Contemporary Japanese music features many artists creating some of the most exciting songs going, from burgeoning rappers putting their spin on the genre to electronic creators pushing down sonic boundaries. It isn’t always easy to get familiar with them, though, thanks to a combination of label-born internet shyness that cuts them off from potential fans alongside the general noise of daily life on the internet.
In this new feature, Otaquest aims to help introduce some of Japan’s best musicians to the world. Today, an artist shaping the sound of modern J-pop both in front of the mic and behind the boards.
Smoothness has been the dominant sound of J-pop and rock over the last few years. Bands such as Suchmos and solo acts like Hoshino Gen have largely connected with listeners in the country thanks to sleek, funky numbers promoting an easy-going approach to life. Call it wish fulfillment for most in Japan, whose lives aren’t actually that simple, though they can escape via some easy-breezy guitar pop.
Singer-songwriter Shin Sakiura taps into that sound and ethos while elevating it up to another level by revealing new details to this style. He’s been a rising name on his own since debuting in 2015, both for his solo recordings and for his remix work for a variety of electronic creators. His own songbook would demand attention alone, but in recent times he has become a staple element of rising J-pop acts. Scan the liner notes of young performers making inroads within the industry, and odds are they have at least one song written or produced by Sakiura. Others, like R&B act SIRUP, have gotten significant assistance shaping their sound thanks to Sakiura.
Contemporary J-pop counts Sakiura as a central point of inspiration, and with a new decade underway his sonic DNA will play a pivotal role in where it all goes.
Sakiura started his career working primarily with others. He transformed songs by producer TAAR into slinky electro-funk, using ample amounts of space to help elevate singer iri (remember that name) within the composition. Listen to that one above. He started to do more remix work at around the same time. Yet his first solo effort, 2017’s Mirror, put the spotlight squarely on himself. Save for a few guest appearances — most notably, two numbers featuring MATTON, formerly of the band Paellas, that go down really easy — Mirror showcases Sakiura’s approach to playing. He merges funk-pop with contemporary electronic splashes on tracks like “Ocean” and “Strange,” while offers an off-kilter take on intimacy with “Return’s” woozy guitar melodies. Listen to that album below.
Sakiura and SIRUP have made for one of the stronger teams in J-pop over the last few years, and the potential this partnership hinted at first came into view on 2018’s “Do Well,” which you can listen to above. This was the first time they worked together on a song, and Sakiura’s track offers a propulsive disco backdrop for SIRUP to flex his vocal smoothness. It was among the singer’s first breakout creations and an example of what Sakiura could bring to pop music from behind the scenes.
Over the next year, Sakiura worked with a wide variety of artists, ranging from the singer-songwriter LULU, sing-song rapper Rude-a and easy-going duo showmore. Part of what makes him a valuable player in the J-pop sphere is how malleable he can be — Sakiura bends his sound to fit the artist he’s working with best so that they can shine. Still, a few elements thread through whatever he gets involved with. Guitars play a large role, and rarely do they break into more of a jog, often settling into a strut accented by digital touches. It takes the familiar easy-going tempo of bands such as Suchmos and Yogee New Waves, and injects some internet into it.
See You Again
Everything clicks into place for Sakiura in 2019. The year started with the release of sophomore full-length Dream, a 10-song effort featuring only two guest vocalists in Komei and SIRUP. The rest was devoted to Sakiura’s musical prowess, with start-stop fireworks on the title track to dance-pop thumpers such as “Get It” and “Can.” It’s the sound of Sakiura getting a bit more ambitious, pivoting towards electronic music while still letting the same seaside breeze gust through the tracks here. If previous songs were late-afternoon swayers, Dream imagined what happens after the sun sets.
Over these 12 months, he also kept working with more up-and-coming J-pop artists. Besides SIRUP, Rude-a and other confidantes, he also hooked up with blossoming pop star Taichi Mukai and rapper pinoko.
If you needed a single day on the J-pop release calendar to really anoint Sakiura as one of the artists to watch as the 2020s get underway, March 25 works perfectly. Two anticipated albums from pop performers on the rise dropped, each featuring contributions featuring some level of involvement from Sakiura. SIRUP’s CIY EP features two from one of his longest-running connections, while iri’s new album Sparkle features a mid-tempo stroll called “COME BACK TO MY CITY” sporting his arrangement work.
Alongside those two, Sakiura dropped his own album, NOTE. This one strikes a balance between Mirror and Dream, by including collabs with a range of artists (rapper maco marets, fellow lite-funk pop songster Kan Sano, and electronic artist AAAMYYY, who helps him craft the ending theme for the new Netflix anime BNA). The rest finds him showing his solo skills once, again from locked-in grooves on “Be” to more dramatic bursts of noise on “U.” Listen to that one above.
Five Essential Songs
The lead-off track from his first album highlights what Sakiura does so well in one groove. Here, he lands on a funky melody delivered with a light touch, but connects it with warped vocal samples and synth dollops to create something fitting for the now rather than mimicking the past.
“Sleepless” Featuring MATTON (2017)
“Uneasy” isn’t a word that applies to Sakiura’s music all that frequently. Yet on this collaboration with MATTON, the pair find the right balance between the sweet and the unnerving.
“Cruisin’” Featuring SIRUP (2019)
Some of Sakiura’s best ideas come out when he’s teamed up with SIRUP, and “Cruisin’” sits near the top of the hierarchy for both of them. It moves at a swift pace provided by Sakiura’s guitar playing, while SIRUP gets to show off his sensual and soaring delivery throughout.
“More Life” Featuring Ryohu (2019)
Another great pairing, with Ryohu’s self-confident rhymes matching up with the feel-good guitar melodies Sakiura provides. Check the gentle guitar solo!
“Be” shows how far Sakiura has come, and how effortlessly he makes the merger of guitar and electronic elements sound.