—a grunt, the echo of a sustained note, the breath in between two phrases. Every spoken or sung word is laden with added emphasis by its placement in the larger context of enveloping, beat-heavy ambience. Donuts is a work of inspired wonder that constantly tugs at the very fabric from which it is woven, as though it were somehow unsatisfied with its own creativity. The state of chaotic improvisation that results makes for rapid transitions and confounding leaps in both volume and mood, but each component part breathes and resounds in the space given by Dilla's light-handed production. The feeling created is one of isolated moments of intense concentration, a life's worth of golden moments stitched together to be experienced all at once, never resting on any one at the expense of any other.
As a kid growing up in rural New Jersey (yes, such a place exists) hip-hop was my first love and always acted as a kind of musical panacea to the boredom and unmitigated whiteness of suburbia. Since its consequent absorption by MOR mall culture, rap music has become safe, predictable, even downright tiresome. Even the creative resurgence of the late 90s has ended as just more grist for the tedious mill (this time under the dubious umbrella of “consciousness”), and so it is my distinct pleasure to enjoy something as life-affirming as those Run-DMC and LL Cool J tapes were in the mid-80s. If rap is a game increasingly predictable in its trajectory, then J. Dilla serves the function of chaos. With Donuts, he sketches the history of hip hop on a sheet of paper, wads it up, and blows a giant spitwad that smacks you right behind your ears.