Monday, February 6, 2012

traveling: The Journey of Hikaru Utada

"Why are you trying to classify it? This is music for all humanity from me..."

Hikaru Utada has sold over 52 million records worldwide and her first LP is ranked as the biggest selling record in Japan ever. These are just two of Utada’s sales accomplishments alone, she isn’t even 30 yet. The daughter of two musician parents, a traditional “enka” (ballad) singer mother and producer father (who works alongside his daughter), Utada emerged in 1999 with her debut First Love at 16. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

The Manhattan born, Tokyo reared singer-songwriter, arranger, and producer went on to become the global ambassador for the popular, if misunderstood Japanese music genre of J-Pop. Utada’s music cross pollinates Western sounds into the fluid soundways of said J-Pop, bringing a varied approach. Her embrace of visual propulsion with her mentioned musicianship places Hikaru Utada as a leading talent to rise in the last decade.

Utada’s success in Japan, and worldwide cult following, poses a real question. Why are English speaking acts permitted to maintain appeal in foreign countries alongside their finest singers, but non-English speaking singers don't receive reciprocation outside their native land? That Utada recorded two albums, out of her seven, in English that received little coverage in the Western music media answers the question. Currently on hiatus, Utada’s reprieve allows for consideration of her abilities.

First Love
Label: Toshiba EMI
Release: 3/10/99
Singles: "automatic,” “time will tell,” “Movin’ On Without You,” “First Love”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions*: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Savvy, pensive, and pretty are adjectives that aptly describe the energy of Utada’s first long player. Only 16 when the record released in early 1999, First Love’s dual appeal is blatant. Between the house cool of “Movin’ On Without You” to the slamming “甘いワナ ~Paint It, Black” (“Sweet Trap~Paint It, Black”)," both knocked on all cylinders to groove listeners. The urban edge of the mentioned cuts, along with the classic singles “time will tell” and “automatic,” portrayed a playful, behind-the-curve acknowledgement of contemporary black music. The jazzy, hip-hop beats bounced as if they could have been culled from any prime-era U.S. R&B affair between 1995 through 1997. Such style swapping is what set First Love ahead of the pack of her contemporaries and predecessors in J-Pop. A staple for Hikaru Utada, First Love was a snapshot of a young woman just starting off.


Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 3/28/01
Singles: "Addicted to You,” “Wait & See (Risk),” “For You/タイム・リミット” (“Time Limit”), “Can You Keep a Secret?”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada, Rodney Jerkins, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Utada (again) slammed into the Japanese music consciousness with Distance. The singles preceded the album by two years, the first one (“Addicted to You”) appeared in late 1999. The album itself surfaced in the first half of 2001. As such, the sound of the record (still) traced her neo-retro R&B-pop trademarked on First Love; the classic vibe was heard on the silky “サングラス” (“Sunglasses”). Utada also had production assistance from big names like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson) and Rodney Jerkins (Brandy), but she stayed in the lyrical seat, giving Distance her stamp. “ドラマ” (“Drama”) glanced off of Garbage’s industrial rock with authority, a new flavor Utada played in skillfully. Transitional, but fulfilling, Distance gave more of the same but with a few surprises to keep Utada ahead of the game.

"Can You Keep a Secret?"

Deep River
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 6/19/02
Singles: "Final Distance,” “traveling,” “Hikari” ("Light"), “Sakura Drops/Letters,” “Deep River”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada (Teruzane Sking)
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Deep River was the career compass to the next phase of Utada's career. Her wordplay continued to dance on the jagged edge of analogy and allegory on “プレイ・ボール”("Play Ball”) and “Letters.” From the blast of glittering dance-pop on “traveling,” to the wandering "Sakura Drops” Utada’s music had entered a new decade lively and matured. Two songs in were noteworthy for their appearance on Deep River. First “Distance,” the title track from her previous record, was reworked into the mournful “Final Distance.” The song was a memorial to Rena Yamashita, a young schoolgirl victim of the Osaka School Massacres in June of 2001. Yamashita was an outspoken fan of Hikaru Utada. Utada saddened by the story of her death wanted to contribute her own dedication to Yamashita. Secondly, “Hikari” (“Light”), one of the hit singles from Deep River, became the theme for the Square Enix/Walt Disney video game Kingdom Hearts. In its English incarnation it was called “Simple & Clean” and brought Hikaru Utada her first taste of American interest. Deep River is where one could hear Utada’s music contract and expand in new ways.

"Sakura Drops"

Single Collection, Volume 1
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 3/31/04
Singles: "COLORS”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada, (Teruzane Sking), Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Rodney Jerkins
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: Ending the first half of Utada’s career, Single Collection earmarked almost every single Utada had released from 1999 through 2002. Only “Deep River” wasn't represented from this epoch. The anthology captured her early precocious charm and changing musical tastes. The one new recording featured, “COLORS,” was an epic ballad that pointed to the prolific shift about to take place. Any kind of summation package will act as a portal into a time a singer once operated within. In Utada's case, the Single Collection was a goodbye to a simpler period and a hello to her artistic second half.


Label: Island/Def Jam
Release: 9/8/04
Singles: "Easy Breezy,” “Devil Inside,” “You Make Me Want to be a Man”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Teruzane Utada (Sking U), Tim Mosley (Timbaland), Danja
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#6)
U.S. Billboard Hot 200 Position: #160
Synopsis: Utada's first concentrated move to breach the American music consciousness ran along the arc of experimentation embodied on Deep River and “COLORS,” but in a bolder light. Exodus, immersed in writhing electronica, was garnished with odd hip-hop and Eastern flourishes. Utada just as unconventionally examined identity with “Devil Inside” and "You Make Me Want to Be a Man." Not everything on Exodus existed through heavy lenses, Utada's movement was wild on “The Workout” and innuendo percolated on the arcade romance of “Easy Breezy.” Timbaland and Danja, prominent producers in American circles, contributed only a small, cloying group of songs. Utada and her father (under the nom de plume “Sking U”) did a better job with the majority of Exodus. Not the friendliest crossover attempt, Exodus continued the dabbling Utada started. It just happened to be in English this go around.

"Easy Breezy"

Ultra Blue
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 6/14/06
Singles: "Dareka no Negai ga Kanau Koro” ("When Someone's Wish Comes True"), “Be My Last,” “Passion,” “Keep Tryin’,” “This Is Love”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#1)
Synopsis: After the frenzied Exodus, Ultra Blue positioned itself to be just as arresting. On her past albums, Utada ran her styles (musically) parallel to each other, later blending them. Ultra Blue sought to weave versus mix to see what results they'd illicit. The woven backdrops eyed Utada’s voice at its full range of power. The album, including the Single Collection song “COLORS,” jumped between the organic and inorganic. The bubbly pulse of “This Is Love” clashed tastefully to the sophisticated instrumentation of “Be My Last.” “Keep Tryin’,” a savory triumph of lyric informed music, remains a career best for Utada. “Passion,” tapped as the theme for the second installment of Kingdom Hearts, was more symphonic than “Simple & Clean.” Utada was alive and active on Ultra Blue.

"Keep Tryin'"

Heart Station
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 3/19/08
Singles: “Bowa wa Kuma” ("I Am a Bear"), “Flavor of Life,” “Beautiful World/Kiss & Cry,” “HEART STATION/Stay Gold,” “Fight the Blues,” “Prisoner of Love”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#5)
Synopsis: Where else could Hikaru Utada venture after the double fantasy of Exodus and Ultra Blue? Heart Station looked into this question by keeping her creative center focal, but stripping away the heavier motifs of the past two recordings. With her divorce from Kazuaki Kiriya behind her, Utada Hikaru had plenty to share. Heart Station ended up being an apt title to a long player that stationed nearly every phonic space Utada had passed through on her past five albums. Distance-era sensibilities in “Prisoner of Love” and “虹色バス” (“Rainbow-Colored Bus”) rubbed shoulders against the modish “Kiss & Cry” and “Gentle Beast Interlude”/“Celebrate.” Listen closely to “Kiss & Cry” for the wink to “Hotel Lobby” from Exodus sampled within the track. Awareness gripped “Stay Gold,” “HEART STATION,” and “Fight the Blues” and each addressed the myriad facets of love, no doubt spirited by her recent separation from Kiriya. Heart Station triumphed as a testament to an artist no longer searching for herself, but finally as one secure in her craft.


This is the One
Label: Island/Def Jam
Release: 3/13/09
Singles: "Come Back to Me,” “Sanctuary,” “Dirty Desire”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Teruzane Utada, Stargate, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Weekly (#3), International (#1)*
U.S. Billboard Hot 200 Position: #69
Synopsis: Dropped directly a year behind Heart Station, This is the One, Utada’s second English album (seventh overall) grasped the same concept of its predecessor, simplicity. Whereas Heart Station sought to maintain the integrity of her experimental efforts with a relaxed feel, This is the One was eager to please as her most commercial record. Utada courted Stargate and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, both recent U.S. hitmakers, to pilot the album. This is the One dealt in clubby, flirty notions, but did they translate in execution was another matter. Highlights included “Me Muero” ("I'm Dying") and “Poppin’,” excellent modern twists to ‘60’s spy lounge-pop. “Automatic Part II” while funky enough plainly pointed to the main weakness of This is the One, its songs. Utada’s words had always guided her and here they sounded no different from other “girls night out” frivolity that clouded the U.S. airwaves. Weak songwriting matched to flat arrangements ("Come Back to Me") made the recipe for disappointment. Excusing the mentioned highlights, the rest of This is the One sank into its muddy take on U.S. urban-pop, an aesthetic Utada navigated so well previously.

"Come Back to Me"

Single Collection, Volume 2
Label: EMI Music Japan
Release: 11/24/10
Singles: “Hymne à l'amour ~愛のアンセム” ("Hymn of Love~Anthem of Love"), "Goodbye Happiness,” “Show Me Love (Not a Dream)”
Principal Songwriters & Producers: Hikaru Utada, Akira Miyake, Teruzane Utada
Japanese Oricon Chart Positions: Daily (#1), Weekly (#1), Yearly (#20)
Synopsis: Utada’s second hits collection gathered all the singles from her fifth and sixth albums. Immediately (and sadly) apparent is that none of the singles from Exodus or This is the One were included. The amount of singles lifted from Ultra Blue and Heart Station, the most from any albums of her career, tell the other side of Utada's musical story. The emotional works are all represented in semi-counter-chronological order. A bonus EP of new songs were added with the hits. Featured on it was the teary goodbye to youth “Goodbye Happiness” and a daring cover of the Edith Piaf tune “Hymne à l'amour.”

"Goodbye Happiness"

After the release of her second best-of, and its supporting tour Wild Life, Utada took an idefinite hiatus. No doubt exhausted from the non-stop activity of recording, touring, promoting, etc., it's understandable that a recharge was needed. The line featured at the start of this piece from the Exodus song "Animato" is an accurate summation of Utada's drive. Despite any language gulf, Utada proves music can touch beyond nationality and race to stir hearts and minds.-QH

[Editor's Note: *The most popular and enduring chart in Japan is known as the Oricon chart. It breaks the sales statistics into daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly categories. I researched, to the best of my ability, the daily, weekly, and yearly positions for all of Utada's works. There were some where I could only locate the "monthly" or "international" showings. The capital or lower case stylizing of certain songs is indicative to the Japanese culture. All of Utada's records are in print, and barring her two English albums, all are imports readily available via Amazon or CDJapan. For recent information on Hikaru Utada visit her here where the option for English or Japanese translations are open to the reader. She also has Twitter account linked to this page.-QH]


SWartStudio said...

I never expected such an indpeth look at this artist. Wonderful work!

QH said...

I'm proud owner of all these LPs. She really is a fascinating young lady. I'm sure you'll love her sound & image. The latter as an visual arts lover and creator should appeal to you. Thanks, as always, for reading.-QH

Anonymous said...

Great writing. Only part I disagreed with was TITO. "Her first to not satisfy". Especially with that. The album satisfies me completely. I love it. I love every song. There are no bad songs. Automatic may be silly, but she herself said it was a parody of American Hip Hop/Rap songs like ones by Eminem and Snoop Dogg.

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