Coming and Going: Introducing the Rappers of "Presence"
Digging into some exciting names in Japan's rap scene using the five versions of the STUTS and Takako Matsu as a jump-off point
This feature is part of This Side of Japan issue #37. You can return to the main newsletter here.
The producers of the drama series Omameda Towako To Sannin No Moto-Otto (Towako Omameda and Her Three Ex-Husbands) put a creative twist for the show’s theme song, “Presence”: five different versions to play at the end of every episode, each featuring a different rapper and a different actor who plays one of the titular three ex-husbands. The smooth yet ruminative hip-hop beat by STUTS remains constant as well as the chorus and bridge sung by Takako Matsu, who plays the ex-wife and main protagonist of the show. After all five premiered, they released a remix gathering all of the featured rappers but with a brand new verse from each.
Presence, the album, is admittedly not an ideal way to check out the five versions. The songs are instead best experienced as how they were intended: as the ending theme of the series during the rolling credits. The first few versions especially feel tied to their attached episodes with one of the respective ex-husbands rolling in on the track after an hour spent focusing on his life and dilemmas. “But I couldn’t take my focus off you,” cleverly raps Akihiro Kakuta from the perspective of photographer and second ex Kataro after watching him miserably fail at winning back the attention of his former wife.
Aside from the novelty of witnessing the actors clumsily rapping on a STUTS beat, the “Presence” project also provides an elevated platform to introduce some of the most exciting names in Japan’s rap scene to a wider audience. Viewers got to check out a verse from NENE or Daichi Yamamoto every Tuesday night at 9 p.m.; they even got to see the rappers make a cameo appearance for their respective episodes. STUTS and Takako Matsu eventually brought “Presence” to prime time music program Music Station, bringing Kid Fresino with them. We definitely won’t get to see another rapper like him grace the Music Station stage in a good while.
Following the project’s ambition, I want to take the time to highlight the five rappers featured in “Presence.” They all flaunt their own distinct style, showcasing it well on their respective versions in service of exploring the song’s uniform theme: what runs through your mind immediately after a break-up but also the long recovery thereafter. If you like any of their approaches, there’s a lot more to them worth digging into.
The most omnivorous of the five, Kid Fresino has let his serpentine flow slither across a diverse range of styles. But while his sharp braggadocio befits both slick hip-house and steely future-garage, his rap best thrives in a spacious boom-bap beat that gives a lot of room for his stream of consciousness to unfurl. The restlessness of his verses suggests a rapper constantly dwelling deep in his own mind, and it’s the impression he also leaves in “Presence I”: “I feel stress about it,” he briefly cries out before he returns to his dizzying verse about harboring inconsolable regret. He tries to keep it stoic, flexing some machismo to play down his vulnerability, but the run-on nature of his raps begins to seem like a clever way to distract himself from facing a numbing stillness.
Further listening: 20, Stop It. (2021); ai qing (2018)
BIM doesn’t sound as though he stresses about much. His chill demeanor presents a rapper who’s not too fazed about the end of a relationship, like he knew all along there was never any good in being preoccupied by something that was going to inevitably end. His nimble flows, too, project a nonchalant spirit, coasting through conflict with as much ease as he weaves rhymes. As unaffected as he seems, though, the actual writing says otherwise: “More piles up the more I erase / Tomorrow changes too without a break,” he opens “Presence II,” mentally burdened by how all the good seems to wash away in due time. While he impresses cleverness via wordplay and witty metaphors to keep his coolness, his mask eventually starts to show its cracks.
Further listening: Boston Bag (2020); Not Busy EP (2020)
NENE may be the most unexpected name for the “Presence” series. She’s best known for being a free spirit over glossy post-trap beats as one half of the duo Yurufuwa Gang, and her colorful appearance in itself stands out from the pack as she raps alongside actor and comedian Akihiro Kakuta. That said, her verse serves as a welcoming, more optimistic alternative to the deep navel-gazing of the previous two. (Not to mention that a female voice is much needed in this boy’s club of a project, especially as the drama centers on a female protagonist.) “Even if the string is ripped, it’s a bond that won’t break / won’t we bump into each other sometime somewhere?” NENE concludes after searching for a way to move on from separation, and she sounds ready to bounce back and face what’s ahead all over again.
Further listening: Yumetaro EP (2020); Circus Circus as Yurufuwa Gang with Ryan Hemsworth (2019)
Recently spotlighted on a previous issue of the newsletter, Daichi Yamamoto effortlessly switches between inward-turning monologues and tuneful pop flows. The deft balance act made his latest album, WHITECUBE, a highlight of the year with the rapper’s playfulness loosened the emotional tension behind sobering conversations. He does the same for “Presence IV,” going about his way through past regrets with a solemn, matter-of-fact cool. “I’m going on / If it was before, I would’ve looked back, but I’m alright now, you know,” he assures, and his sing-song cadence emphasizes his contentment. His hurt and listlessness are also on show, though it lingers as a more mundane detail, an inevitable, everyday thing when dealing with long-term separation.
Further listening: WHITECUBE (2021); Elephant in My Room EP (2020)
T-Pablow explored a not-so-glamorous side of the hustler’s lifestyle with his rap crew Bad Hop on last year’s Bad Hop World. “Rather than look out at tall skyscrapers / We overlook from factories,” he quips in the chorus of the album standout “Bayside Dream,” and inside his rapid-fire verse, he shares an image of the reality inside the booth: “holding my daughter, in front of the mic, while I record,” he goes. “I’m making my girl’s milk money from this rap shit.”
While STUTS’s boom bap loosens his stern approach in “Presence V,” T-Pablow’s verse likewise remains dense and stoic. His version also finds him practically solo with minimal involvement from Takako Matsu, though it’s only appropriate he’s left by himself. “Even though I try to satisfy myself with lies / In the end, I’m lonely, alone,” he raps as he attempts to make sense of his newfound solitude. Like the rest of his peers in the project, he gradually reaches contentment in the fact that, in the end, life goes on.
Further listening: Bad Hop World (2020)
STUTS’s chill, R&B-friendly boom-bap is defined by the MPC, his trusted beat-making tool and performance instrument. While the producer has worked with many rappers and singers over the years, including BIM and Daichi Yamamoto from this list, “Presence” for Omameda Towako may be his biggest commission yet. He strikes gold looping the whooshing strings from the show’s opening theme, pitching it down to the point it’s almost unrecognizable. (Here’s a fun video breaking down the sample.) The song is joined by the show’s lead actress, Takako Matsu, who holds a fascinating music career of her own. And of course there are the three actors—Masaki Okada, Akihiro Kakura, Ryuhei Matsuda—as well as five rappers not so far from STUTS’s orbit. The producer stands at the center of a grand ensemble in “Presence,” keeping different personalities from different worlds in balance.
Further listening: Contrast (2020); Eutopia (2018)
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