Nujabes – Spiritual State

Jun Seba is dead. He’s been that way since a tragic traffic accident on February 26th of 2010, leaving an enormous legacy and a brief and highly concentrated discography in his wake. The man known as Nujabes was a legend in the ambient, jazz-infused hip-hop scene – consciously or not, many of us knew him as the force behind much of Samurai Champloo’s soundtrack, an OST so effective in its simplicity that years later, free of narrative context, it continues to stand happily on its own. That show’s artistic direction crystallized his signature style, a synthesis of hip-hop production and folk-y jazz, blended with dreamscape strings and floating piano lines – production whose artistic force often overshadowed whichever occasional guest-performer happened to drop by. Spiritual State is his first release since 2005’s Modal Soul – a six-year hiatus forcibly ended by his death – and his absence from the final stages of this album is palpable. Assembled by his musical companions from component parts found in his workshop, Spiritual State lacks the focus and polish of his finished material. A quiet, meditative work, it drifts from track to mostly-instrumental track, lingering for piano samples and five widely-spread and starry-eyed guest verses from Five Deez’s Pase Rock, longtime compatriot Cise Star and Hydeout Productions labelmate Substantial. Nujabes’ input is unfinished, but Spiritual State still stands: a calming and often beautiful work, it’s too concise to be a tribute album, too focused for a post-mortem compilation. In an inescapable way, Spiritual State is Nujabes’ eulogy, heavily steeped in his influence and haunted by his presence, but never quite an original or complete production.

Spiritual State, as the album-art suggests, bursts with colour and life. Album bookends and standout-tracks “Spiritual State” and “Prayer” mirror one another in their striking, nostalgic beauty . The former is produced by collaborator Uyama Hiroto (see: Final Fantasy), and relies on looping piano flairs and an almost Flying Lotus brush-drum sample that bring substance to its six and a half minutes; when that standup bass and clarinet kick in, the impact is undeniable, and more than a little heart-wrenching. “Prayer” feels like its response – the most complete-feeling of the album’s artifacts – and as a piano and flute duet around which the DJ builds swelling drum loops and organ responses, it results in something like a thinner version of the audio-hypnotism that he and Fat Jon conjured up with “Aruarian Dance” those years ago. In between the album flutters, world-music drums and chorus-filled pianos filling every track. “Yes” sees Pace Rock contemplating and reminiscing while 4/4 bongos and double-thumping drums fill the space beneath (and the final couple minutes of the track). “Rainyway Back Home” is dusty and expansive with its synthesizers and acoustic guitar, “Far Fowls” is plucking strings over hip-hop drumming and culminates with the same folk-hip-hop vibe that brought Samurai Champloo its fame. “Fellows” is tailor-made for rainy days in the lounge with its plinking keys, trumpets and vocal samples. There are many more effective moments too (an hour’s worth), and while the tracks can blend together imperceptibly, Spiritual State is consistent, never straying from its introspective, jazz-infused quietude.

It’s a sonically beautiful album, and for those that love Nujabes’ signature style Spiritual State will likely prove and emotional and fulfilling listen. Nujabes made his name producing music for thought, beats that went as well with mid-summer walks as they did with quiet rainy days at home. In this respect, Spiritual State doesn’t disappoint, though it meanders: some tracks (“Fellows” and “Color of Autumn”) seem to cut too soon, the album itself can feel too long and ambient for concentrated listening, and it’s missing the punch that contributions like Fat Jon’s might have delivered. While the overall listening is thematically focused, the songwriting isn’t, which sometimes results in indistinguishable tracks that feel as much like outtakes or safe experiments as they do original productions. Simply put, it isn’t his greatest work, nor does it a necessarily complete one. Which, in all fairness, it isn’t.

What do we do with Spiritual State? The name is a clue: quiet, relaxing and introspective, Spiritual State feels like a tribute to its creator. Like Nujabes himself, it cuts short, leaving us wanting more. As a capstone to his career, it’s effective. It’s beautiful and earnest, and like so much of his work it’s sad and uplifting at once. It leaves room for more, it begs the listener to retroactively explore his discography. This is likely the last we’ll hear from Nujabes, and while it isn’t his best work, as a eulogy it functions brilliantly; in listening to Spiritual State, you too might miss his style and influence. There’s a metaphorical statement somewhere in there. As a musical work, Spiritual State is expansive and humble and incomplete – and that still puts Nujabes ahead of his peers.

8.0

Originally published right here, December 2011.

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