Review Summary: The years go fast, and the days go so slow.
If you'll permit me to open a hip-hop review with a quote from a genre that couldn't be further afield: I don't know if a truer line has ever been written than "the years go fast, and the days go so slow". Trust 90s-era Isaac Brock to sum up such a thorny, slippery idea in less than ten words.
Time is such a fucking strange concept, getting blurrier the more you squint at it like an optical illusion, almost impossible to capture in words or lyrics without resorting to tired cliches or Pink Floyd references. Even moreso, hip-hop's relationship to time is unique: we are after all talking of a genre that is built on the bones of its predecessors, sampling soul and the blues and jazz and funk to make its foundations, absolutely inextricable in its early days from those styles while ending up so different from all of them. Many incredible rap albums use these old old sounds to capture a specific moment in time in vivid technicolour: Black Star
's bruised but defiant optimism in the wake of Biggie and 2Pac's then-recent deaths; Demon Days
transforming Bush-era anxieties into an absolutely terrifying meditation on climate change and unchecked capitalism; To Pimp a Butterfly
's elegaic poetry in the waning days of the Obama administration, just to name a few.
is a masterpiece for a completely different reason, and understanding that is vital to getting to the core of what drives people to throw around words like 'classic' and 'masterpiece' and give this album 5-star reviews. Luv(sic) Hexalogy
is a true song cycle that reckons with the passage of time itself. This may not have been the original intention of the project, seemingly born out of the inimitable natural chemistry between Nujabes and Shing02 that led them to collaborate again and again throughout the former's too-short career. But nonetheless it's impossible not to reckon with time's cruel passage when you listen to the thing in full, from 2001's first entry to 2013's "Luv(sic) Grand Finale", a muted farewell based on a beat found on Nujabes' phone after he tragically died in 2010.
By the time Luv(sic) Hexalogy
finally arrived as an album, it was 2015, nearly fifteen years since the project had first started. Listening to it front to back, you can hear Shing02's voice age those years over the course of half an hour, becoming thinner and sharper, his flows more reserved and cautious as "Luv(sic)" fades into the rearview. Nujabes' style, incredible as it was from the outset, evolves and changes shape over the years too, morphing from phenomenally chill jazzy hip-hop to the downcast, spectral loop on "Grand Finale", each beat perfectly suited to the story of its song. It's like Boyhood
in rap form if that movie was good - an auditory timelapse that follows a story of love, heartbreak and tragic endings (aren't they all?) without beating you over the head with overwrought narrative moments or corny callbacks.
The years go fast, but time seems to stand still inside these songs, each one a snapshot of a moment that makes one hell of a photo album when you flip through. It's like they had the whole thing planned out on that one day in 2001, even though that's near-impossible to believe. It's there in the way the original's doe-eyed puppy love gives way to the more mature, thoughtful confidence of "Parts 2 & 3". The sepia-toned nostalgia of "Part 4", counting off seasons like time is actually slipping through the writer's fingers as he writes, makes for an absolutely heartbreaking duo with "Part 5", an ostensible eulogy for the relationship which doubles as a tribute to Jeff Ressureccion and Nujabes himself, who died a month before the song was finalised. There's an undeniable shift halfway through the project, where it goes from tracing the ups and downs of a romantic relationship to grappling with life's larger loves, the losses and heartbreaks everybody feels as the years go by. "The way Luv(Sic) is spelled (as in the Latin sic, for a misspelled quote) symbolizes how it wasn't a straightforward love song, there's a layer of obscured honesty", Shing02 describes in the accompanying liner notes. Again, it's almost as if they did really know on that first day exactly what this project was going to be.
There's so much more you could say about Luv(sic) Hexalogy
, not as a series of hip-hop songs with some connective tissue, but a genuine and enduring piece of art. The way the usage of scratch breaks and sampled spoken word recurs across every song, only adding to that bittersweet feeling of broken communication and dropped conversations that pervades across the project, "a sequel for a letter, as if I was writing someone that I had lost touch with" in Shing02's words. The rapper's simple but powerful wordplay, memoirs from a life well lived, summarising whole years in lines as straightforward as "this too shall pass, but reality bites and says not so fast". Of course, Nujabes' beautiful beyond belief instrumentals, the sweet piano, light flourishes of horns and soulful sample flips. Every song here - even the low-key, oft-forgotten bonus "Perfect Circle", a last ambiguous glance over the shoulder from a friend walking away into the rain - is just Nujabes, Shing02 and a DJ from their circle of friends, bouncing off one another in perfect harmony. A beat plus a melody, one beautiful idea at the turn of the century, that would end up one of the greatest albums of all time.