15th anniversary: The legacy of Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop

There are few comebacks in J-pop history as important as Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop. Released in July 2005, the album was the first in a gradual, then sudden, ascent from the depths of critical and popular derision that beset the singer following her first official comeback in 1998 after a pregnancy, quickie marriage, and family tragedy threatened to derail the singer’s career. A lot can happen in a gap year, including changing tastes, shifting trends, and broken allegiances: Tetsuya Komuro was well on his way to generating fatigue on the Japanese charts, his robust, and exceedingly familiar style coating Amuro’s early discography finally reaching its saturation-point while his numerous outfits and affiliated projects began losing their hold as dance music was replaced by hip-hop and R&B as the leading pop style. Two women, among many, were permanently changing the landscape of J-pop, chipping away at “TK” as a synonym for J-pop; Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom made their major-label single debuts in Amuro’s absence with “poker face” and “First Love” respectively.

This left Amuro and her team scrambling to re-strategize, first by courting denial and doubling down on TK’s production, shooting for a seamless transition between Concentration 20 and GENIUS 2000 with singles like “RESPECT the POWER OF LOVE” and “toi et moi.” It didn’t work. The spark was gone, any fire TK was able to light available only in the scattered ashes of vague memories and the brief embers of a bright hook. Amuro herself, now older and wiser, wished for a bit of distance from her former image that would allow for more freedom outside of the rigid constraints that sometimes trapped artists, as much as they provided for unheard of luxuries.

Luckily, she and her team recognized the need to adapt. With Ayumi Hamasaki now cornering the market on dance-pop, there was a vacancy in Avex artists going the hip-hop route and they seized the opportunity to do so. After testing the waters with producer Dallas Austin on GENIUS 2000, he and Amuro collaborated again on the tellingly-titled follow-up break the rules, where TK would take his final bows as chief producer. The truth is that Amuro took a huge risk by cutting him off: even with his declining popularity, TK was still a mostly sure-thing, a household name not above tugging at the heart strings of loyalty and premature nostalgia. Recruiting a number of no- and lesser-names was hardly the direction you would imagine Avex taking in the early 00s with their biggest star. But Namie Amuro was no longer their biggest star.

At the turn of the century, when the up-til-then J-pop sound was struggling on the charts, audiences and producers turned increasingly to the Billboard pop charts, full of boundary-pushing artists like Britney Spears, who released her racy single “I’m a Slave 4 U” in 2001. Just as TK was being pushed out by the passing of time itself, Max Martin’s signature teen-pop sound was being shoved aside by producers like The Neptunes, the dancehall and reggaeton beats of Sean Paul and Daddy Yankee, the trademark yowls of Lil’ Wayne, and the solo debut of Beyonce Knowles, who released the Grammy Award-winning Dangerously in Love in the summer of 2003. This was followed by Sean Garrett unleashing Usher’s “Yeah” into radio waves (a “hip-pop” track if there ever was one), in turn paving the way for a sound like the Pussycat Doll’s “Buttons” to soundtrack both summer carnivals and strip clubs. All of these accelerating and massively popular changes in the industry were exactly where artists turned to create fresh faces: all of the modern style and hype of this Western-borrowed, black-community-co-opted “urban” sound was being poured into newcomer Kumi Koda, who made her debut in 2000, and quickly dominated the market as Avex’s resident alterna-diva. But Amuro, eager to regain her standing at the top, wouldn’t stray too far from there to find her own missing ingredients in a (somewhat ironic) attempt to stand out against an ascending batch of equally talented and hungry young men and women.

One: Total confidence.

Any female singer worth her weight in enormous revenue will be dubbed an adjacent moniker by the media at some point in her career, whether laudatory, derisive, or calculated to spark unhealthy competition. Time magazine dubbed Ayumi Hamasaki “The Empress of Pop” in 2002, but Namie Amuro was mostly compared to artists like Madonna, a Japanese derivative. “Diva of the Heisei Era” would come much later — in 2005 Amuro needed a singular, self-serving title, and there is rarely any PR that works faster for image haul than re-naming. To lead her sixth studio album, the big comeback from 2003’s lackluster, bereft-of-personality STYLE, Amuro dubbed herself the Queen of Hip-Pop, taking cues from the pomp and ego of Western artists to market herself as “the finest in the game” someone so hot, so on top, that no one could catch up. It was an astounding, emphatic announcement, impossible to ignore, even if just for the audacity in a culture that values a degree of humbleness in its celebrities.

Two: Kitchen-sink sequencing.

It’s tricky to write about the West’s influence on popular Japanese music, but easy to examine in micro. Queen of Hip-Pop, a tiny world unto itself, is one example that openly, and cheerfully, took almost all of its influence from then-current black musical styles, creating a vibrant toy box of trends from the early to mid 00s. Lead single “ALARM” released in 2004, kicked off the album’s thesis statement, with its propulsive call to wake up and pay attention, though the song now plays more like a sound in the process of finding itself with its studio sheen and over-eager bass line. It’s the following singles that did the heavy lifting, with “GIRL TALK” and “WANT ME, WANT ME” expressing two seemingly dichotomous sides: the laid-back girl’s night in, and the club-ready bhangra beats night out. “WANT ME WANT ME,” in particular, is Amuro knee-deep in her reinvention, exuding a sense of weary, but cool know-how. Back when it was released, it came off as the kind of slick, emotional detachment women were encouraged to cultivate, though today it reads a bit more desperate in a frantic, rather than sad, way. Its strategy over sincerity, putting into question how much genuine fun Amuro was actually having with this new style.

But it’s the album as whole, with its mastery of several styles and propulsive sequencing, that brought it all together, charging in with the title track’s haughty, daring call to sexual satisfaction, and smooth transition to the giddy glee of “WoWa.” The softer songs, nestled towards the middle, offer a bit of respite from the harder beats, tucking the cozy blankets in under a girl’s night of gossip and Sex and the City marathons (side note: it is difficult to overstate Sex and the City‘s popularity at this point in time, and its heavy association with women as rampant, unabashed consumers of everything from the material to the emotional and sexual markets — even Ai Otsuka starred in a loose, PG-rated homage for the drama Tokyo Friends), before launching into the Lil’ Wayne sample slathered liberally all over “My Darling,” and the album’s coolest, flying-solo track “Free.” In between, there’s more posturing with a humble-brag nod to an adoring fan base, the instant gratification of a casual love affair, and a finale that ends the album on a high flourish. It’s a carefully planned execution, an album that utilizes every million cent’s worth of trend and resource at the disposal of a studio with the right amount of power and prestige to ensure maximum attention and profit.

Three: Reap and repeat.

Queen of Hip-Pop was the bridge Amuro crossed to get back in the spotlight, and its success was understandably replicated in the follow-up album PLAY, which took its predecessor as a literal template, and was her last album to focus so strategically on the hip half of her new moniker. These two albums together comprise an interesting interstitial phase in Amuro’s career, one in which she was in the process of reclaiming her status, establishing a new fan base, and asserting her control at the top of the pecking order, before eventually returning to her roots as less queen-of-hip-pop, than general queen-of-J-pop, where she has regained both the respect and popularity lost during that very brief, turbulent moment in her personal life. The fact that she did it by borrowing artifacts from African-American and Western culture is one that can’t go ignored: what began with a series of SUITE CHIC collabs took its form in everything from the music, to the application of tattoos, to the choreography, fashion, use of rhyme schemes foreign to the Japanese musical traditional, to the heavy use of slang (“booty,” “coochie,” “baby boy”). The debt she owes is massive, not just in this context, but throughout her entire career — even in the 90s, Hiroshi Aoyagi points out that she was noted for “incorporat[ing] dances derived from black hip-hop artists” (Islands of Eight Million Smiles, 101). Without the cherry-picking all coming together on one propulsive advertising vehicle for Namie Amuro herself, it is unlikely she would have been given the opportunity to return to the dance-pop roots that propelled her back to #1 and not just commercial, but respectable superstar status, a prime signifier of pop itself, rather than remembered as one of the greatest artists of the TK-boom who was punished with obscurity for a few unpopular choices. It was a very desperate, very calculated, very smart move, one that she had a definite hand in, and one that she no doubt looks back on with at least some regret, if the decision to laser off the tattoos says anything (and not surprisingly, seeing her change her mind has made her even more relatable).

Actually, Queen of Hip-Pop is more than just a comeback: it’s a time capsule, a whole year of music and tabloid pop culture, and Von Dutch hats and velour tracksuits, and leaked sex tapes and that bizarre docu-series where Britney Spears was hooking up with Kevin Federline on television. The Amuro of Queen of Hip-Pop is a tremendous force of attitude, style, talent, a willingness to take risks and, like the greatest pop stars before her, sometimes sacrifice self to stand in for something so much bigger. It might not be her best album, but it’s one of her most iconic, the precise moment we witnessed the resurrection of a legend, the one that breathed life back into an ambitious, hard-working woman who always did anything and everything to succeed.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here. ]

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