Hip-hop has become pop music in most of the world. This isn’t the case in Japan, though. The tension between mainstream lanes and more reverent corners of the country’s rap community has always been heavy, probably even before EAST END and YURI got together to give the country one of its first massive crossover rap-pop hits (much to underground artists like ECD’s displeasure). That these two sides have never really managed to meet in the middle in recent times explains why Japanese rappers haven’t had the same major success in their home country compared to their peers abroad.
Part of the problem stems from the fact so much Japanese hip-hop in 2019 feels like an imitation of United States rappers with half the charm, at best. Save for a few exceptions, most artists playing rap-game Ditto produce relatively forgettable takes on American rap. These are songs that just make you want to listen to the source material for a better all-around experience.
That’s why approaching the style from a pop perspective can result in such strong material. Tokyo duo chelmico use this formula on their latest album Fishing, and the end result is a colorful and charming album that finds new angles on the genre that suit the pair well. The full-length places chelmico in the same space as pop-rap acts of the 21st century like RIP SLYME and HALCALI, artists who have bridged rap with J-pop with delightful results. Listen to the album below.
The pair of Rachel and Mamiko have been kicking around for a few years now, first appearing on many musical radars with the sax-assisted “Labyrinth 97.” They’ve hopped from netlabels to the major labels, but along the way, they’ve maintained a sound inspired by RIP SLYME’s playful approach to hip-hop. They’ve amassed plenty of catchy numbers, but Fishing marks the first time one of chelmico’s full-length albums have really gelled together. Here, chelmico find the right balance between radio-eyeing pop and elements stemming from all kinds of genres for ‘Fishing’.
That’s clear from opener “Exit,” a speedy number featuring a skittery electronic beat approaching drum ‘n’ bass pace. The pair have dabbled in this kind of dance-adjacent sound before, but “Exit” starts the album and finds them keeping up with every twist and turn that develops, all while making sure to top it off with an ear-worm hook. chelmico’s rapping and singing skills have never really been in doubt, but now they have an album’s worth of great music to bring out the best of this ability. “Sokenbicha no Rap” bounces ahead on piano melodies and horn blurts (all the more impressive that they manage to turn a tie-up with a tea company into something capable of standing on its own), while “Navy Love” uses minimalism as a way to underline the melancholy lurking in chelmico’s half-speed rhymes.
That one is a bit of an outlier, though, in that it’s one of Fishing’s only downbeat numbers. This is a celebratory album, poging ahead on the all-together-now “Summer Day” or approaching an indie-rock chug on “12:37.” “Switch” (above) stands as the most jubilant number they’ve created to date — saying something considering their first major-label efforts was called “OK, Cheers!” The one total misstep present actually references that older cut. “Beer Bear,” a tale of woodland debauchery centered around the titular character, that comes off as just a little too fanciful and which boasts one of the flatter call-and-response choruses around. Then again, even this one deserves credit for trying something genuinely unexpected — I’d rather listen to organ-assisted stories of lush forest critters than another attempt at mimicking Future by this week’s buzzed-about Shibuya MC.
Fishing will probably cap off a decade that saw all kinds of artists — women in particular, who have a harder time making moves in Japanese rap for all kinds of reasons — use a pop-bent approach to rap to create great music, from the hushed Izumi Makura to the pinballing WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA. The latest from chelmico only further underscores how this fusion shouldn’t be shunned, but rather embraced for being one of the better ways to find one’s own voice in Japanese music.