Yancey Boys keep it underground and G’d up on their new J Dilla produced LP Sunset Blvd. There’s no need for me to tell you the production is beautiful, varied, uplifting and hard hitting; any LP full of new beats from James Dewitt Yancey is worth your money regardless of who’s rhyming over it; but here every MC is as top notch as the beat they’re flowing over.
Vocals are largely provided by friends and family, most of which fortunately happen to be some of most talented individuals to hold a mic. Sunset Blvd boasts verses from Dilla collaborators and contemporaries Common, Talib Kweli, Posdnous, and T3, along with fellow loop diggers J Rocc and Rhettmatic of the World Famous Beat Junkies, and some tasteful melodies from Eric Robertson, Dezi Paige and Botni Applebum. Holding the album together amidst a whirlwind of crazy-dope beats and stellar guest spots is the MC duo that make up the Yancey Boys themselves; Frank Nitt and Illa J. Frank provides a bassy thump with every heavy line he unloads, and is more than qualified to lay words over Dilla’s beats as the official curator to his back catalogue. Illa J, at Twelve years his late brother’s junior has grown into Hip Hop in the best possible company. Sunset Blvd is his second full-length release for Delicious Vinyl, and he’s still showing and proving his talent as an MC through skill and lyricism, not nepotism. He offset’s Franks heavy hitting attack with a casual, effortless flow that brings the focus on the craft of writing back to the forefront of the game, keeps the album’s vibe mellow, and spiritually connects the work with Jay’s legacy further.
As with Dilla’s other releases his sound treads a fine line between the hard knock of the streets and soulful sheen of the studio; his sample selection and masterful composition and acute ear for samples helped define the sound of the east coast underground scene that spawned The Pharcyde, The Soulquarians, his group Slum Village and the whole Neo Soul movement. The rawness he brings, coupled with his infectious sense of melody is refined in it’s ruggedness. On tracks like The Fisherman and Go And Ask The DJ he makes catchy, light melodies into bangers, with drums that are so slammin you won’t be able to stop groovin the whole time; Detroit is definitely in his sound, and it’s that unfathomable quality that still sets him apart from the generation of new producers he fathered.
Counterbalancing the heavier tracks are a wealth of new chilled out soulful classics that feature some graceful hooks from a host of highly accomplished singers. The more relaxed vibes make the album for me, and broaden it’s appeal beyond the average Hip Hop head. DJ Rhettmatic keeps it minimal to great effect after Frank Nitt and Talib Kweli drop immaculate stanzas to compliment Niko Gray’s harmonies on Flowers. The chorus is a beautifully understated hook, and Kweli’s verse is one of his best in recent years. Honk Ya Horn & Without Wings hark back to the days when MC’s used to destroy tracks with a constant barrage of tight rhymes, and are so damn enjoyable it’s crazy; the whole album takes me back to being 15 when I was blown away by every new Hip Hop track I heard. The latest single Jeep Volume is testament to how amazing Dilla was; that sample might come across goofy in anyone else’s hands, and without his twist on it, it definitely wouldn’t be that bumpin. The switch he makes from the old-time croon of the verse into hard drums perfectly illustrates why no other producer can imitate his style, he thinks of things other producers couldn’t at the time, and haven’t been able to since. The blend of quickfire rhymes and his unattainable level of virtuosity is exactly why Sunset Blvd is head and shoulders above most other American Hip Hop right now.
Lovin U is another soothing gem that sticks in the mind, Dilla’s driving beat keeps the momentum up as the Two MC’s fire off lines and Eric Robertson elevates the song with his vocal flourishes, it’s one of the album’s many highlights. De La Soul’s Posdnous blesses the rich tones of Beautiful with a funky sixteen from his extensive rhymebook, adding a crowning moment to an already outstanding song that begins the deep feeling of fulfilment that Quicksand amplifies. There’s not another single I’ve heard this year that’s made me feel this good, the same warmth you get in the pit of your stomach listening to soul, you find here. Common comes out on form as always, Dezi Paige crafts a gorgeous hook and the beat is one his best without a doubt; my hand reaches for extra volume every time it comes on.
The real gem to this release is that it’s not exploitative; too often with posthumous releases there’s a strong stench of cash lingering on every re-packaged accapella or remastered beat; here that’s far from the case. Dilla’s production was so ahead of it’s time that taking some of his unused material and releasing it now still makes it sound as fresh as they day he created it; and even when every aspect of the music is passionately attacking the listener, there’s an all-encompassing cool that permeates every track and keeps it a highly pleasant and soul nourishing listen. It’s not only one of the most solid Hip Hop album’s of the year, full of well composed tracks displaying creativity from noteworthy MC’s, and backed by one of the movement’s best producers; It’s also a fitting tribute to one of the most accomplished musicians of the last decade. Who’s prolific work-rate and dedication to making high quality sounds for real music lovers has been celebrated, and commemorated by a group of people who have filled Sunset Blvd with the same love they have for the man that inspired it.
Buy the vocal or instrumental versions digitally, on cd, or on double vinyl here.