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宇多田ヒカル (Hikaru Utada), 初恋(Hatsukoi), 2018

If you’re acquainted with the Japanese pop culture, you may know Hikaru Utada. She’s one of Japan’s most famous singer and songwriter in these decades. Her debut album First Love sold over 10 million copies worldwide. It is the best selling J-POP album in history–and no one will ever break this record.

In 1998, with her debut single “Automatic / time will tell,” she changed the entire landscape of J-POP. Heavily influenced by the contemporary urban music like R&B, she showed Japanese audience how the Japanese language can groove on the R&B-oriented beat.

Of course, there were many precursors in terms of this kind of practice in Japan. From pre-modern Jazz to Rock n Roll to Soul to Hip Hop, Japanese musicians had been trying to adopt Western music into their musical vocabulary. Roughly, their main concern was how Western pop music could be sung in Japanese. Utada’s debut was like its ultimate answer emerged at the very end of the 20th century. 

Since then, along with her comrades such as Ringo Sheena, she’s been recognized as the most prominent artist in contemporary Japanese pop music. However, she took a hiatus from 2011 to 2015, saying that she wanted to live an ordinary life for a while.

In 2016, Utada announced come-back and released Fantôme, which featured several guest singers. Before then, she rarely invited guest singers in her music. Given that, the album seemed like a thankful gift for her fans those who patiently waited for her come back.

Moreover, it displayed her development as an artist in terms of singing rhythm and flow. I bet you can hear it clearly when you play “忘却 (Bo-kyaku)” with KOHH. On the atmospheric heartbeat-like beat, here she’s chanting like a prayer, rather than a pop star. The repetition of the same rhythm figure emphasizes rhymes between the lines, just as KOHH’s unique vocalization and flow do. His approach is more complicated, say, kinds of polyrhythmic one, though.

Two years later, 2018, she released her latest, 初恋 (Hatsukoi). The title means “first love” in English. This obviously refers to her debut album. It seemed as if she was trying to reboot her career for it was her 20th anniversary year as a singer and songwriter.

The album was thematically pretty delicate and self-reflective. For example, she frankly revealed her mixed feeling towards her mother, who deceased in 2013. On the other hand, in some songs, she showed her blissful and dramatic feeling in love with her lover, even singing people would be envious of her entire life with him.

From musical aspects, the album was quite challenging. With help from distinguished musicians such as Chris Dave on the drums, the rhythmical experiment which had been pursued in Fantôme became more sophisticated than ever. She tapped into the recent Trap style singing and rhyming, the polyrhythmic structure of the beat, and the subtle but definitive change of flow.

Listen to “誓い (Chikai),” which is now known as “Don’t Think Twice” outside Japan. This was the theme song for Kingdom Hearts 3 and led to Utada’s recent collaboration with Skrillex. According to Utada’s vocal, the song sounds basically 6/8. But if you focus on the piano, you can feel 4/4 with a bit swing or a loose groove. Still more, Utada sings very straightforward 16 beat at the bridge. These factors give this song a very interesting texture in terms of rhythm. Keeping this texture throughout the song rather than make a dramatic catharsis at the end, listeners are left emotionally confused a little and prompted to play it again and again.

Some argue that this album is the best release of 2018. I half agree with it. Honestly, I don’t like the lyrics, the messages they contain. However, there’s no doubt that this exquisite songwriting and arranging has no equal among contemporary Japanese pop music. It’s great pleasure that such an incredible album gained so much popularity in Japan (it reached #3 in the Billboard Japan year chart 2018). I strongly recommend to check out Utada’s recent works including 初恋 and Skrillex collaboration “Face My Fears.”

Published in English