Donuts feels like it was made to be timeless instead of timely, to continue to influence music makers for decades to come and not merely to start a trend or short lived subgenre. It is an almost overwhelming collection, fully 31 tracks in 43 minutes, rarely staying in one place for long, though the horn break on 'Glazed' repeats to comedic effect. In general this album is not so much a mixtape of sketches for songs or unfinished loops/beats as it is a fully formed instrumental hip hop album, equally of-a-piece with 'sampledelica' albums like The Avalanches' Since I Left You as it is underground contemporaries like Madlib, not to mention obvious pre-cursors like DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... and the Dust Brothers' production on Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay. Which is all a long winded way of saying that Donuts feels entirely organic despite being sample based. Even the use of cut-up vocal samples on 'Airworks' and 'Stepson Of The Clapper' have a coherency which seems almost narrative, as if Dilla is re-purposing a commercial jingle to talk about something more spiritual.
While the title was apparently chosen just because he liked donuts, I feel like it's an effective-though-abstract way of describing the album's sound. 'The Twister (Huh, What)' settles into an extended, circular groove after the first 20 seconds, and in general the record has a sugary, glossy production, all combining to give the impression of, well, the music as delicious donuts spinning out of the speakers. Hmmmm maybe that's just because I'm hungry and writing this in the morning. But I digress. One can see J. Dilla's Donuts as the more soul-based, pop-leaning counterpart to Madlib's work on theMadvillainy album, which also used short songs and an eclectic stable of sample sources. Though he, too, can pull from, say, Frank Zappa as Madlib does,Donuts tends more toward the sort of soft focus horn sections and orchestral breaks that go hand in hand with 70s soul and R&B records, which definitely helps the impression of this album as having that 'sugary, glossy' sound I described earlier.
Both as an influence and as a source of beats, Donuts continues to be a presence five years after its release. J. Dilla will undoubtedly be one of those artists that we'll look back on as both ahead of his time and having died before his time, leaving a tantalizing blueprint for future hip hop producers, and really, musicians of all stripes to either follow or take influence from. Donuts is arguably the purest distillation of his genius, having none of his so-so rapping or guest MCs to get in the way. A must hear.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5