Kumi Koda Album Review: JAPONESQUE
"JAPONESQUE" is Kumi Koda's 10th full-length album released on January 25th, 2012. It's informally considered her 10th anniversary album and has an unprecedented 19 tracks for her discography, with 17 being full-length songs. The album includes a music video for every song, a feat not accomplished since her 2008 album "Kingdom". It came in five formats, the standard CD, DVD, etc versions but also a very limited version that came with a B4 size photobook and a 2012 diary.
Anticipation for the album was high, especially after the hot reception of her previous summer single "4 TIMES" and subsequent singles "Ai wo Tomenaide" and "Love Me Back". Like with her most recent albums, a nationwide tour in support of "JAPONESQUE" was expected to follow the release of the album, but Kumi shocked everyone in December when she announced her marriage and pregnancy. Thus promotions for "JAPONESQUE" were scaled back as Kumi went on maternity leave before the album even dropped. Regardless, it did not stop the album's potential and it still managed to reach #1 on the Oricon charts.
This review consists of a track-by-track analysis followed by my overall thoughts. Each song is scored on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. It should be noted that scores are based on my overall enjoyment of the songs and their innovation in Kumi's discography. This goes against my, say, Ayumi Hamasaki review hubs which base scores in comparison to Ayumi's other songs. This does not apply to Kumi Koda reviews.
Disclaimer: By no means is this review the be-all-end-all of what is and isn't great. I'm just one big fan with a lot of bias but also a lot of expectations. Feel free to add your thoughts about this album in the comments below!
Track #1 - Introduction ~JAPONESQUE~
Music & Arrangement: Maria Marcus
Staying true to the "traditional" theme of the album, the introduction incorporates traditional Japanese strings alongside the usual heavy dance beats and Kumi's deep vocals saying "wannabe, wannabe, wannabe eh eh eh". When the synth drums kick in towards the end the whole song turns into a sensual ride into JAPONESQUE. Kumi's known for having great introductions on her albums, and this one is right up there with the rest of them.
Track #2 - So Nice feat. Mr. Blistah
Music: Bardur Haberg, Andrew Lane & Kasey Monroe
Arrangement: Bardur Haberg
After the ending of "Introduction" we get the abrupt Middle Eastern flavors of "So Nice". The entire intro and the verses are instantly recognizable as a throwback to her 2006 song "Candy" feat...you guessed it! Mr. Blistah returns for another classic Middle Eastern sounding song. Maybe it's a thing of his? Whatever it is, it works. This kind of sound is what Kumi's fans tend to ask for the most and it was a delight to get this song right up front on "JAPONESQUE", even though it's fairly short at under three minutes. The highlight of the song is the chorus with its hushed vocals and Kumi's recognizable panting. The lyrics are...well, the lyrics are predictable. Some people swear that the song is about...ah...a very certain act between two consenting adults. Jury's out, but Kumi did write all the lyrics herself for this one. Regardless, a real strong opener with seventeen more tracks to go!
VIDEO: Gorgeous courtesan Kumi (check out where the Obi is, y'all) is here to model one flashy kimono for you both in a cage and "out" in CGI land. Obviously there is nothing to this video beyond the eye candy, but for two and a half minutes who can really complain? Kumi wields that fan and that parasol like they're the only things she's allowed to play with. It is kind of awkward when Mr. Blistah's part starts up and he's nowhere to be seen. What's the matter, Blistah? Avex couldn't pay you enough to show up in the video? Your loss.
Track #3 - Boom Boom Boys
Music: Kumi Koda, Toby Gad, Lindy Robbins & Caterina Torres
Arrangement: Toby Gad
Things slow down for the grinding, rockier number "Boom Boom Boys". Kumi's leading a revolution in this never-a-dull-moment song with its soaring choruses, autotune-happy bridges, and guttural verses. It's the kind of song to get all your girlfriends gathered around to start fist pumping into the air as Kumi goes on about all dem boyz. Perhaps the most iconic line of the album, "Come on girls let's make some noise / Boom Boom Boys", makes its appearance in this song. This is one of those songs that you can't imagine anyone else singing but the artist who's doing it, manufactured or not. Nobody else in J-pop could do this song with the right attitude and perfect voice.
VIDEO: Kumi's a little hungover with her latest bedmate, but she's not going to let that ruin her fun of the night again as she gets ready to go party - dancing with her girls, flirting with her boys, stealing drinks, flipping off the cameras when she's rejected, all that good fun stuff. Meanwhile she's also in a hot little outfit dancing all over a stairwell. And of course we can't forget the interspersed images of rockets taking off and rabbits nibbling on carrots. Well alrighty then! There's no escaping the symbolism of this video, even when Kumi runs to strip and throw up in the nearest club toilet. Hey, Kuu, ever thought of maybe laying off the partying. Also, didn't you say you don't drink or smoke? Maybe you - OH GOODNESS is that a man in a bunny mask? Run!
Track #4 - V.I.P. feat. T-Pain (Album Version)
Music: Kumi Koda, Toby Gad, Jessica Cornish & T-Pain
Arrangement: Toby Gad
We finally reach our first single track of the album, "V.I.P.". Anyone who knows me knows I was jamming hard and fast to this song last summer, and it's great to say that this song hasn't lost its edge since it first debuted on "4 TIMES". This sadistic club banger has got the hot synths and invitations to jump and pump to get any crowd going, especially when the "woahs" come in halfway through. The difference with this album version, however, is that American rapper T-Pain makes a random appearance. Well, okay. He has a super short part where he rambles about VIP rooms and "A-REE-GAH-TOH I'M OUT" and it's enough to give anyone a bit of an embarrassing moment. What is he doing here? And why is Kumi more autotuned than he is? To enjoy this song fully I suggest tracking down the original single version because this one is subpar for T-Pain alone. Now, "everybody in the club get sexy!"
VIDEO: Oh my. What to say? This video ranks up high in Kumi's "sexiest videos ever" which is already a hard bar to pass. She's on patrol at the local ladies' club where she shakes her booty and legs while every foreign woman in the area looks on and earns their individual confidences from her. In another area, super sophisticated Kumi is being attended to by two...employees, let's say. Male ones. And they are really giving her some serious attention. Actually, the only men depicted in this sizzling video are either Kumi's toys or are having public shenanigans with any of the other foreigner women. It's a very "women are large and in charge" video even with its patent male-gaze sexuality. But in the end Kumi gets tired of her men and sends them on their way, but not before the nearest woman decides she looks like someone to talk to. Jealous.
Track #5 - Slow feat. Omarion
Music & Arrangement: Tommy Clint
As the title insinuates we're slowing down for our first (mid-tempo) ballad of the album. Kumi's vocals are autotune ready to get started as she then takes us down a devilish road of crooning for the love she wants to be with. Turns out that love is American artist Omarion! (Whom I've never heard of before this album...hm.) Unlike T-Pain earlier, Omarion isn't phoning it in and actually contributes something to the song. His and Kumi's voices harmonize nicely through the final choruses. Normally I don't feel much in regards to Kumi's "slow" (haha!) ballads but this one is really nice and definitely deserves all the iPod plays it's gotten from me. So far, solid album!
VIDEO: It's the apocalypse and everyone is running in super slow-motion for their lives! Well, except for Kumi, who is so hung-up on this would-be love of hers that she's gonna stand around and sing about it. While all the foreigners run for their lives, Omarion goes against the flow in search of his would-be love Kumi. We get sweet flashbacks of them whispering things into each other's ears, but those scenes just retract from the cool shots of Omarion singing in the midst of a bunch of foreigners flailing around in slow motion. Nothing can deter this power couple from finding each other again, not even the fire from the sky! You'll be happy to know that they do reunite eventually. But not at the cost of everyone else's lives as they beg for mercy from the sky and fall down crying in each other's arms. Wait, this video is kind of depressing...
Track #6 - Brave
Music: Hitoshi Harukawa
Arrangement: Daisuke Kahara, Shinjiroh Inoue & Udai Shika
Wow, so far we've had four really great songs in this album, but with over 17 songs we're bound to hit a dud or two. "Brave" is our first dud, sorry to report. It's a slow RnB ballad with piano and bass, but that's about it. The composition is uninspired and just classic filler ballad for any of Kumi's albums. The lyrics, however, are bittersweet as Kumi sings of a dead lover and how she wonders if she would be able to meet them again in her next life. Sweet, but again, uninspired unless she or you have been in that position before. The subject matter does have potential for a great ballad, but it's not going to be found in this fillery mess.
VIDEO: If nothing else, we should have a touching video, right? Well, we get Kumi singing at a table with a bunch of clocks running around her. Yup. That's it. For five minutes. Of this already mundane sounding ballad. Look, avex, I know it's expensive to make seventeen videos and you're being cheap, but give us a break. But at least it can't get worse from here, right?
Track #7 - Everyday
Music & Arrangement: Hiro
WRONG. Oh, so, so wrong! We did the filler ballad and now we have to do her mandatory filler cutesy song. But those are even worse! Is there anything more grating on a Kumi album that her squeaking in a fake child-like voice about ~I love you!~ to a saccharin-soaked arrangement? No. No there isn't. Give me the filler ballads over this cause at least they're ignorable. "Everyday" slams into your eardrums with Trollface at the wheel. Stop. Stoooop!
VIDEO: Oh Lord this is even worse. Kumi in ridiculous clothing (really? schoolboy?) trotting around in front of a white screen while CGI explodes everywhere. This is scraping the bottom of the funding barrel, even for avex.
SCORE: 4.75, and I am being generous.
Track #8 - IN THE AIR
Music: Fast Lane & Erik Lidbom
Arrangement: Erik Lidbom
Finally, things pick up with our second single (and "4 TIMES") song "IN THE AIR", a peppy pop song done right. Kumi's best upbeat pop songs are the more "mature" ones where she's allowed to use her natural voice and the composition and arrangements are also allowed to take themselves seriously. "IN THE AIR" qualifies in this category with its uplifting choruses and spirited verses. The arrangement is more synth-based which always gets a higher grade from me (as I love me my synth beats). Really, I'm just so excited to have a better song like this finally that she could be singing about her bathroom habits and I wouldn't care as long as it sounds this good.
VIDEO: Even the video is a step up, albeit a small one. Gorgeous shots of Kumi being gorgeous all over the place (like on the couch, hey) interspersed with what looks like clips of her ~honey~ coming to visit her. Nothing special or fantastic, but at least it's way easier on the eyes and more entertaining than the previous two songs. Did I mention I'll take what improvements I can at this point?
Track #9 - You are not alone ~acoustic version~
Music & Arrangement: Takuya Harada
"You are not alone" is the song Kumi wrote and performed in response to the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated northern Japan. Specifically, it's intended to be an inspirational and reassuring song for the victims of that disaster. On that merit alone it gets higher marks, but overall "You are not alone ~acoustic version~" is not a bad song either. It's not the best on the album but it's a great song to jam to once in a while. Its optimistic beat and happy composition (but with serious lyrics) is just the ticket some days for feeling a little better. Not sure how it ended up on the album, however. It doesn't really fit here or anywhere. Kinda crammed right in the middle here cause it's the only place they could think to put it. Oh well, it's a good song for a good cause so I'll overlook it.
VIDEO: Nothing to see here but a live performance on stage in front of a bunch of grateful fans. It's a video and song for them so I'll just sit back here and save my judgment for crud like "Everyday".
Track #10 - Interlude ~JAPONESQUE~
Music & Arrangement: Martin Svensson
Well, here we are, officially halfway through this behemoth album. The interlude follows in the footsteps of the introduction with the same sound but drops into a beat break that fights with the traditional sounds for control. Based on the rest of this album, you can bet on which side eventually wins...time to go see what Sexy Kumi has been up to since we left her in the VIP booth back in the club.
Track #11 - ESCALATE
Music & Arrangement: Akira
We're back to the dark and dirty dance songs, which, you know, is what Kumi does best. "ESCALATE" fares well when compared to the other club songs on this album, even if it may not be better than them. Mostly because "ESCALATE" fails to do what the name suggests it's going to do - the song hangs out at about the same speed and sound throughout its duration, and not even the hippity-hoppity chorus delivers any "escalation". But I'm insinuating that "ESCALATE" is boring. Far from it. It's a solid dance tune from Kumi and is catchy enough to get wormed into your brain for the rest of the day.
VIDEO: Somebody on the Internet described this video as "Wizard Chess meets You Got Served". Well how about that. They're right! A Kumi with Pokémon hair is playing chess with some bro, but what she doesn't (or does?) know is that the pieces are live people! Including Kumi herself...haha, music video logic. Anyway, while Kumi plays chess, the pieces have a "You Got Served"athon and the losers are obliterated. See? Wizard Chess meets You Got Served. Story-wise it's one of the best PVs we get on this album. Well, there's really no story, but at least there's something to follow. Oh, and props for featuring a "heavyset" dancer in this video. (This comment is mostly a jab at the tumblr people whining about it. "Fat" people can dance well enough to cause others to obliterate on a chess board. Deal with it.)
Track #12 - Love Me Back
Music: Matthew Tishler, Liz Rodrigues
Arrangement: Matthew Tishler
Our fourth single song was also the last one before the release of this album. It had quite a bit of airtime to promote the album, or at least long enough to get the line "And diamonds / and sapphires / and you / oh my!" stuck in everyone's heads. "Love Me Back" is a haughty little tune with a lot of mischievousness packed inside its two minute punch. But when compared to the rest of the songs on this album it kind of gets lost behind all the other hot songs. Plus it's just so short that it doesn't give much time to get properly stuck in your head. "So Nice" was just as short but left a more lasting impression. "Love Me Back" just comes and goes so fast that there's no time to love it back.
VIDEO: Now the video is definitely one of the most memorable on the album, and had a huge secretive to-do before its original release. Officer Koda is making the rounds with her fellow sexy-officer brigade. Now, there's some things to note about these "officers". 1) They drive their cars via dancing in the driver's seat. 2) They make arrests with their super high boots. 3) They like to rub themselves on the jail bars with all sorts of men trying to push through for a feel. 4) They like to do pelvis-centric dancing anywhere and everywhere.
Yeah, it's one big fantasy video. And it makes no apologies about it, nor does it try to hide it. I'm not sure how I feel about it. On one hand it's definitely sexy, but on the other it leaves a huge bad taste in this feminist's mouth unlike any of the other PVs on this album. Oh, and then there's the random nurse outfits at the very end that make no sense at all. But I don't think that's their point...
Track #13 - No Man's Land
Music: Mr.Blistah, Jorge Mhondera, Pete Kirtley, & Samiya Berrabah
Arrangement: Daisuke Sakurai, Jorge Mhondera, Kenichi Asami, Pete Kirtley, Satoshi Yamada, & Toshiyuki Takao
It's been since 2005's "Ningyo-hime" that we had a proper "rock" track from Kumi and it's been worth the wait. "No Man's Land" is one of the real highlights of the album with its gritty atmosphere and super catchy, beautiful chorus that's "running in circles / going round and round". Every time Kumi says "Welcome to No Man's Land" you can really feel the desolation in her voice. The song also delightfully ends with a long instrumental solo that rarely happens in Kumi's non-ballad songs. This is the song of the album dedicated to the angry and the weary. While it will never be Kumi's forte, it's definitely a nice escape from the other sounds on this album. Not quite sure what it's doing after "Love Me Back" but I'll take it.
VIDEO: A heavy song deserves a heavy video, and for once we get it on this album! Apparently the Armageddon from "Slow" happened and not only did Omarion die, but now Kumi's been blonde'd and left in the desolate barren world in her lingerie and...with scorpions. Excellent combination. Nothing really happens in the video other than Kumi looking dramatic in this black and white world until "rebirth" comes in the end with color, but the video's main appeal is its cool aesthetic. Whoever designed the sets and did the cinematography should all get awards for this enchantment.
Track #14 - Ai wo Tomenaide (愛を止めないで)
Music: Naohisa Taniguchi
Arrangement: Naohisa Taniguchi & Hitoshi Munakata
"Ai wo Tomenaide" (Trans. Don't Stop Love) is the last of the titular singles in this album and was Kumi's signature autumn ballad of the year. It's the usual grand, weepy ballad that she puts out every year, to the point that the biggest criticism is that they all sound the same. (Some, however, like "you" and "Yume no Uta" truly do stick out.) But "Ai wo Tomenaide" probably won't be making the special list any time soon. When you've heard one big Kumi ballad you've kind of heard them all. So while "Ai wo Tomenaide" is beautiful it's hardly memorable. If you start singing it you end up singing one of her other ballads by the end. Oops.
VIDEO: Kumi's ballad videos are either intriguing, beautiful, both, or neither. "Ai wo Tomenaide" does a decent job of being beautiful but dang it's boring. And just silly. The worst is her constant naked clinging to some naked guy until he eventually turns to dust and disappears ala the Wizard Chess from "ESCALATE". There's also lots of ridiculous fake crying and oral fixation from the camera. Would this video like some wine with its cheese?
Track #15 - KO-SO-KO-SO
Music: Kumi Koda, Allan P Grigg & Kenichi Takemoto
Arrangement: KoOoL KoJaK
And here we are, my favorite song of the entire album. On the surface "KO-SO-KO-SO" (which is an onomatopoeia for whispering) is just another "sexy" song from Kumi full of slick and sexy beats and lots of whisper-singing about everyone's favorite couple's sport, but "KO-SO-KO-SO" just has this heart-pounding delight to it that makes it 10x naughtier than you initially think. Okay. Let's face it. This song is defined by its video.
VIDEO: Before I describe this video, I want to set a scene for you - a young foreigner sitting in the midst of a public Japanese internet cafe pressing "play" and seeing...Kumi being very, very naughty with another woman. (Clutch pearls here.) Now Kumi's always insinuated homosexual acts with other women before, but this is a first for her to just come out and show it. No, you don't actually "see" anything other than lots of curves and lingerie and the bare rears in a photograph. It's still very much an imagination video as opposed to well, something you'd see on certain websites. The hilarious part is when they turn the fans on and suddenly HAIR EVERYWHERE. Okay, maybe that is something like you'd see on certain websites. Anyway, because of this video's highly suggestive content, you only get the making of to the right. I'm sure you can find the original on your own.
Track #16 - Lay Down
Music: Matthew Tishler, Adam Royce & Kat Lucas
Arrangement: A Beatard & Matthew Tishler
This far in it's kind of surprising to get another electro-charged sexy song, but here's "Lay Down" to surprise me after all. "Lay Down" is one of those songs that's hot when you're listening to it and it's easy to get into, but when it's over it's hard to remember how it went and you wonder if you even care. Still, E for effort. If it weren't dwarfed by the better songs on this album it may actually fare better.
VIDEO: Woah, all the colors! Why aren't I at this black light hot mess? It's another video where nothing happens but modeling and partying, but it's so cool to look at! Hot clothes, hot hair, hot colors, lights (both regular and black light) flashing everywhere, and then the totally cool shots of black-light-Kumi. Seriously, why was I not invited to this party? I want to carry Kumi too! (But mostly I just want her hair for a day.)
Although fair warning for people prone to seizures: there is some color flashing at times that even gives me a little headache.
Track #17 - Love Technique
Music: Seogy & Genie
Because "Everyday" wasn't enough torture, we now get our other random cutesy song, "Love Technique". But it's actually not as annoying and ear-drum cracking as its predecessor - actually, the chorus is catchy even if the verses leave a lot to be desired. Could I live without this song? Yeah. Is it ruining my experience? Not really. My hatred for "Everyday" is too strong to let me hate "Love Technique" at this point.
VIDEO: Sometimes we get legitimately cute videos to go with the cute songs - "WIND" and "Koi no Tsubomi" come to mind. Thankfully "Love Technique" is actually cute when compared to evils such as "Everyday". 1960s Kumi instructs us on her "Love Technique" as demonstrated by another Kumi and her foreigner boyfriend. It's mostly just cuteness overload as you focus on the wacky outfits and colorful set. Now let's see...can I read the "Points"? Looks like 1) Have to make peace with your boyfriend. 2) Have to control the boyfriend and 3) What's the Love Technique? (Yes, this will end well.)
Track #18 - Poppin' love cocktail feat. TEEDA
Arrangement: BACK-ON & Jin
Here's our final single song and perhaps the biggest song to be pushed by Kumi in the previous year. "Poppin'" features the members of BACK-ON (including her now husband) who also wrote the song for her. It's pretty much the only "true" collaboration on this album in that sense. The whole song is just ridiculousness with attitude, as one could probably tell from the title. It's a guitar driven upbeat pop song meant for cranking in the car on a drive as opposed to jamming to in the club. First time I heard this song I didn't care much for it at all, but over the months it's grown on me. I still don't love it enough to put it on my iPod but I don't reach over to change it on my laptop when it comes on. (It's no "Everyday", that's for sure.) Overall it's a fun, high-energy song that I can't really hate but I can't say I love it either. It is, however, a great way to close out the album...
VIDEO: It's a fun CGI road race between Kumi and her cute car and TEEDA and his motorbike, interspersed with dancing on a train in the most horrendous clothes ever. We get more shots of Kumi driving a car without actually driving it at all. And that's pretty much all to note. It is a fun video to watch just like it's a fun song to listen to, but all it is in the end is funny eye candy.
Track #19 - All for you
Music & Arrangement: Hi-Yunk
Every time I think "Poppin' love cocktail" is closing out this album, "All for you" shows up and bores us all to death. It's a studio live, acoustic guitar only track that would be better as a hidden track than as the official final track, especially after the solid closer of "Poppin'". That's not to say "All for you" is awful, but it's far from great anything. Then again I'm biased against studio live tracks. They tend to sound murky and like an afterthought. Like this song.
VIDEO: Well we also get the live video to go with the live track, but I do wonder how "live" it is. Either way it's just Kumi and her guitar back up hanging out and singing in the studio. Some may find this endearing, but I'm just wondering when I'll get these few minutes back.
AVERAGE SONG SCORE: 7.6
Listened to the album? What did you think?
Summing up "JAPONESQUE" is like grabbing a bunch of CDs and trying to find a connecting thread between them besides "here be audio". Even though there's "only" seven single tracks out of NINETEEN tracks, it still feels like a best or single collection album with its disjointed themes and sounds. Granted, Kumi hasn't had a truly cohesive album in years and I've come to just accept her albums will be all over the place. But when you're working with 19 tracks and only two of them are interludes, it's going to be very noticeable. On one hand this allows for a lot of killer tracks, but JAPONESQUE proves that sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much of a good thing. There are a plethora of great tracks, like "So Nice", "Boom Boom Boys", "No Man's Land", "VIP", "KO-SO-KO-SO", "Slow", and and and and...yes, lots of great tracks. So many great tracks that other songs like "Lay Down" and "Love Me Back" get lost in the throes of better greatness instead of being allowed to shine as well. Cruddy songs like "Everyday" and "Brave" are more memorable than they are.
But in the end "JAPONESQUE" is still a solid album - certainly one of the best Kumi's ever put out, right up there with the greats like "Kingdom", "BEST ~second session~", and "secret". And odds are it's going to be one of the top albums of the year. There's a lot of content on this album, what with 19 tracks and 17 music videos coming with most editions - this alone makes the album worth the money. Kumi's job is to deliver solid music and that's exactly what "JAPONESQUE" is.