In 2005 classic, Wedding Crashers, Will Ferrell as the charming Chazz Reinhold, utters a classic line to protegé John Beckwith (played by Owen Wilson). “Grief is nature’s most powerful aphrodisiac,” he says to a wide-eyed Wilson, before shuffling out a newly widowed stunner and screaming at his mother for “meatloaf, fuck!”
While its role in the real life funeral crashing success rate is unclear, death can be a record label’s Cialis. What better way to revive a career ended too soon than by exploiting a delicate time of remembrance, packaging “intimate, never-before-heard” (correction: unfinished) demos and slapping it together with some tear-jerking album art? Sure, it can be successful (Tupac, who currently resides somewhere in Cuba, can attest to that). More often than not, it’s disappointing. And usually, the record company’s scheming album for revenue recovery is shit (one shudders at remembering the King of Pop, for the posthumous Michael, or John Lennon for Milk And Honey).
When the Japanese hip-hop producer Seba Jun more commonly known as Nujabes died in February 2009, there wasn’t the same outpouring of grief usually inspired by an artist’s premature demise. In fact, it wasn’t until a month later that the world seemed to notice the death of the mysterious DJ, when Hydeout Productions released a statement that its 36-year-old founder had been killed in a car accident. After a short Twitter outburst a month later, the world returned to steady state. There were no city-wide funeral processions. There was no media outburst or examination into cause of death. And there were certainly no quick-handed attempts to throw a shoddy posthumous album together. Nujabes, who hadn’t released a studio album since 2005, had already been working on something before he died, Hydeout announced. It would be released when it was ready.
Two years later, Hydeout is ready–not to collect a hefty profit on its fallen founder–but to pay tribute to one the most influential producers from the Land of the Rising Sun. On Saturday, the label released Nujabe’s final work, tying up loose ends for a legend who seemed to already be weaving his final tale. Spiritual State is about as complete as an epilogue could be, an album hauntingly named for an artist deeply interested in the metaphysical. As much as 2005’s Modal Soul was about corporeal existence, its successor is fittingly transcendent, focusing on the being that comes after death.
At only 38, it was impossible for Jun to know he was nearing his end. But, opener “Spiritual State” sounds as if something composed by a man in the winter of his life. Featuring ever-present collaborator, Uyama Hiroto, the self-titled track isn’t something readily classified as hip hop, building off sleigh bell-mimicking handclap sample that’s balanced with delicate piano. At this time of year, with Christmas trees lit up in living rooms and snow about to fall, the opener begs yuletide memories, before closing with a saxophone jam that puts Mr. Saxobeat to shame. Two flute-based instrumentals “Spiral” and “Dawn of the Side,” driven by the steady pulses of an upright base and the injection of Spanish guitar, maintain the somber atmosphere throughout the album, as Nujabes remains brooding, but with more traditional hip-hop rhythms.
Whereas past Nujabes efforts, namely Modal Soul, acted as mediums for vocal contributors to shine through over beautifully crafted rhythms, Spiritual State is much more instrumental. Rap-infused tracks serve as breaks to the jazz ensemble melodies. When they do appear, however, the collaborations contain the usual suspects that have worked with Jun in the past. welcomed with open arms. The cameos of undergrounders Pase Rock, Substantial and Cise Star, are welcome interjections, adding a bit of pace and verve to Nujabes’ coolhanded approach. On “Yes,” with a beat that would seem best fit on an Ibiza beach, Pase Rock dovetails with a piano sample for the most upbeat collaboration on the album. The Five Deez emcee also appears on “City Lights” with Substantial, providing a chorus that reminisces on the death of the album’s creator. “Fade to black the soundtrack to another night/ It’s the music to the rain and the city lights/ Feel no pain, it makes the whole city bright/ Without the sparkle of hype it’s just another night,” Pase Rock raps, perhaps in a subtle reference to Jun, who died driving at night along a Tokyo expressway.
In understanding the album post-Jun’s passing, song titles alone seem to have a greater meaning. “The Sky Is Tumbling,” a cacophonous mix featuring Cise Star demands speaks of touching the face of God, while “Waiting For The Clouds,” has Substantial contemplating the path to posthumous existence. “If our future is bright, then the present is overcast/ And we want it to be over fast,” he sings.
Yet for an artists who said few words, it seems fitting that Spiritual State is best defined by songs with little to any. “Far Fowls” is playful, driving off Native American themes by building from a melody that’s passed from guitar to pan flute to other wind instruments. Follow-up “Fellows” feeds off the same energy, mixing in some precocious scratching that gives way to off-kilter trumpet solo.
The mood’s ascent is brief, however, as the album closes out on more pensive themes. “Prayer” features more of the ever-present flute on the album, but remains subdued before abruptly cutting out. Hiroto returns on closer “Island” with Haruka Nakamura for a fitting end, a lazy, drifting track that recalls musical paradise and comes to rest with 30 seconds of silence. On an album that clocks in at just over an hour, those 30 seconds are Jun’s last words. There’s no showmanship, no glory-seeking. It’s a subtle, humble goodbye, the mark of an artist already two-years gone, bowing out gracefully.
Nujabes- City Lights (ft. Pase Rock & Substantial) (download)
Nujabes- Fellows (download)
Nujabes- Island (ft. Uyama Hiroto & Haruka Nakamura) (download)