Issue #37: Survival Lady
Highlighting the new Yufu Terashima album, CHEMISTRY's dip into 2-step and the five rappers featured on STUTS's "Presence"
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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.
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.
This issue features something new to This Side of Japan: We got a guest album review for the Album of the Week section! I’ve been wanting to publish a review from another writer for a while, so I am glad to finally have a trusted contributor for the section. It takes more planning than usual, but I hope to get another guest review in the future. And as always, we also have our three noteworthy singles as well as our look back at the Oricon in this issue.
I also contributed a couple blurbs for Tone Glow’s recent issue on our favorite albums of quarter two. I wrote about Porter Robinson’s Nurture and Mitsume’s VI; you can read it here.
Album of the Week
This issue features a first-ever guest review of the Album of the Week! I’m happy to give dear friend and past This Side of Japan contributor Bacci a spot to highlight the great new album by Yufu Terashima. Bacci also has a project of their own, Yufuwrite, where they review every Yufu Terashima single in chronological order.
Survival Lady by Yufu Terashima [Teichiku]
Transitioning into adulthood is not a topic musicians shy away from exploring, but the cultural context and expectations of the female idol scene make the situation a bit touchier. Over recent years, acts like Dempagumi.inc and Negicco have braved into taboo territory—such as marriage and motherhood—by finding ways to balance out their members’ careers and their individual growth as women. For her third album, Yufu Terashima reaches a similar position, looking for new avenues to incorporate what was once a crossroads for many idols into the confident and coquettish stage persona she has built over the years.
Musically, Survival Lady takes cues from a diverse array of influences. From the sparkly shibuya-kei sound of “Atarashii Watashi,” the evident tribute to early Hello! Project in “Ii Onna wo Yoroshiku,” to the mellow and flirty synths in “Best Honey,” the record takes every possible chance to show Yufu at her most multifaceted. Though the album’s lack of balance between the new and previously released songs can come off as a slight weakness, the overall flow and production quality remain pretty strong through the entire run, each track contributing to a balance of bombastic fun and adult refinement.
Even if it is clear that this is still a bubbly idol album, with tracks like the future-bass-tinted “Koi no Daisankakukei” driving the point home, there’s a newfound sense of solemnity in the way topics like love or growth are handled. With lyrics that compare the gradual loss of a relationship to a summer that shouldn’t feel as cold as it does, tracks like “Fuyu Mitai, Natsu Nano ni.” stand out from the more upbeat cuts due to the way they allow Yufu to explore certain topics without ever compromising the album’s flow. This feeling remains through other moments, such as “Last Cinderella,” which dresses up the complexities and uncertainties of a romance with a stranger under a chill beat that’s accompanied by mellow guitars.
Described by Terashima herself as “her third album before turning 30,” Yufu seems more focused and present in this album than ever. Though the charming expressiveness had been the strongest point of her vocals, the solo idol keeps finding ways to imbue hesitation, longing, and even confusion about her own feelings into this batch of songs. Such is the case of tracks like “Minna Maigo” and “Fuyu Mitai, Natsu Nano ni.” Both stand as remarkably forlorn moments within the record, all the while offering an alternative to the Solemn J-pop Ballad cliche that might be expected from a release of this kind.
Much like the album’s title suggests, Yufu has managed to survive out of the many idols who started their activities around the same time she did. Her perseverance comes with the understanding that stagnancy kills in an industry where acts—be it a group or solo—find it increasingly hard to avoid fading into the background. With Survival Lady, she shows that she has more spark and musicality than needed to make it, both as a solo idol and, especially, as a lady entering her 30s.
“FUNNY TATTOO SEAL” by N.FENI [self-released]
N.FENI puts on a crop top to finally show off some skin in their summer hit, “FUNNY TATTOO SEAL,” but let one thing be clear: “It’s not that I want to draw the boys,” they open the track, “I’m just being me.” The singer-songwriter formerly known as Yoneko pens a self-love anthem to kick off their new SUMMER EP, and not only does the beach-ready guitar-pop jam sound like a late ‘90s teen movie, it carries the swagger of its potential teen-girl protagonist too. “I’m the star this summer,” they shout in the roaring chorus. “What’s wrong with that?” Driven by such confidence and style, who are we to tell them otherwise?
SUMMER EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Aquariumitation” by Plastic Restaurant [self-released]
While the first couple tracks on techno duo Plastic Restaurant’s latest album, Menu, lets their lush, tactile synths float on by, “Aquariumitation” chugs along with a purpose. The track’s load-screen synths still feel gentle and plush as a cloud, but it quickly sends you along its forward-rolling momentum once the four-on-the-floor drums kick in. I mentally visualize a metamorphosis sequence in sync to the rising music, with the beat eagerly moving along to show you what’s next while its glowing loops constantly stay on the up and up. The longest track on Menu is an extensive high that teases better things to come.
“Sanji Juunihun” by Taku Inoue & Suisei Hoshimachi [VIA/Toy’s Factory]
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to have Taku Inoue writing a wide-eyed ode to the life-saving power of music for the debut single under his own name. The producer is, after all, responsible for many iconic songs for the virtual idol groups of the iDOLM@STER franchise. But “Sanji Juunihun” begins more quiet, and fosters a more tender and intimate space than the bright dance-pop anthems often featured in the famed rhythm game.
“Look, here comes a graceless miracle / riding on top of the sound,” Suisei Hoshimachi solemnly sings, and fittingly enough, “Sanji Juunihun” then whirs into motion. The Vtuber idol, too, slowly yet gradually regains hope with help from the awe-inspiring music, and Inoue unleashes one rapturous burst of electronic beats just as she grows strong enough to get back on her feet. That said, like any great song about the power of pop music, it’s the realization that the magic lasts only for a moment that makes the single so precious. “Please, please, morning don’t come,” Suisei sings during the coda. “We want to keep dancing until we die / All in arms, just because we love the same songs.” Thankfully, we have the option to rewind the music and feel the magic all over again.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 2002…
“FLOATIN’” by CHEMISTRY [DefStar, 2002]
The power of TV assured sizeable attention on CHEMISTRY even before the R&B duo made their debut. Kaname Kawabata and Yoshikuni Douchin were selected from a year-long audition process hosted by star-search TV program ASAYAN. This was the same show that brought Morning Musume and Ami Suzuki to Japan a few years prior, and sure enough, the two drew in thousands of fans when they performed a series of covers in front of an audience for one of the last rounds. But “PIECES OF A DREAM,” the resulting debut single, was also timely as ever, with a slick production style that looked to the likes of Timbaland and Darkchild for inspiration. With Hikaru Utada ushering a R&B boom around the same time as well, they rode a hot sound to the top of the charts.
Their main producer at the time, Kiyoshi Matsuo further updates the duo’s style in “FLOATIN’” from their eventual sophomore album, Second to None. He was on the pulse when it came to turn-of-the-decade R&B, notably giving Ken Hirai’s music a touch-up going into a new decade, starting from 2000’s THE CHANGING SAME. For “FLOATIN’” in particular, he eyes the U.K. for a fresh sound, perhaps Craig David’s 2-step hits with Artful Dodger. Arranger I.S.O. introduces the subgenre’s signature shuffle, cut-up riffs and bouncing strings for CHEMISTRY to move along to.
Two-step enhances CHEMISTRY’s music by adding a sharper, more nimble sense of movement to their mid-tempo affairs. Though the percussion mixed things up in singles like “PIECES OF A DREAM” or “Point of No Return,” their fist-clenched crooning saddled songs with a heft that was tough to lighten. Kawabata and Douchin are still burdened by heavy regret in “FLOATIN’”: “More than getting even a bit of rest / I wanted to keep watching you sleep,” they lament while pressing on each rhyme to dramatize the tragedy. And yet the two sound weightless atop I.S.O.’s arrangement no matter how much they pour their anguish onto the track, their vocals like a stone skipping across a pool of water.
Considering their success with the style, it’s a shame CHEMISTRY didn’t explore 2-step more in Second to None. Hip hop gives an edge to their other singles from the album, such as “It Takes Two,” but that slink provides the song a unique flair. Granted, 2-step was already falling out of vogue in its home country by 2002. Craig David, a pop face of UKG at the time, had disavowed the genre after much backlash while his follow-up record tanked on the charts that same year. CHEMISTRY hopped on the trend late by the time they dropped “FLOATIN’,” and so it’s not hard to see them chase other things when they got back to work.
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