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Looking Back on the English Music of Hikaru Utada

With Hikaru Utada finally making her huge come back in recent years, and even making a worldwide appearance on Netflix with her Laughter In The Dark Concert Film, we thought it was appropriate to revisit her English works. You might be surprised to hear before she dropped her beloved debut album First Love’, which to this day is still the best selling Japanese album of all time, she recorded an album for the states when she was 15 years old. Utada was actually born in New York City, remains bi-lingual, and even returned to NYC to attend college in Columbia. Despite being one of Japan’s biggest stars ever, she’s American. Maybe that gave her an edge when creating the song that would make international audiences fall in love with her; yes, I’m talking about ‘Simple & Clean’.

There’s no denying how important the work Hikaru Utada has done for the Kingdom Hearts series is. ‘Simple & Clean’ continues on as one of the most iconic video game themes of all time; one people joke about, but only because we’ve all heard that song hundreds of times, and its one that brings us back to a very formative time in our nerd development. The song nails such a melodramatic yet nuanced, beautiful, slightly digital atmosphere that it can’t be argued with. Granted she wrote the lyrics for ‘Simple & Clean’ after she did ‘Hikari’, the Japanese version of the song, but it’s clear ‘Simple & Clean’ is the version that’s stood the test of time among fans. Certainly, it introduced hundreds of thousands of impressionable teens all over the world to the queen of J-Pop and made her an important part of their weeb development.

Her relationship with Kingdom Hearts would continue with the 2nd and 3rd main games in the series. Unlike ‘Simple & Clean’, Utada actually wrote the English lyrics to Kingdom Hearts 2’s theme ‘Sanctuary’ before penning the Japanese version, ‘Passion’. Here, I can’t speak for everybody but I actually think the latter holds up a little more. In both cases, it was her second time writing the lyrics and coming up with a new vocal melody that’s made the better song, despite one being in English and the other in Japanese. She came up with two distinct offerings for Kingdom Hearts 3; a beautiful sorrowful ballad ‘Don’t Think Twice/ Chikai’ and the collaboration with Skrillex Face My Fears, with English and Japanese versions. The EDM joint actually was her first time making it onto the American Top 100 Billboard charts. Something she’d try to do not once, but three times before.

Hikaru Utada dropped an RNB album when she was 15 years old in 1998, a year before her extremely successful Japanese debut. More accurately, Utada’s family, who used to do music together under the name U3, retooled their project and made an album that put the spotlight on a young Hikaru. Unfortunately, it ended up being shelved by their record label and didn’t properly come out in the States at the time. It’s a full-on 90s RNB album, that was actually recorded when Utada was 13 in 1996, and it’s perfectly serviceable. The teenage Utada actually lays some really powerful vocals on this project; you couldn’t tell they were sung by a 13-year-old. However, much of the music sounded like any other RNB project at the time. The name and branding are actually quite cool in retrospect, but the album didn’t sell until it was re-released after her proper Japanese debut.

Not counting her work with Kingdom Hearts, and a one-off single for the classic film Rush Hour 2, it’d be a few years before she’d try to break into the American market once again.

Utada Poster

Under the moniker Utada, she put out her third “debut album” ‘Exodus’. Secretly, her first genuinely solo effort in the states is one of her best albums. It has touches of RNB still, but it’s a lot more pop and electronic-based than her Cubic U effort. Compared to her Japanese stuff, it’s actually weirder too. The whole album sounds like space aliens got their hands on the thing and fudged with it just a little. There’s a slightly haunting quality to a lot of the songs, like the synth line in the titular song ‘Exodus 04’. It’s very post-y2k-pop in the best way possible. Not only does it include outstanding lyrics like ‘You’re easy breezy and I’m Japanesey’, which she did write herself mind you, every song here takes you to a different synthetic world and it all comes together quite nicely.

The ‘I’m Japanesey’ song was the album’s lead single, Easy Breezy’ was a chart failure in the US and Japan. However its second single, the quirky little bop ‘Devil Inside’ which combines thumping kicks, cheesy keys, and some wild guitar riffs actually made it to the top of the dance charts. The album wasn’t a huge hit, only making the Billboard Top 200. Yes, it was only due to the help of Kingdom Hearts and Skrillex that eventually helped her break into the double digits. That said, if you’re a fan of Hikaru Utada or just like weird pop music, ‘Exodus’ is absolutely a hidden gem. Her final U.S. album release, however…

Utada This Is The One

Utada, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I think ‘This Is The One’ is the least enjoyable album you’ve ever made. Even if you once said this is the type of music you actually like listening to. Her 2009 effort has much more in common with her single Cubic U release ‘Precious’ than the experimental ‘Exodus’ or her Japanese work. Simply put, it’s a bunch of by the books pop-RNB. It’s mostly inoffensive, except for ‘Automatic Part 2’; a call back to one of her biggest singles that in no way lives up to the name. Apparently, a bunch of big behind the scenes Top 40 producers worked on the album and it sounds like just that. Something cold, calculated, and without original character. This Isn’t The One, so to speak. Although thanks to her putting out this album, I got to see her tour in NYC in a relatively small venue. Something that’d be impossible to do in Japan.

There you have it, the three English albums of J-Pop’s darling, Hikaru Utada. Remember, her Kingdom Hearts work is excellent and holds up as some of the most iconic music ever made in contexts. Her second English album, the first under the Utada name, ‘Exodus’ is a real delight. Something I hope all of you give a chance. Cubic U’s okay and This Is The One, well, it’s fine. It’s just fine. I feel like it’s unlikely to get another full English language album from Utada at this point, but I can dream of an Exodus ’24, can’t I?

Universal Music Group

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