Review: Illa J – 'John Yancey'

Review: Illa J – 'John Yancey'

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It is difficult to talk about hip hop nowadays without paying respect to one of the most influential, innovative beatmakers – J Dilla. Whose productions inspired and touched everyone from hip hop artists like Kanye West, Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, to funk and soul icons such as Janet Jackson, Bilal and Amp Fiddler. Dilla’s legacy is unparalleled, and, since his tragic passing in 2006, he has continued to live on through 12 original studio albums – put together with the seemingly endless vault of beats Dilla left behind. His beats have since been used by the likes of MF Doom, Ghostface Killah, and Joey Badass, just to name a few.

Put simply, the name Yancey is everywhere.

That said, little attention has been paid to Dilla’s younger brother, John Yancey, who records his own music under the alias Illa J. A former member of Slum Village, John was merely 19 years old when his brother passed away, an event which only further encouraged him to chase a career in music. Two years later, Illa J released the critically acclaimed ‘Yancey Boys’, an inspiring album paying homage to his brother’s legacy through layers of rapping and singing over Dilla’s beats.

Now onto his fourth studio album ‘John Yancey’, Illa J has honed his craft to ensure not only that the Yancey name isn’t forgotten, but also that he holds his own place in the musical hall of fame. The record is equal parts personal, self-reflective and emotional as it is upbeat, spirited and celebratory. A departure from the preceding record ‘Home’ – a more solemn, gritty, and heartfelt ode to the Yancey’s Hometown – Detroit – Illa J’s latest release is a celebration of expression and life with an undeniably sunny Californian flair, which was the location for the two music videos released alongside it. 

Produced by Calvin Valentine – a musical playwright whose style would leave you believing he is the Yancey’s kin – ‘John Yancey’ was released through the Berlin-based record label Jakarta Records, which boasts early releases from Mura Musa, Anderson Paak, Ta-ku and KAYTRANADA. With that in mind, there are high hopes for Illa J’s future. The album, full of tracks preaching about life, love, happiness, and optimism, could very well become a cornerstone for Illa J’s own pedestal that ascends from the shadow of his late brother. 

The overflowing sense of hope and optimism on the record – a rarity in the current political and musical landscape – seems distinctly personal to J. There’s a sense of looking forward to what the future has in store for the 32-year-old musician, while transporting listeners through 42 minutes of bliss, before returning to the comparatively tragic world we live in. No track on the record represents this sense of being carefree so much as ‘Enjoy the Ride’, where J affirms the importance of positivity and rolling with the punches, a reminder that that no matter where the world takes us, or what setbacks we are faced with, it is important to enjoy the ride. The track, complete with crackling vinyl sounds and an 80’s piano loop, is full of nostalgia for and a celebration of the past as much as it is a reminder for the present. The sloppy drums on the track, which Dilla became known for, are crafted carefully to perfectly capture and represent the brothers’ spirits.

One of the most intriguing tracks on the album is the final cut: ‘32’, a meaningful number for John Yancey.  It’s a track full of self-reflection and a certain feeling of regret. The rapper / singer is currently 32 years old; the same age his brother was when he passed, and it seems like it has been a difficult 10 years for the rapper/singer: a decade of mourning, loss of identity, and constant comparisons to his older brother. Illa J talks about this in the track, written like a letter to his late brother, stating “This year I’ll be 32, ain’t that a trip, ch’ya pops is born in 1932 and when you died, I was 19 and you were 32, this year that I get older I got more respect for you.”

Yet, with ‘John Yancey’, Illa J finally seems to have come to terms with his psyche and discovered his unique voice. It is undeniable that this is a Yancey record, and that Dilla’s influence is still tangible, but it is not a terrible ordeal. The Yancey name carries and lot of weight and significance, but John has chosen to represent and embrace that – he has come to understand that choosing to continue your brother’s legacy doesn’t deny your individuality. And for that, we are grateful there is still a Yancey boy out there releasing out amazing pieces of music.

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