My first introduction to the heady world of Japanese hip-hop was Kick the Can Crew. Combining pop sensibilities and real Shibuya street, the group became a huge success in Tokyo and throughout Japan. However, after 2004's Good Music album, the band separated to work on solo projects. In music, that is almost always the recipe for mediocrity. However, the first fruit of this separation, group member Kreva's Shujin combines Kick the Can Crew's sensibilities with a fresh sound.
Kreva has always been a huge element of Kick the Can Crew's success. He won Japan's MC Battle three years in a row and after making it big with the Kick the Can, he remixed and worked with artists like Ken Hirai and RYO the Skywalker. Kreva's Shibuya B-Boy sensibility finds its way into Shujin in ways that are only hinted at in Kick the Can Crew's work. The CD is replete with guest rappers and singers, for example, like Mummy-D (from Rhymster), KANA (from THC), Cue Zero, NG Head, and singers Sonomi and Bonnie Pink.
The guest tracks sound exceptional, especially Sonomi's track, Bonnie Pink's chorus on "You Are the No.1", and Mummy-D's spot on the somewhat ridiculous "Funky Guramurasu". Even more than that, Kreva's CD is delightfully self-referential; lyrically and thematically, the CD refers to itself and to Kick the Can Crew's older songs. Like American hip-hop, the CD even features a short skit, which fortunately is short and solitary, unlike many recent American hip-hop albums with three or four skit tracks. Furthermore, there's a bit more swearing (in English) than on Kick the Can Crew's previous albums. There's nowhere near the same amount as any American hip-hop album and it's all in good spirits, though it is a little weird.
However, that B-Boy mentality seems to come at a price. The very synth-based sound of Shujin isn't as rich as Kick The Can Crew's Young King or Magic Number albums. Indeed tracks like "DAN DA DAN", "You Know We Rule", and "Arara, Take You Home" sound spartan with only a short hook, heavy bass, and Kreva's rapping. Even long stretches of "Hitori Ja Nai No Yo" are just bass and Kreva. In fact, the CD is very much the spiritual sequel to Kick the Can Crew's least creative, safest album Good Music. The range of bossa nova to electronic that Kick the Can Crew has explored isn't well reflected on Shujin, though taken together the CD's two singles, including the addictive "Hitori Ja Nai No Yo" and a few other tracks, there is a reasonable variety of sound.
Granted, this is only Kreva's first album, while Kick the Can Crew has had four full albums to explore a wide range of sound. The most creative track on the CD is "Baby Dancer", the last track, with a move away from hip-hop and towards reggae, which is very popular in Japan today (RYO the Skywalker is primarily a reggae artist). Indeed, Kreva actually has a pretty good singing voice, which comes out on this track better than during the rest of the album.
For anyone looking to break into Japanese hip-hop, Shujin is a good start; not only does it feature Kreva, but many of the big names in Japanese hip-hop. In addition, for the most part the spoken Japanese flows at a reasonable pace, and even beginning students will find a lot that they understand. Musically, the CD isn't a creative breakthrough, but it surely wasn't meant to be. Shujin is a fun, energetic CD, meant to be played when you're driving fast or at a party. Without a doubt, Kick the Can Crew fans should pick up this CD, as well as those looking for something new won't mind Kreva's debut.