Iconic artist returns
The first word which sprang to mind when I listened to this album was “surprising”. The title is significant – Hikaru Utada hasn’t just departed from her old style of music, this is definitely an ‘Exodus’. Listening to Utada’s last album, Distance, one would expect delicate pop ballads similar to Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This time round her style can only be described as an unusual combination of electronica and R&B/Hip-hop.
Utada makes it clear what she’s trying to achieve as she breathlessly sings the album’s opening lines: “I don’t wanna cross over between this genre, that genre/Between you and I is where I wanna cross over”. In true Utada fashion, she manages to incorporate many other styles of music (everything from Moroccan-style strings to a harpsichord!) but every song can be recognised by her distinctive, impressive vocals.
I get the impression that Hikaru Utada wants this album to have few connections with her pop career Japan. As well as shortening her name to ‘Utada’ for a western audience, she also teamed up with renowned hip-hop producer Timbaland for ‘Exodus ’04’ and ‘Let Me Give You My Love’. However, Utada herself was responsible for the radical change in style, as she wrote the whole album. Dispensing with the polished pop-princess pretensions of previous albums, she has created darker, edgier affair, both in music and content.
However, this doesn’t mean she has ignored her roots. Her Asian-American background is celebrated in the lyrics, which range from the bizarre: “You’re easy-breezy and I’m Japanesey” to the suggestive: “Mixing gene-pools/Eastern, Western people get naughty”. It’s all very tongue-in cheek, but I can’t help wondering if certain odd lyrics might mean that she is mistaken for a ‘novelty act’ in an industry already biased against Asian artists.
Even more surprising, Utada’s choice of her first single from this album, ‘You Make Me Want To Be A Man’, reveals a feminist tone! ‘You Make Me Want To…’ screams “Don’t patronise me because I’m a woman!” while ‘Hotel Lobby’ seems to be a warning message for call girls. Who would have thought this was the same person who groaned “I want your baby” on ‘Hayatochiri’ while still a teenager!
Every song on this album is imbued with a sense of the pop diva breaking free from her shackles. ‘Devil Inside’ is particularly revealing: “Everybody wants me to be their angel/Everybody wants something they can cradle/They don’t know I cry…Maybe there’s a devil somewhere really deep inside me” Yes it’s a cliche, yes it’s slightly self-aware, but the feeling is genuine. ‘Exodus‘ is Utada’s most expressive album and also her most personal. For example, ‘About Me’ gives an intimate insight into her marriage to Japanese film director Kiriya Kazuaki.
This is Utada’s ‘Exodus‘ from overly-polished, commercial pop; her two fingers up at the music industry. Existing fans with more eclectic tastes will be pleasantly surprised, while hardcore J-pop junkies might be disappointed at the changes. However most Utada fans will be pleased to hear that the European release of ‘Exodus‘ contains two exclusive club remixes of ‘You Make Me Want To…’ One things for sure – it will be a shock to the system for those people who have constantly lumped Utada in with other Japanese singers like Ayumi Hamasaki or Nami Tamaki.
Text by Emily Bastian
This article originally featured in Issue 2 of the J-Pop Go magazine