THE NEW ALBUM ENTITLED “Spiritual State,” by Nujabes, is the kind of music that I want to have playing as I walk across wet pavement after the sun comes out to wash away some rain clouds. In other words, Nujabes is exactly what you need to make it through these winter days when life seems trapped beneath an overcast dome; pushing play is the musical equivalent of turning the world’s brightness settings up a notch.
I hadn’t heard of Nujabes–a backwards spelling of the Japanese artist’s name, Jun Seba–until coming across the new track “Dawn on the Side” at Hype Machine. Beginning with some simple snare+piano beats, the song slowly combines a flamenco guitar, sleigh bells, and a jazz flute that that’s simultaneously melodramatic and uplifting. Typically, the popular tracks from Hype Machine are heavy on rap-techno remixes–not jazz-hop world music–so I decided to look a little closer at who this guy might be.
I headed straight to Wikipedia. The first thing I noticed was that this artist has a sizeable article about him. Interesting, I thought, Must mean he has some credibility and a legitimate following. A few moments into the article, I noticed that his work was being referred to in the past tense. It just seemed strange – I didn’t know why right away – that this really fresh and modern sounding music was being talked about as if it happened long ago. Finally, in the last paragraph of the article, a car crash is mentioned, and the explanation for my previous bewilderment became startlingly clear.
It is incredibly strange to realize that a person you’ve only just begun to appreciate is dead. After further Googling, I realized that others, having been fans for years, had already moved past the shock of the tragedy long ago. They seemed to be in some latent stage of mourning that I couldn’t see yet. The sudden onset of enjoyment for his music, followed by the knowledge of his youth and talent, and then the abrupt announcement that it would no longer be made–it all hurt in a way that I’m still not able to wrap my mind around.
I put on some more of his songs, like “Sky is Tumbling,” which feels like hip-hop grandfathers probably would have aspired the genre to become: a melting pot of instrumental and lyrical introspection, a simultaneous meditation on both thought and feeling.
Other tracks like “Spiral” force a slowdown with tempered, modest beats loitering beneath Japanese strings; “Gone Are the Days” wraps you in saxophone storytelling. This is not music to mourn over; it’s a soundtrack for feeling in tune with whatever you’re doing–driving to work, walking through a park, playing with your dog, writing.
In general, those who critique and review music for a living will classify his career as a fantastically talented jazz-hop instrumentalist with dashings of world music whose potential was never fully realized. But those who let themselves connect to the music will see it as something larger, like this reviewer did:
…if Nujabes was still alive, we’d call this a placeholder album while we waited for his next big move. But of course, he’s dead. There won’t be any move. There won’t be anything else at all. So where does that leave this album, still magnificent at points but undeniably weaker that the two before it?
Here’s where – it leaves Nujabes alongside the likes of Ian Curtis, Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, Yonlu, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Buckley; all artists that left behind bodies of works that were depressingly small, but incredible in their crystalline decidation to one idea and one mood. Spiritual State might not move forward the ideas from his first two albums at all, but in a lot of ways, it’s better that it doesn’t. Let’s remember Nujabes the way we would have remembered him if this album hadn’t been released, and treat this as a gentle, welcome augmentation to a legacy that probably didn’t need it. This does add one crucial string to his bow, though; the acknowledgement that his C-grade material sounds like most people’s A-grade best.
A lot of people like to compare Jun Seba to Jay Dilla, another musician who died young and brilliant and still rising in an upward crescendo of achievement and admiration. The similarities seem simple enough: both worked in hip-hop, both brought a certain degree of levity and intelligence to their works, and they even had the same number of syllables in their names.
But while these comparisons seem rational enough, it’s the following fact I’m about to tell you that means the most. It’s one of those facts that has me convinced that life and existence is not a random set of chemical variables within a void. Perhaps it is superstitious; misguided by existential coping mechanisms; or maybe I’m just straight-up putting blind faith in facts which are quaint, though not realistically meaningful–but consider this following fact as a possible wink and nod from a universe that says yes, we are all connected beyond measure:
Jun Seba and Jay Dilla were born on the exact same day, of the exact same year.