Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part IV : Kumi Koda

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Kumi Koda is currently one of the most active chartbusters in Japan today. Since 2003, she's been breaking various records for female pop stars on Oricon -- the Japanese version of Billboard Magazine. Her success continues to accelerate as you read this. And as the familiar story goes, it was a long way to the top. She debuted in 2000, releasing almost a dozen singles and an album since -- all having flopped, relatively speaking.

Her first breakthrough was through an early 2003 single featured in a popular video game - Final Fantasy X-2 - a sequel to the tenth sequel of the highly popular video role-playing game franchise. Kumi Koda was nowhere to be seen as gamers first listened to both tracks from the single in the game itself, fell in love with the characters singing in the finale, fell in love with the songs, and logically sought to purchase the songs thereafter. The single's cover even shows to the two figures central to that scene in the game.

Despite succeeding on the merits of only the music and her voice, she quickly became as much a poster pin-up as much as a pop star. Unsurprisingly, her albums and singles following "real Emotion" sold much better, even if they weren't that much different than the material that preceded her breakthrough. Her second album, grow into one, was scheduled for release just days after "real Emotion"'s release:

OK, rant.

No Kumi Koda bio fails to mention that her looks became far more important after her Final Fantasy success. Parse that. Success based on a song featured in a fictional setting with a fictional female character singing it pressures the actual singer to worry about looking better for her oncoming fans.

Now, I could care less about a pop star's appearance, personally. However, I do realize that a pop star's looks are an integral part of his or her success. It's superficial, but it's how the business works. And that's the way many fans are. Ah well.

But "real Emotion" succeeded in a video game, not in a well-produced video showing Kumi's slinky moves or anything like that. You figure one would give fans in that context a little more credit. Also, when one looks back at Kumi Koda's appearances on her pre-"real Emotion" singles, well goddamn, she's hot there, too! See here, here, and here as a few of many examples.

So what happened? Well, there's a small difference between her single and album covers before and after success. Before, she was hot on her own merits as a personality on the given cover, each based on some concept, whether she was trying to be 'cyber' or 'noir', etc. But since her success and the grow into one album, she's struggling for prettiness, instead of just getting out there on the cover art. Every inch of her face on subsequent release art asks you "I'm pretty.. right?" Eventually, the question morphs into a proclamation: "Look, I am hot now."

Rant over. Again, I don't and will never judge Kumi Koda's musical work on any of the above. In fact, if she's fine with her looks being used as a marketing hook, not only would I not complain, I would admire that, if the strategy was interesting enough. I just needed to vent about something I despise about what segments of the pop music industry inflict, artist's choice or not.

Back to the fun part.

Kumi tried to breakthough in 2000/2001 globally, so the Westernization of her music is really strong, and hence atomic. Each song has one basic approach and follows it through from start to finish. There's no multi-layering or odd style changes per track ever. She's definitely prone to going from one style to another on a per-song basis. Instrumental versions of her songs wouldn't immediately give away the fact that the material came from Japan, though. Again, there's no wrong in that.

Her first five years of music can be summed up in one double greatest hits package released in 2005.

BEST ~first things~ - (2000-2005)

This is her singles collection from 2000 to mid-2005. Kumi Koda is very much a singles artist. Kumi albums were just a 'trad' way to sell units by culling singles and adding additional material that wasn't as strong as the singles material -- your standard pop album, essentially. BEST ~first things~ pretty much makes her first four albums obsolete, for intents and purpose.

So, this breakthrough single then...

I don't feel these songs myself. "real Emotion" is diluted electronic pop. "1000 no Kotoba" is a less diluted soft ballad. But, I can understand why this pair of songs made such an impact: Kumi's voice.

She's a perfect voice for the music -- perhaps "too perfect." She doesn't hold back, neither does she boast it. There are no mistakes, at least to these non-golden ears. She's 100% of the reason why anyone should pay attention to these songs. Kumi has always sung this well. However, her voice must have been an especially good fit for the character in the video game in question. (I've never played any Final Fantasy game.) Because, I can't imagine how any other singer could have been able to launch a successful career from these two weak backing tracks.

[Kumi Koda's "real emotion" video]

Her singles get consistently better since 2003. "Butterfly" is her most successful single shortly after its release in mid-2005. It's her most interesting single to that date as well. What's notable about "Butterfly" is that it's one of her least atomic singles, melding many styles together -- with jazz being the most predominant style. Granted, it's more like a jazz spread over a driving pop backbone. It gives pause only because I can't remember the last time a single in the U.S. had any "jazz" in it, aside from hip hop. If there was one, it couldn't have been more than a fluke. However, jazz influences are very common in many forms of J-Pop.


At this point, you may be wondering why I haven't included any of the other early singles, much less a slew of other material from her first five years.

Whereas one can describe another artist's career as a segue of "phases", Kumi Koda's career is a perpetual maintenance plan with continuous retrofitting and adornment. Songs don't really change throughout her career, nor does her singing style change radically. Her voice and her songs just... improve. Once a new single is released, it renders at least one or two previous songs obselete. Forget the past. Kumi Koda's essence is a Draconion one, and its one word motto is "NOW."

I'm not sure if Kumi changes management circa 2005, but her release strategy does change. Kumi Koda, likely following an industry strategy, begins to unravel the concept of what "CDs" or "albums" are. Given that she's strictly singles material, there's no risk of loss. It's almost cruel to watch what follows.

In December of 2005, instead of releasing another album, Kumi starts the ~12 singles~ Collection. A new single is released every week for 12 weeks straight. Four singles produce videos that sequentially tell a story: "you", "feel", "Lies", and "Someday." But Trapped In The Closet this is not. Each single is very much its own song. There's no reuse of a backing track. Every single, except the last one, is a limited edition single. Each single cover features Kumi dressed in a traditional form based on a single country.


Oh, why don't you play that, um, geography game? :D

Because I'd be busy with another project. See, upon buying every single, a full size image of Kumi Koda could be created by lining up all 12 obi strips and/or back case covers from the purchases. For the sake of Kumi's health, I imagine this is a 3 x 4 image, or even a 6 x 2 image. If it's a 12 x 1, I'd really begin to wonder.

Oops! I almost forgot...

"Get It On" is an especially limited single in that it could only be purchased by cell phone.

No worries! You can be a cheapskate and just get the single purchase that colleges all these A-sides...

BEST ~second session~ - (2005-2006)

And she keeps improving. Her best singles to date make it to this collection with the slightly misleading name. Sure, technically, it is a "best of." However, it really is just an album. In fact, one B-side is not included. In its place, there's a track exclusive to just this collection -- previously unreleased. Yup. A "Best of" collection, indeed.

And this is the exclusive track to BEST ~second session~. It's notable for being one of her earliest adapations of U.S. R&B -- that being a beat-heavy song with a classical arpeggiating bass-synth line. It's also one of her weakest songs to date. There are a couple of other singles in the ~12 singles Collection~ series, "Candy" and "KAMEN", that are R&B, but they're even worse. Basically, she's very unconvincing as a roof raiser at this point.

BUT... KumiBot learns quickly!

[Kumi Koda's "Love goes like***" video]

These are her 1st and 11th singles in the ~12 singles~ Collection series, respectively. "you" is a wonderful ballad. However, "WIND" is her best single of the series. It's a more upbeat, lush, and airy (no pun intended) song. Why doesn't Kumi have more of these? In any case, her voice stands out and shows growing confidence, slowly but surely.

[Kumi Koda's "WIND" video]


2006 turns out to be a very prolific year for Kumi Koda. She scores with another excellent single, "koi no tsubomi", along the lines of "WIND".

[Kumi Koda's "Koi no Tsubomi" video]

Then she releases her best selling single product ever, 4 hot wave.

This "single" has an introduction and mid-interludes. (Can you imagine a future MP3 release accompanied by an introductory MP3? "Welcome to another MP3 exclusive by Kumi Koda...") Each song in this quadruple A-side release gets used in a different advertisement. Also, once again, all of these songs are improvements yet again -- each song a radically different style than the other. The singing has never been better.

All of this and more gets collected on the following late December "album" release.

Black Cherry - (2006)

Despite this being called an album, it's more like a "best of" collection than the "best of" collection that preceded it. It collects almost all her post ~12 singles~ singles -- including the key 4-A-side single, 4 hot wave -- with a second half of album material that's nearly as strong as her singles material. Black Cherry is clearly her best full-length release to date. It's still selling very well, according to latest Oricon ratings.

"JUICY", "ningyo hime", "I'll be there", and "With your smile" make up the 4 hot wave single. "koi no tsubomi" is the single that preceded it. The rest is album material. It's hard to tell which is album material and which isn't. It it weren't for the constant that is Kumi, one would think this was a greatest pop hits of 2006 release. Every song adopts a different form of U.S. pop, and imitates it well. Call me emo, but my favorite is the emotive piano & voice song "Candle light."

[Kumi Koda's "JUICY" video]

[Kumi Koda's "Ningyo Hime" video]

[Kumi Koda's "I'll be there" video]

This isn't exclusive to Kumi Koda releases, but at this point, there are three forms of pop star releases one can buy:
  • The Plebeian Audio-Only Single Compact Disc: This is the no-adventure no-fun single audio CD purchase format. Buy this format only if, like, you want to seem sooo ancient. Lol.

  • The Standard CD+DVD combo: You get the audio CD, but also a DVD containing many of the videos from the CD. With someone like Kumi Koda, why would you want to just hear her? Like you only care about her voice? She hot, duh.

  • The Cool Bro CD+2-DVD deluxe plan: You get everything with the Standard format plus a second DVD that features an extra bonus, like live footage, or perhaps a movie, which is the case with Black Cherry. Black Cherry - The Movie starring Kumi Koda. I'm not kidding. Get watching. You know you wanna.

Since I didn't want to feel so low on the social ladder, I opted for the Standard version. The videos are unsurprisingly well produced, but it's essentially MTV Japan. Each song's style has a respective video style that matches it. The nu-metal Garbage sounding "ningyo hime" has a video with a Hot Topick-ed Kumi trapped in a mad scientist's chair about to meet her fate. The bouncy "koi no tsubomi" has a more colorful "Doh, aren't I just cute?" feel. "JUICY" has a Western backdrop with choreography heavily influenced by many Missy Elliott videos at once, or something like that.

I appreciate the stylistic changes song to song on the CD, but the feeling is not the same going from video to video. Even though the videos are alright, there's nothing left to the imagination. This isn't a cool bonus DVD that you, the fan, now own where you're seeing material that you'll never see on TV. This is the DVD you now must have -- with the CD being that soon-to-be-obsolete-disc-that-looks-like-the-DVD-but-just-has-audio-stuff-on-it thing.

I understand why companies want to move beyond the CD, because many people feel the CD is too limited, too expensive, or too inconvenient. I'm not hip to this above strategy of selling a pop artist, though. Perhaps I'm still in love with the compact disc.

So you may now be wondering, WHY CAN'T THE YOUTUBE LINKS LAST? There are plenty of links, but dare I suggest that Kumi's DVD output is off limits by request of her label? Either that or the actual static videos are buried after 20 pages of fans karaoking to the "real Emotion" single using the Final Fantasy X-2 footage, or people making their own videos using Kumi songs. Actually, many people just put in the key words "Kumi Koda" in their videos, unrelated otherwise, just to get hits! I'm not kidding. I'll leave the search up to you guys. This time, potentially no YouTube fun. Sorry.


To end this on a good note for all, I mentioned waaay above that Kumi Koda is still hitting the pedal to the metal. Just weeks ago saw the release of the "BUT / Aishou" single, which is her best single yet.

"BUT / Aishou" - (2007)

"BUT" is Kumi's bestest of the best song to date, and makes up for "Aishou", which is a moderately good ballad, but not transcendent. In "BUT", there's definitely a strong Gwen Stefani/P!nk groove going on, as well as a Gwen/P!nk vocal style, but sync'ed to a far more robotic 4/4 dark-trancey beat with Front 242 sounding drums. Actually, Kumi assimilate's both Gwen and P!nk's timbre, improves it, chews it, and spits it out so gracefully -- bones blanched and polished. Kumi's voice is the best ever here. I want to marry this song.

And there's more!

Also just released is another "best of"! This time, it actually is a "Best of". Best ~Bounce & Lovers~ is a collection of Kumi Koda's ballads -- the best ones, of course! That doesn't stop the Standard CD+DVD version from adding videos that are definitely not ballads! So, yet again, "Best" is a highly abused word in the Koda camp.

However, if every new thing you put out was going to be better than the previous, wouldn't you mock the concept of "Best" too?

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