Utada Hikaru: Exodus
Utada Hikaru's Exodus album hasn't been the runaway success in the U.S. that some might have hoped for. However, at least for me, it's hard to feel bad for the Japanese pop diva. I have a theory: Exodus, produced by American hip-hop artist Timbaland, sung completely in English and dealing with Western themes, was never really meant to be an American breakthrough.
Don't get me wrong, if Utada, or Hikki, as she styles herself on this release, became the next Britney Spears through this album, she wouldn't have complained. But for Hikki, her identity as someone skilled in English (she was born in New York to parents who had retired from singing enka) is important. Furthermore, English is exotic and cool in Japan even today. While it would be unusual for Utada to release an all English album only in Japan, the CD is definitely a huge hit in that country. The first single, "Easy Breezy" has become the commercial theme for the Nintendo DS, and there is talk that Nintendo is hiring Utada for more work.
I made a comparison between Hikki and Britney, and that really isn't fair. Since her splash debut on the Japanese scene, Utada has always been a smarter, more thoughtful and more talented artist compared to America's most manufactured star. This comes out a lot in Exodus; Utada deals with being Japanese ("Easy Breezy"), the position of women ("Tippy Toe"), and other slightly more intelligent themes than those found among studio-manufactured American artists.
That the CD is English oriented is unquestionable. Timbaland's unmistakable creative touch, Utada waxing on about her musical inspirations (Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Elvis on "Animato"), her describing herself as "Japaneasy" on "Easy Breezy", and Utada's descriptions of dancing with Texas cowboys and talking with Christians on "Workout" all point towards the west. In fact, it seems too western, giving credence to my theory that the CD was made, in a roundabout way, to appeal to Japanese audiences. Add in the fact that this "English debut" (which it isn't really; Hikki released an American album as Cubic-U before becoming big in Japan) was released in Japan first, and I have to believe that this is Utada's gift to her Japanese fans.
Though Utada has always leaned towards R&B styling, it's always been in a pop music context, and Exodus follows squarely in that mold. It sounds a bit like a hip-hop influenced Ace of Base. Utada says in "Animato" that she is "dreaming of hip-hop tunes", and that aesthetic certainly makes its presence felt. Make no mistake, this CD has a beat and even if it's not quite an upbeat party album, such as Kreva's Shujin (also reviewed this month), it is meant to be listened to when jogging or driving fast. It's also a very sexy album; "Workout" and "Let Me Give You Love Me" are a bit suggestive, as well as being pretty good dance tracks. Lyrically somewhat forgettable (or bizarre, depending on your view), "You Make Me Want to be A Man" has an interesting hook and an energetic beat. "Ring My Bell", "Wonder 'eBout", and "Let Me Give You My Love" definitely channel current American hip-hop aesthetics.
It's not all fun and games though; tracks nine and ten, the interlude and "Kremlin Dusk" bring the CD's energy down. The problem is worsened with the last track, "About Me", which is very R&B, but follows the two most hip-hop styled tracks and it begins with a several minute acoustic guitar affair. Perhaps I don't have the stamina to make it through the whole album, but to me, it seems that the first eight tracks are much more memorable, while the tracks afterwards seem much more like B-sides, although the hook in "Wonder 'eBout" keeps the song pretty memorable. Furthermore, Hikki sounds rather obnoxious on some of the tracks. In "Animato", she croons, "This is music for all humanity, from me" and "this is something new and interesting". On track nine, an interlude, she mentions that "I don't want to cross over, between this genre and that genre", and on "Kremlin Dusk", she proclaims, "I'm a natural entertainer". Hikki might be playing characters on the CD (although I find that hard to believe in "Animato"), but at first blush, it all sounds a little conceited.
For a lot of Utada's Western fans, this album is sure to be a disappointment; it's not in Japanese, and the sound definitely moves from an electronic/R&B style to more dance/R&B/hip-hop. And while it's good pop, it's still pop in English. The mixed reviews for the CD on Amazon.com certainly point to this; a lot of Western fans who listen to Utada without understanding her lyrics are definitely upset about the change in musical stylings. For those who are little more open-minded, Exodus is a pretty good set of tracks. While it may not have burned up the U.S. charts, you shouldn't feel too bad for Hikki either. Utada's Singles Collection CD was the best selling album in Japan for 2004, and fans disappointed by this CD will surely appreciate that compilation album.