Meisa Kuroki’s “ATTITUDE”

Meisa Kuroki / ATTITUDE / January 01, 2010
01. Are ya Ready?

I don’t count interludes anymore; if a song isn’t good enough to be expanded into a full-length track, forever bound to be the humless drone of a filler, bulking up another otherwise mini-album (and why isn’t “SHOCK -Unmei-” and/or its B-side on this album? I’ll give you the intro but I’ll swap the two interludes), then quantity over quality stops being an overused adage and starts becoming a lifestyle (Ayumi Hamasaki what?). Meisa Kuroki may live in fear of the full-length album but she’s not afraid to take initiative: ATTITUDE sums up the lyrical content, from “Are Ya ready?” to “Stand Up!” where Kuroki’s career as front door actress, back door singer continues to affirm her pan-talented abilities.

But the record is constantly hampered by meandering, improvised piano interludes, sometimes accompanied by indiscernible mumbling or tuneless cooing. It’s easy to conclude that Kuroki’s brief dabbles in song may leave the listener wanting more, but hellcat left little to the imagination and ATTITUDE simply carries the narrative further, without elevating it beyond its already limited pop scope. There’s actually little to discuss beyond the album’s potential – and I really do hesitate when I say potential, as debut albums can have potential, but sophomore albums begin confirming or disproving predictions – since “Are ya ready?” aside, this album might as well have been composed parallel to her first album, though with far more weak tracks. To be fair, the promotional video for “Are ya Ready?” is all kinds of diva-in-the-making (wait, doesn’t that denote potential again?) and visually illustrates how well one hundred mirrored Kurokis fit the mold. But smart art direction alone does not a superstar make.

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Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2009

10. Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

“Bad Romance” is topping more year-end lists than Animal Collective, and not without reason: if “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ma, ga-ga-oh-la-la” is the only thing we’ll remember about Lady Gaga, we’ll still look back fondly while overlooking some of her more dubious wardrobe choices. But The Fame Monster boasts more than just the notorious song: “Dance in the Dark” and “Monster” are also among the signature Gaga entendres, club-ready and unapologetically catchy.

09. Meisa Kuroki: hellcat

If I had to pick one successor to Namie Amuro, Meisa Kuroki would be it, and since Amuro has shown herself to be forging new territory with PAST < FUTURE, it looks like Kuroki is the likeliest competition. hellcat doesn’t have the intensity or acumen behind albums like Queen of Hip-Hop or PLAY, but it’s one of the most fun debut albums I’ve heard in a while and shows great promise, a promise Kuroki is looking to fulfill if the first single off her upcoming album is any indication.

08. Big Bang: BIGBANG [ read full review ]

Korean pop bands are taking over the world. This is not the first time I’ve said it, and I’m sort of hoping it will be the last, as we can now move forward with this knowledge intact and focus on individual artists. Big Bang finally made a break in Korea with “Lies” but it’s their dominance of the Japanese market that finally put them on the map. As a testament to the members’ individual talent, G-Dragon also released the award-winning Heartbreaker which topped Korean charts and showed the band had the potential to be indestructible. With their 2010 album already in the works, one can only hope they continue to prove themselves as adept and proficient as BIGBANG.

07. Mr Hudson: Straight No Chaser

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is more than just a rap record: it’s a rap record that doesn’t resort to petty clichés, revels in pop appreciation, and isn’t afraid to show its vulnerability as much as it does its ire. More than a bid for authenticity, Mr Hudson never lets on that he has something to prove, instead teaming up with artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to craft clever rhymes and confessions, a sort of mea culpa that at the last moment, decides it wasn’t in the wrong after all. At its core, it’s just another break-up record (the track listing is almost unbearably linear: boy tells lies, boy loses the girl, boy begins to reminisce, boy learns to live without love, boy cries, boy gets angry, boy comes to terms), but it’s rendered in such brilliant music, it becomes more than just another entry in Kanye’s blog.

06. BoA: BoA [ read full review ]

BoA is everything a pop fan could wish for. Far more commercial than anything she had yet released, best-selling Korean artist BoA portrays an incredible bevy of talent: deft grasp of the English language, stunning dance skills, and a knack for mainstream sound. Made all the more brilliant in comparison to Hikaru Utada’s own second English language album released the same week, which fared poorly with both critics and fans, a lot of credit must go to the writers and producers who assembled songs very of the moment, nurtured BoA’s strengths, and kept the electropop tone consistent.

05. Lights: The Listening [ read full review ]

A synth-heavy record, Lights’ The Listening is a very mature record that tackles very adolescent issues, centering around the clichéd angst of growing up. The album might be too unrealistic for some listeners, reveling in fairy tale notions of attraction and nostalgia for childhood (and the early 90s that accompanied it), but it’s still a stunning full-length debut record that explores just how hard it is to define adulthood.

04. Nadia Ali: Embers

Trance albums rarely make my year-end lists (Oceanlab was the first last year), though this has more to do with the fact that trance is a very single-based genre with mostly big-name artists releasing full-length albums. I guess Nadia Ali is further exceptional considering her music is not traditional trance, but more of a typical dance style with heavy elements of euro. In glowing tribute to a broken relationship that refuses to release its spark, Embers is steeped in accusations (“Point the Finger”), longing (“Ride with Me”), regret (“Be Mine”), and finally, self-preservation (“Fine Print”). It’s dance music you can’t dance to, stoking and re-stoking what’s left in the ashes of loss.

03. Donkeyboy: Caught in a Life

I’ll admit I’m hypocritical when it comes to the 80s synthfluence of the 00s; on one hand, it’s becoming redundant, on the other, it’s still inspiring some pretty amazing music. Donkeyboy may not have the brash sex appeal of a Gwen Stefani or the Pitchfork-endorsed review of a Neon Indian, but they have the gifted ability to work within the confines of Scandinavia’s celebrated track record to produce some of the most fundamental pop music of the decade. The cheerful melodies set against gloomy lyrics are a testament to the quintessential pandering of youth, meandering its way through real world infancy; Caught in a Life is dreamy and escapist without being immune to the harshest glare of life’s headlights.

02. Florence + the Machine: Lungs [ read full review ]

Lungs is not a perfect album – a few tracks still disrupt the musical narrative, tending to stick out like sore-thumb intervals – but in spite of its flaws, it remains a grand, sweeping album that asks more questions than it answers, provides more enigma than understanding, and never lacks for want of a desperate, sometimes frantic search – for passion, for comfort, for spiritual enlightenment. Florence Welch’s voice cuts through tempos and soars somewhere in the highest realms, lingering far above the already massive melodies, wallowing in the heady first days of romance, the agony of losing love, and finally finding it again in the least expected place.

01. Kent: Röd [ read full review ]

Kent is relentless; releasing masterpiece after masterpiece is one way to show you have enough talent to start throwing it away on B-sides, but the other is simply to keep doing what they do: releasing intricate, carefully crafted albums that build upon previous work without showing any sign of strain to which so many bands two decades old succumb. Any weaknesses the band has never appears on the record, a heady cocktail of fear, aggression, anxiety, and coping with a sort of self-inflicted isolation. Kent is nowhere near where it started in 1990, but Röd is an incredible place to land and probably more than even the most enthusiastic fans could have dreamed.

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Meisa Kuroki’s “SHOCK -Unmei-”

Meisa Kuroki / SHOCK -Unmei- / July 22, 2009
01. SHOCK -Unmei-

It had recently occurred to me that Namie Amuro has not released a single since March’s Wild; looking to fill this gap, I turned to Okinawan Meisa Kuroki, who released her debut album hellcat in April. The album may have lacked lyrical depth, but it was a likely successor to where Amuro’s PLAY left us in 2007 (though admittedly, most of the tracks actually sounded like outtakes from the Queen of Hip-Pop sessions). While in most cases I would be disappointed by the overt lack of vicissitude, innovation is hardly the key to amassing an audience and what Kuroki lacks in originality, she makes up for in sheer determination. You know, in a weird, submissive sort of way.

While writhing on a bed in undergarments and peering at the camera with half-lidded, soulful eyes behind an alarming array of hair extensions may be the way to capture a tepid audience’s expectations for generic over genuine (and most of the album’s tracks pander to the lowest common denominator, exemplified best by a track that simply goes under the title “SEX” in all caps), it wasn’t the music videos or television appearances that got me; it was the way these tracks aren’t actually bad. Perhaps more a sad, telling indictment of my own fallible tastes, hellcat was the first Japanese hip hop album of the year that didn’t have me taking cover in my copy of the AllMusic Guide’s Required Listening: Classic Rock, or worse, perusing Amuro’s recent releases again with a magnifying glass and sentimentality. In the end, I liked a majority of hellcat‘s songs and looked forward to hearing Kuroki infuse the Oricon with some healthy competition. Unfortunately, SHOCK -Unmei- is not that competition.

Almost desperately pandering to commercial success (literally – it’s featured in Kirin’s Cola Shock ads), the song lacks any of the impact it’s purporting to carry. While I have no problem with commercial tie-ins, the song has the same effect on me that Chris Brown’s “Forever” did in that it asks just how fine that blurry line between commercial success and commercial sellout straddles (I mean, I’m cool with songs being used in promotions to sell products, but what about when a company pays to have a song specifically written for it/about it – can we treat it with the same pop-minded respect and diligence, or do we build a new category for these tunes, perhaps appropriately dubbed Promo Pop, and imbue it with a whole new set of critical criteria? And what would that do to pop stars, who could go from a loosely endearing term of the word “artist” to literal musical vehicles?).  In addition, the track samples a piece of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but it doesn’t take advantage of it nearly enough – and whether or not it’s some sort of really clever homage to patrons of the art and how even classical geniuses couldn’t escape music’s commercial verve (Kuroki asks, “Who’s the puppet? Who’s the master?”), the orchestral vibe never reaches its full potential, being bogged down by repetitiveness and weaker, competing synths (the composers probably should have studied S.H.E.’s “Yu Zhou Xiao Jie” a little closer). Regardless, “SHOCK -Unmei-” is more involved than most of its Oricon contemporaries, and the c/w track “Wasted,” in an attempt to round out the single, infuses something more natural on the disc with a simple melody and sparser arrangement.

But stepping back to examine what I think it’s satirizing (intentionally or not), I do find myself wondering if I just talked myself into liking it a little more.

Buy SHOCK -Unmei-