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Category Archives: J-Pop

Special K: Sudannayuzuyully’s “Oh Boy”

In the past month, Korean pop outfits 2NE1 and Wonder Girls both called it quits. Those announcements came after a few other notable breakups in the world of K-Pop, and after months that saw the landscape of Korean music shift in a new way. It happened a while back, but January felt like it was cemented — the era of buzzed-about hallyu has come to an end, with a new generation of Korean artists now operating as favorites rather than upstarts taking the spotlight. That’s fine, and plenty have produced good songs. But the excitement — the blurring of styles, the new perspectives on familiar sounds — feels less prevalent right now in Korean pop. It could very well just be nostalgia coming from me for a specific period, but I also feel confident in saying something has changed in that realm.

Meanwhile, in J-Pop…here’s an E-Girls sub-unit basically replicating the hip-pop flavor of that K-Pop era that just ended. It isn’t a surprise when just looking at the trio’s main group…E-Girls have stood out by rejecting the music-second approach of many idols and embracing similar ideas as Korean outfits. Not to mention sharing producers with the likes of Girls’ Generation. So here comes Sudannayuzuyully with “Oh Boy,” a hop-scotching number that paints on the K-Pop influences thick (one with plenty to connect to “I Don’t Need A Man“). They handle it well, unlike other acts aping the K-Pop style, while also fulfilling the “women rap” prophecy laid out for the last two years (between them, the I-would-rather-not-talk-about-her Chanmina and the continued rise of Suiyoubi No Campanella, it really is having its moment). It’s solid, a nice blast of uptempo pop colliding with rap, a nice drop of nostalgia for people like me while also just being, in general, an upbeat bit of genre skipping. Listen above.

New Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: “Harajuku Iyahoi”

How, exactly, do you take the reigns back on things you can’t control? Or, less flowery — how do you reclaim your narrative? Your view might vary, but I think it’s fair to say Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has been perceived to be treading water since she released her last album. Key word is “perceived,” as she has at least one solid-as-hell song out since then, and remains a visible star — social media dictates the pace of J-Pop in 2017, and Kyary was the first artist to really benefit from this. But the times also call for constant movement, of always doing something, even more so when you manage the rare feat of capturing attention outside of Japan. And that’s where Kyary appears to have stalled. She released a terrible Halloween song, and then spent all of 2016 celebrating five years in the business which…fine, but isn’t particularly compelling. The image has been of an artist who had her moment, and is fading away, or at least not as central to Japan’s pop landscape as she felt just three years ago. There are worse fates in the world.

But still…how do you reclaim your narrative, when you lost that control long ago? The next couple of months look to present two ways to (maybe?) do that. She collaborated with Charli XCX on a song called “Crazy Crazy,” that comes out next week. That’s moving outward, trying to do something new, in theory at least. And then there’s the just-released “Harajuku Iyahoi,” which finds producer Yasutaka Nakata* fashioning a twinkling bit of Swedish-House-Mafia-style EDM pop from her kawaii vibe. As the title tells you, it’s a retreat to the place where she will always be connected, and where she came out of. It’s doubling down on the playroom pop that defined her first two albums, mixed with the fest-eyeing stuff Nakata has been dabbling in over the last few years. It is a small-scale celebration of Harajuku from the one pop star who could deliver it. I’ve seen reactions on both side of the extreme (read: I looked at the internet), and I personally fall somewhere in the middle. This isn’t exactly the splash of water her sound needs — not to mention she’s already embraced EDM stuff much better before — but it also feels like movement, not self patting on the back or lazy pumpkin pop. It’s a step forward, and that’s a start. Listen above.

*It should be kind of implied by now, but Kyary does not control much of what she does. Musically, a lot of her recent sputtering falls on Nakata, though if anything he’s been too visible in J-Pop and could benefit from a break.

New Tokyo Girls’ Style: “Mille-Feuille”

Two ways to look at “Mille-Feuille:”

1. Tokyo Girls’ Style have long been one of the early adopters to new styles within the idol realm. Since they were created by Avex as a way to get in on the then-burgeoning idol scene, whooshed in by the success of AKB48. They started out right around the start of 2010, before specialization became the name of the game for idols. They could glide between styles, and they did, including a collab with Maltine Records that saw them work with the likes of Avec Avec, Fazerock and more. Pretty ahead of its time! So now, distanced from the “idol” label all-together, they can proudly declare that “Mille-FEuille” is “FutureBass√óJ-POP,” and embrace all those Wave-Racer-inspired splashes and fidgety digital twists. This is popular contemporary touches Silly-Putty-ed onto pop just right, all the signifiers of style present but never overdone, and with everyone involved remembering to get in a great chorus (this is, also, what all my favorite K-Pop songs in 2016 sound like). Of course, the J-Pop (errr, also pretty K-Pop in execution too, now that you mention it?) comes across clearly in the marketing — watch the “cool version” above, and check out the “cute version” here.

2. “Future bass” is about as goofy a term you can conjure up, is are most things with the word “future” stapled to the front of them (because, well, most of the elements at the center of this internet genre have existed for a while). Still, plenty of artists tagged with this have created fantastic songs over the last five years…but maybe it is starting to feel a little tired? “Mille-Feuille” is produced by Yuuki Odagari, who has worked with Tokyo Girls’ Style on many of their older singles, along with members of EXILE and May J among others. He’s a studio pro, a guy major labels turn to for a certain sheen. He’s clearly talented, but it is a bit telling that he could figure out “future bass” so thoroughly. So…possibly a good time for producers to not simply rest on familiar tropes, or at least try to get your resumes out to major labels so it doesn’t become a simple studio preset. We need more cross-pollinations such as “Limo” or “Cry & Fight.”

New Daoko: “Bang!”

Ambition is a hell of a thing, but certain artists just really need to chase it. Daoko built her reputation on mystery — she was a wise-beyond-her-years high school rapper who never showed her face and took Sotaisei Riron’s tone of a teenager scribbling personal poetry during a boring math class and applied it to hip hop. It’s a bit of a naive reading — for all of the shrouding, Daoko made her intentions known pretty quickly, I mean not many students are recording with m-flo — but ultimately makes for a great narrative, and at some point the story has to go in a new direction. Like Suiyouib No Campanella’s Komuai or, to a slightly different degree, Seiho, Daoko is the type of artist who seems ready for the spotlight, and in a position where momentum is on her side. If that’s what you want, you have to go for it and push yourself…even if the risks are great.

As long as we can all agree that the goofy retro cheese of “ShibuyaK” never happened (though, hey, it did pretty well online at least), Daoko’s “Bang!” feels like that fist big leap. It’s pop in every single way, from a clappy opening bringing to mind “Happy” and a video that finds any of the artsy stuff tossed aside in favor of her dancing with Hot Cops. Regardless of how many lamp shades Sia puts over her head, pop is about directness and “Bang!” is as pointed as it gets, from the sweetly-sung pre-chorus bit to the moment when the hook hits in all its repetitive wonder. The guarded Daoko of a few years ago, and even the version of her that was dipping her toes into full-on pop has now plunged in. And it works — this is a good pop song, one very different from older material…but we all have to graduate high school at some point, and Daoko is choosing to go for big. And she’s come up with catchy number that recasts her hushed voice in just the right light and, alongside half of the pop duo Oresama, has written a tight-but-twist-filled number (those string plucks!) that’s a solid first step towards the spotlight. Listen above.

New Especia: Mirage

The internet, as I’m sure you don’t need me telling you, warps our worldview pretty fiercely. If you follow a bunch of people on a social media site who share a common interest, it probably looks like any news about said interest is a big deal that practically stops time. In reality, most people are more interested in talking about Poland beating the Swiss in soccer. That’s probably how Especia fit into my online life…it was announced late last week the group, which went on a break following this year’s Carta and saw a significant line-up change in that period too, and my feed went bonkers over the next two days, capped off with the release of a new four-song album called Mirage. Maybe this isn’t a big all-together-now moment, but it certainly warrants at least bullet points to some corners of the J-pop-leaning universe:

– Especia are now a trio, with returning members Haruka Tominaga and Erika Mori joined by new member Mia Nascimento (Especia Va Bien with the full breakdown). A lot of the charming aesthetic points return, as do some of the ones that make you tug your collar a bit (see new press photo in that preceding link). Probably unnecessary, considering the artwork for Mirage, entered around some Tatooine-ish world and, like, speeder bikes, captures the same vibe without any of the potential pitfalls.

– Speaking of Mirage…it’s pretty solid! Especia opt for the more mid-temp material they’ve dabbled in, and which appeared across Carta, and even though nothing on Mirage nails the big, attention-grabbing pop that tends to manifest itself on the group’s releases in at least some form, this short set feels more like a reaffirming “we are back!” than anything else. One full of great moments, from the breezy flute on opener “Savior” to, well, most of highlight “Helix,” which features an intriguing garbled bridge. As a return to the spotlight, it is a solid play to the fanbase, save for the unexpected switch up to English.

– So if the music isn’t any major departure for the group…thank goodness…how about the group’s image? Ultimately, the live video of their return performance says more about that than anything else…gone are the throwback jerseys, and instead they sport black dresses while performing in front of Hi-Fi City (who, we can assume, probably worked on Mirage). Some have speculated they are moving away from idol music with this return, which…well, let’s see what happens next (it’s tempting to see them playing in front of a live band like that and think maybe they want in on the whole “city pop revival” narrative…except they’ve already done just that, so….), and the English on the release is an interesting twist, albeit one that’s hard to peg.

– But overall, glad to see them back, and still mostly doing what Especia did best. Listen above.