Utada Hikaru Is The Undisputed Queen Of J-Pop

Utada Hikaru Is The Undisputed Queen Of J-Pop

Utada Hikaru is a household name in Japan. She’s not an artist that only your otaku, your subculture, or your trendier types tend to prefer. Unlike your Babymetals or your Kyary Pamyu Pamyus, both artists we love but have a narrower more specific appeal, Utada is loved by just about everybody. The type of artist who, when she rarely performs live, sells out stadiums within minutes.If you’re a Millennial or a generation Z kid in Japan, you no doubt grew up with her music.

While best known internationally for her iconic work crafting songs for Kingdom Hearts and the Rebuild Of Evangelion films, in her home country she’s a god among people. Her debut album Utada album ‘First Love’, released when she was just 16 in 1999, remained so immensely popular that it grew to be Japan’s best selling album ever. It still holds that title, and its first few follow-ups also sold well into the millions making her an absolute all-time top-selling Japanese Singer-Songwriter.

The Unconventional Origin Of Utada Hikaru

It’s not exactly a secret but Utada Hikaru, one of Japanese most popular stars on the level of Lady Gaga in America, was actually born in New York City. 

She traveled back and forth Japan and the States a bunch as a kid, but before she ever put out an ‘Utada’ record in Japan she released an album called ‘Precious’ in the states under the name ‘Cubic U’. Releasing it in 1998, She recorded it with her family earlier as a teen. It tanked, but a year later she released her debut album ‘First Love’ in Japan, which to this day is the best selling Japanese record of all time. 

She Found Success Very Early On As a Japanese Artist.

While Utada’s teen attempt at breaking into the United States music scene under the Cubic U name was a failure, that soon turned out to be for the best with the extreme success she would soon find. When Toshiba Emi released ‘First Love’ in 1999, they had an instant hit on their hands. With huge singles Automatic Time To Tell and others whetting everyone’s ears, it broke well over a million copies in no time and still remains one of the highest-selling albums in Japan.

Her next two albums ‘Distance’ and ‘Deep River’ have sold well into the millions as she continued to explore RNB sounds in pop, melding her signature full voice into deep synthetic sound palettes making her music instantly recognizable. 

Singles like the titular ‘Distance’ and ‘Traveling’ can still be heard pretty much anywhere you go walking around in Japan. They’re also songs most people are tired of hearing at Karaoke, but you should belt them out anyway to respect the Queen Utada Hikaru herself.

Reaching The Midpoint Of Utada Hikaru’s Career And Her Hiatus

Utada would release two more albums through Toshiba Emi, Ultra Blue, and Heart Station. Coming out in 2006 and 2008 respectively, she was no longer a fresh face in the scene but a well-established pop artist by this point. Ultra Blue in particular is an album full of bangers as ‘Keep Trying’, ‘Colors’ and of course the Kingdom Hearts 2 classic ‘Passion’ are arguably some of her most refined and comfortable work.

After Heart Station though? She largely left the public eye and wouldn’t go on to release a full album for about 8 years. Not completely passive though as during this intermittent time, which was an official hiatus cited to fatigue after years of dedicated performance, she would release her Rebuild of Evangelion themes as well as a rare single here and there. Eventually after some dramatic family changes and having her first child, she’d return to the public eye once again.

 Utada’s Best English Language Album

Over the course of her Career, Utada Hikaru would release three English language albums with two under the ‘Utada’ title and the early Cubic U work. In our opinion, the one most worth seeking out would easily be her 2004 work Exodus which was the first ‘Utada’ album she recorded right after her golden run in Japan. While Cubic U and ‘This Is The One’ are okay, ‘Exodus’ is full of genuinely unconventional pop experimentation that 15 years later still sounds wholly unique.

The Universal Music Era

Signing with Virgins Records and Universal Japan, Utada Hikaru kicked it back into high gear starting in the latter half of the 2010s. Her big comeback album Fantome released in 2016 instantly reached the top of the album charts with first week sales topping out at around 253,000 records. The album wasn’t only a return to form, but brought along some really out of left field guests like the rapper Kohh and the beloved but more divisive Sheena Ringo for some truly wild features.

Just two years after that she followed ‘Fantome’ up with ‘Hatsukoi’, a cheeky reference to her hallowed debut album with ‘Hatsukoi’ being the Japanese word for ‘First Love’. Unfortunately it was her weakest commercial effort since her second English ‘Utada’ album ‘This Is The One’ but week for Utada still means almost 400k in album sales and reaching the top of the charts for a time. Still a nice album over all, and we’re excited to hear what she cooks up next.

Kingdom Hearts introduced Utada To The World

Make no mistake, in Japan Utada Hikaru isn’t known as the singer who does the Kingdom Hearts or the Evangelion movie songs. She got to work those high profile projects because of her eternal fame and reverence among the general populace. That said, there’s no denying that her Kingdom Hearts work alone is largely responsible for her international audience.  Oddly, representative, it takes a game featuring American characters made in Japan to make a Japanese singer made in America famous in her country of origin.

With Simple and Clean Utada Hikaru Made Something That Will Last Forever.

It’s fair to say ‘Simple and Clean’ is more than just the ending (and opening) song to a beloved but admittedly silly video game. Anyone that’s spent a day in our sub-cultural circles knows this song deep in their bones, just as they do A Cruel Angel’s Thesis. 

We imagine if a gamer friend of yours fell into a coma, you’d just have to play the opening ‘We Will Walk Away’ line and in seconds they’d shoot up singing ‘You don’t hear me say.’ A meme, a gamer national anthem, a song millenials will openly weep to, ‘Simple and Clean’ is all that and moe’

In Sanctuary Utada Hikaru Upped The Dramatic Stakes

With Kingdom Hearts 2 being a marginally darker game than its predecessor, a heavier theme was necessary to properly fit the game. For better or worse ‘Sanctuary’, or ‘Passion’ if you prefer the Japanese version, strips away the melodramatic indulgence of ‘Simple and Clean’ instead opting for a more sweeping, dynamic track that comes off as less corny. While less iconic than its beloved older sibling, ‘Sanctuary’ is a deeper cut offering up sharp contrasts in sounds with its moody synth work and soulful singing. 

On Don’t Think Twice Utada Hikaru Returned To The Beloved Franchise

To be fair, Utada Hikaru’s absence from Kingdom Hearts wasn’t entirely her fault. With 13 years in between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts 3 she didn’t have the occasion to perform. Granted there were more than a few spin-offs which we guess either Square Enix didn’t want to shell the money for or Utada just wasn’t interested in performing if it wasn’t a main entry. When Kingdom Hearts 3 came around she actually put out two songs.

The opening track to the game is a collaboration with Skrillex, a long time fan of the series, called ‘Face My Fears’ with both English and Japanese versions recorded. It’s, as the kids say, a bop but ‘Don’t Think Twice’ was the emotional closer that resonated with fans. An English version of her 2018 song ‘Chikai’, Utada’s balladry will still make you cry all these later no matter what language she sings in.

Interestingly the English version of ‘Face My Fears’, her collaborative effort with the now legendary producer Skrillex, was her first song to break into the Hot 100 on US Billboards! Being released digitally before Kingdom Hearts 3 came out, the song did good numbers as a Digital Single charting very high on Itunes and other streaming services when it came out. Whether she herself, Skrillex, Kingdom Hearts, or most likely the combination of three were responsible, we’re happy to see her do so well in the foreign market.

Utada Hikaru
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