In September 2001, James Yancey began work on the tracks that developed into this posthumous album. Intended for release on MCA, the project was shelved after Wendy Goldstein, the A&R VP who had signed the revered producer and rapper, moved to Capitol. Yancey had catalyzed MCA's success with the Roots and Common, and he was also behind Black Star's brilliant "Little Brother" for the Hurricane soundtrack. Even so, minus Goldstein's support, MCA wasn't keen on the latitude Yancey accorded himself in his Clinton Township basement and at Dearborn Heights' Studio A. Known primarily for his progressive beatmaking yet uninterested in doing the same thing twice, the artist took the solo MCA sessions, which commenced only a few months after BBE released Welcome 2 Detroit, as an opportunity to shine as a rapper over beats from admired peers. The album was aborted in April 2002, after which Yancey continued to add credits and created Ruff Draft, the Madlib summit Champion Sound, Donuts, and what became The Shining. All the while, the MCA album was classified as unfinished business. During a hospital stay prior to his 2006 death, Yancey expressed to then Stones Throw general manager Eothen Alapatt and mother Maureen Yancey that he wanted it to circulate. As descriptively outlined in Alapatt's liner notes for The Diary of J Dilla, the creative and legal processes necessitated to finish and free the album were Byzantine -- or, as he told Rolling Stone, "a pain in the fucking ass."
Before Alapatt's heroic undertaking, some of this material reached the public in promotional and bootleg forms. In its completed state, despite final touches that include a verse from Snoop, The Diary of J Dilla should be heard as a late 2002 or early 2003 album, as something that would have hit the racks around the same time as the Dilla-enhanced Trinity, Quality, and Electric Circus. In fact, "Drive Me Wild," a raunchy, somewhat B-52s-like rocker where Yancey's robotic vocal sounds inspired by Cybotron-era Juan Atkins, involves a portion of the cast from the Common affair, including Karriem Riggins, Pino Palladino, and Questlove. One of the more noticeable time stamps is in "The Introduction," when Yancey, over some rugged synthesizer science from House Shoes, adopts Q-Tip's "Excursions" cadence and cleverly swaps out the Bobby Brown reference for one to Sisqo. Some cuts, including the irreverent Gary Numan rewrite "Trucks," are Dilla productions, but the accomplices win out as an undeniably deep mix of heroes, contemporaries, and fellow native Detroiters. As on the majority of the previously released tracks that feature him on the mike, Yancey often sounds like he's in character -- boastful, combative, foul-mouthed, without a care -- in stark contrast to the humble and reserved demeanor with which he has been characterized by associates. Whether working with Pete Rock's Bilal-assisted dream-soul, Hi-Tek's creeping funk, or Waajeed's lean and filthy electro, the rhymes are delivered with steely belligerence. On triple-threat career highlight "Fuck the Police," originally a 2001 A-side, Yancey switches tack a bit and goes into truth-telling catharsis mode, and incorporates a rowdy quote of (and shout-out to) Detroit DJ legend the Electrifying Mojo, one of the figures responsible for his boundary-blind, counterclockwise approach. Thematically and sonically, it segues perfectly into the closing title track, a rare moment of reflection over Bink!-produced Black Moses soul. The Diary of J Dilla might not rival its maker's best output, but it's a pivotal and illuminating chapter, even when heard out of sequence. Just as importantly, it fulfills the wish of a master musician.