1.07.2010

Namie Amuro, PastFuture Album Review


The cover of Namie Amuro's ninth studio album is symbolic of where the 33-year old celebrity stands at this point in her career. After the popularity of her album PLAY in 2007 and the release of her best hits compilation Best Fiction last year - when the diva performed to audiences of 400,000 people - the reigning queen of J-pop has been unstoppable. She also has no more old material to work with. Japanese artists tend to release a series of singles over a period of time which later become packaged into albums, but Namie has already assembled her past material. Thus, Past is a new start for the pop star, who is shown tearing apart the cover of Best Fiction to reveal herself in new, uncharacteristically dark make-up.

For the new album Namie relied less on her usual production team of Michico/T.Kura and Nao'ymt to seek instead new writers, including Scandanavia-based Dsign Music. The result is an assortment of songs which confess the album's mixed production and may surprise fans familiar with Namie's usual style, the self-proclaimed "hip pop" that's topped the charts for three years now.

None of the songs on the album says this better than "Fast Car," the second single to be released. When I saw the song's title, I was expecting an urban, electronic dance song full of attitude, a la "Violet Sauce" or "Speed Star." I expected to hear an engine rev and race us into a world of pop-synth and booming base. Instead, "Fast Car" begins with a deep, jazzy horn that gives way to a melody that evokes rock and funk - there's even a swanky guitar solo in the middle of the song. Best of all are Namie's vocals. She sings at a lower register, and her voice comes to us full of character: sultry, smooth, and seductive. She also pulls off the best ad lib of her career.



The music video shows the extent of Namie's new look. There's not a car in the video; instead, Namie and her dancers appear in Victorian dress, even giving the traditional Japanese fan dance a modern twist with sequined fans straight from an Austen novel. It's fashion I normally associate with singer Koda Kumi, J-pop's resident sex-kitten and queen of the Lolita-Goth look, but Namie manages to do it tastefully. And come on - who can resist when the she offers to "drive you down the love street"?

Of course, the thing about mixed production is that quality is hard to maintain across the board. Case in point: the album's third single, "Love Game" - not to be confused with Lady Gaga's song of the same title. With lyrics by DOUBLE, with whom Namie has previously collaborated," "Love Game" isn't a bad song, but as far as singles go, it's pretty weak. There's very minimal instrumentation: some hand-claps, a little synth that doesn't really carry the melody, and that ubiquitous "ticking" sound. I don't think the song would carry over the noise of a club, and the ad lib here feels forced and over-the-top. It's good, but not the best. On the other hand, for the choreography in this video Namie is at the top of her game.

Similarly, the song "First Timer," produced in collaboration with hip hop group Doberman Inc., isn't very good after the first forty seconds. Namie's voice is auto-tuned beyond all recognition, the rap is annoying and noisy, and the song has no trajectory - it meanders through at least four separate movements for over five minutes.

Nevertheless, the less lackluster songs are easily compensated for by the other tracks in this album. "Bad Habit" is an awesome club song that would have been a stronger single than "Love Game"; the way Namie says, "You know you shouldn't, but you can't stay away" is irresistible. "My Love" has an urban sound reminiscent of American hip pop; "The Meaning of Us" is Namie's first ballad in a long time, a soft, feminine song that gently draws you in and stays with you. And then there are the previously released songs: "Copy That," a fun, 60s-inspired track; "WILD" with its driving dance beat; and the experimental but extremely popular "Dr."

Ultimately, however, the best songs on Past were those composed by Namie's old producer, Nao'ymt. "Defend Love" is a song that will have you thinking "Michael Jackson" - it sounds like an electronic, updated version of a 90s dance track flavored with hip hop and R&B. And even in his filler track, Nao'ymt is a powerhouse. "Shut Up" is a continuation of PLAY's "All About You," when Namie decided she wanted to "rock out" - the song mixes electronic guitar with a hip pop sound, and when Namie says to "shut up," you better listen!

Of course, I may be used to Namie's older sound, so her new material takes some getting used to for me. But although the album lacks the cohesion of her last releases and has a few less stunning tracks, it's still a polished collection of songs and a solid album. Namie may be starting a new chapter in her career, but she shows no sign of slowing down. Past debuted at number one and sold over 300,000 copies in its first week, even beating out fellow superstar Ayumi Hamazaki, and her concert tour is slated to start in April. The Queen of Hip Pop's reign has much longer to go.

Best Songs: Fast Car, Bad Habit, Shut Up, My Love, The Meaning of Us, Defend Love
Average Songs: Copy That, Love Game, Steal My Night
Questionable Songs: First Timer

2 comments:

Alex C. said...

Excellent review, I used to listen to Namie Amuro a lot but have not been into JPop as much this past year. However, I am seeing Utada in SF promoting her latest English album. I am hoping she sings some Japanese songs as well.

~A

Best Fiction said...

Thanks! I like writing reviews like this from time to time; they're good practice for me.

Utada's coming to Chicago in February also and I really want to see her - unfortunately I haven't found someone to go with me yet! I'll just have to drag one of my friends with my, JPop fan or not!

- T

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