No music has ever moved me like the combination of hip-hop and soul. 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the first CD I ever owned (full disclosure: I was born in '92), but albums like Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Common’s Be and Blu and Exile’s Below the Heavens deepened my love for rap music and nurtured it like Miracle-Gro. To quote Mr. West, “It’s so soulful, man / And when you hear it swear it feel like soul food, man.”
With that said, I’ve always appreciated the many hues of hip-hop and as I’ve sought to loosen up my listening habits and keep a finger on the pulse of what’s hot, you’re as likely to find Cousin Stizz or Dae Dae in my current rotation as you are Clear Soul Forces or De La Soul. Not to say I’ve sold out on my favorite soul music, I’m just not the stubborn-to-the-point-of-annoying “neo-soul” head I once was; everyone needs to fly from the nest eventually.
2008’s Yancey Boys was the last time I properly listened to Illa J, the younger brother of the late, great J Dilla. Writing about rap music for a living ironically means missing out on a lot of (sometimes great) rap music, and so projects like 2013’s Sunset Blvd. and 2015’s ILLA J, as well as his recent work with Slum Village, have all admittedly flown under my radar (the only new-ish song of his I have heard is the KAYTRANADA and Potatohead People-produced “Strippers,” which is my fucking jam).
Maybe it’s the lonely adjustment period I’ve been going through lately after moving out and living on my own for the first time, but when I saw Illa J had released a new album called Home last night, the double dose of familiarity persuaded me to press play (yes, even with JAY-Z’s 4:44 awaiting me on my fifth free trial on TIDAL). By the time I finished listening, it felt like I’d arrived back home.
Steeped in the sounds of Motown-era Detroit, Home is a beautiful collaboration between Illa J’s soothing vocals and Calvin Valentine’s soul-soaked production. From the very first song, the album greets you like a heart-warming welcome mat at the foot of your grandmother’s front door: “Whenever I’m feeling down, and there’s no one else around, I sing my favorite melody,” Illa sings on “Intro (Turn It Up).”
Showcasing an impressive vocal range (including an Eddie Kendricks-esque falsetto) that he honed through vocal coaching, Illa J paints sepia-tinged pictures of love (“Maureen,” Illa’s “Hey Mama”), lust (“I Know”) and larceny (“Detroit Bad Boys”). He brings it all home with the Gloria Barnes-sampling “Home,” which will have you reaching for the family photo album—not to mention the nearest box of tissues—as the credits roll.
Unlike J. Cole with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Illa J didn’t have to move back home to make this album—he’s always kept his roots in Detroit—but it does sound like he’s had a similar epiphany. Home—both geographically and musically—doesn’t necessarily mean stagnating in your comfort zone; it’s about using those familiar surroundings to fuel your growth as an artist—in Illa’s case, as a singer.
“With Home, I’m coming back to sample-based soul music and this time, I’m not rapping on it as much,” he told Bandcamp. “I’ve always had the intention of singing, which is why this project is so important to me. It’s about Detroit, my physical home, but it’s also about me finding my voice as an artist and coming home to that.”
In the same way your physical home will always, in some way, shape your identity, Home doesn’t pretend be anything it’s not. Unmasking and merging their natural gifts, Illa J and Calvin Valentine recognize the boundless beauty of hip-hop-infused soul and spend 10 songs serenading their way into your heart.
Home is where the heart is. For me, that will always be where hip-hop meets soul.