Published Dec 07, 2018It's one thing to have a famous relative, but quite another entirety for Illa J to live under his late brother's shadow. After all, the elder Yancey boy was a rap icon who established a indelibly soulful sound before passing away from a rare blood disease in 2006. That being said, J Dilla's kid brother has made impressive music in his own right, thanks in no small part to his deft singing and inclination toward R&B, rather than merely aping his forbear's peerless rap bona fides.
That's not to say his newly released fourth LP, John Yancey (also Illa J's given name) is devoid of hip-hop elements. All the instrumentals have Soulquarians -era style crisp drumming and loops that are by turns soulful and funky.
Little Illa can also spit quite serviceably, letting loose with breezy flows on the swaggering "DTW," and on "James Said," while the latter features scratching that'd make masters like DJ Premier smile. His rhymes rarely rise above the level of rudimentary on the verses, but Illa J can handle a hook with aplomb, a prime example of the latter being the readymade sing-along chorus of the balmy "Weather Report."
And even when Illa J's raps come close to being cringe-worthy, like when he starts rapping about his numerous side chicks on "James Said," he balances out those moments with surprising nuance and sensitivity on other tracks. "Enjoy the Ride" is a clear standout in that regard, where Illa J disparages any "stupid guys" who once hurt the girl he's chasing, before admitting with shocking candour: "Who am I to judge? I was probably him one day." That track is also a standout thanks to the eerie early jazz-era vocal samples, which stretch well past the comparatively recent soul snippets frequently favoured by his elder brother and swaths of imitators.
Such thrillingly highs make up for the shortcomings on this fun, grooving, richly soulful LP, while also making it a release that Illa J should rightly feel proud to share his given name with. (Jakarta Records)