Toyomu – ‘Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai’

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Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai by Toyomu (no label, 2016)

*Listen/Purchase via Bandcamp

Thanks to Apple Music and Tidal being inaccessible in Japan, Toyomu had to create his own The Life of Pablo at the time of its event release in February. Given only sources available online like Who Sampled and Genius, he cobbled together less a remix project than a simply surreal, creative listening experience of the newest Kanye album.

The Kyoto producer’s latest for his Insho series his re-imagined Pablo was his third installment — works somewhat in reverse for American listeners. His seventh release, Maboroshi no Kehai, remixes J-pop icon Utada Hikaru’s Fantome in its entirety. The source record created as big of a buzz in Japan as Kanye’s did in the U.S.: Fantome marked a return of arguably the biggest J-pop star of the 21st century after her six-year absence. But again, Japan’s music-industry politics with streaming services gets in the way for anyone in the U.S. to listen to the much-talked-about album digitally.

So true to the title, Toyomu’s project stands as an impression of Fantome for American listeners. And as far as resemblance goes, the body of work is a fun-house mirror reflection Utada’s work. For one, the hip-hop influence of the album gets amplified. “Ore no Kanojo” is beefed up with punchier drums in “Watashi wa Taiyou.” “Kouya no Ookami” hilariously transforms into a drum-machine-heavy electro beat in “Sunaoka no Gunman.” And “Tomodachi” gets groovier through funky sample chops and skittering drums in “Kakawari.”

A more sensitive exploration is the original album’s experience of grief. More than a few of Utada’s songs shoulder a deep sense of loss, inspired perhaps by her mother’s death during the writing of the album. Though the original piano take of “Manatsu no Tooriame” rules superior, Toyomu offers an intriguing alternative with a more flat melody and wonky sounds in “Emmert no Housoku.” His takes of “Sakuranagashi” and “Hanataba wo Kimini” suggest the experience much after the initial loss as both “C#” and “Hanataba Ne-chan” float like specters.

Toyomu’s treatment of the original source in the latter hits a deep note. Utada’s voice echoes infinitely distant, detached from the physical world. And the phantom of a chorus disappears far too soon like a fading of a memory. The original song deals with messages the singer wishes she can share but no longer can, with the titular bouquet of flowers as her compromise. While Toyomu’s “Hanataba Ne-chan” gets at her desire to communicate, a lack of resolution adds a much more heartbreaking note to end on.

And like “Hanataba Ne-chan,” Maboroshi no Kehai works best when Toyomu interacts with the source samples. Following the maudlin song comes “Kamomesama ga Miteru,” a take on “Nijikan dake no Vacance,” Utada’s collaboration with Ringo Shiina. The two daydream about an innocent escape in the original, and Toyomu takes it one step further by adding a larger sense of distance. Seagulls and ocean waves, a crackle of radio waves crackling, an intermission of an older Ringo Shiina record the whole thing sounds like ambient music at Utada and Shiina’s fantastical vacation.

[7]

Red Velvet – ‘Rookie’

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Rookie by Red Velvet (SM Entertainment, 2017)

Red Velvet somewhat fumbled their previous, much anticipated follow-up of a project. The Velvet mini album from last spring muted the group’s bright ebullience of The Red, their debut full-length, from 2015, for the sake of showing more earnest seriousness. The Korean group took their edgy (red) and soft (velvet) dichotomy to heart with these two releases. Though the latter’s sincerity might be a quality good for the obligatory ballad or two, it stalled when stretched for a five-song project.

The group’s latest Rookie mini album similarly had a success to live up to. A return of color in last fall’s Russian Roulette mini album brought back the momentum from The Red and then some. They doubled down on their dumb-dumb silliness, but they took on traditional showmanship as well as a slick posing of pop cool. Rather than focusing upon one possible element of a pop unit, they put their stack of chips in a diverse pool.

The moves paid off, and Rookie carefully reaps the profits to a bring a more wrangled product. The harp-led stroll of “Little Little” glow genuinely as their shtick as much as their usual high-energy skitter of “Happily Ever After.” And “Talk to Me” is what lies in the middle of the sweeter and edgier ends of the two. This strategy to create a cohesive whole, rather than a range of exercises, yields less immediate fireworks, admittedly. But the result gets that much closer to defining the singular Red Velvet sound.

A new, very welcome exploration for Red Velvet from Rookie is “Body Talk.” Similar to the tropical house bop of “Some Love” in Russian Roulette, they’re granted a stage to flex more of their cool. But the stakes feel higher with one serious, low-lit club production to grace a RV project. They hinted at a want to bend the rules a bit to show off their personalities in “Rookie.” Here, they have to oblige to no sugary hooks. Instead, they go with a stylish, more grown flair to further reveal a new side. A few more songs in this vein, would be killer, perhaps for an imminent sophomore full-length, but for now it’ll be a tease.

[7]

Kehlani – ‘SweetSexySavage’

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SweetSexySavage by Kehlani (Atlantic/TSNMI, 2017)

The bad-bitch persona Kehlani proudly flaunts gets the attention, though I’m more intrigued with what she decides not to share on SweetSexySavage. “I know that you hear this, and you gon’ just know I’m speaking to you,” she subtweets on “Personal.” She offers no more than a “they” as a clue, and no song from the album yields much more specifics, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering who exactly inspired her many songs.

The debut shows tender moments, too, fulfilling the first two of the three parts of the title. “They don’t want us together, but it don’t matter, no,” Kehlani sings in “Undercover,” swiping a chorus of a throwback Akon single, out of all sources. And again, that “they.” While it certainly can stand in for just about any person you desire, other addresses such as “Personal” frame it through more of a, uh, personal lens than a mere blanket pronoun. She’s thinking about someone, or at least a faint suggestion of it, as she sings these songs. Throughout, her debut doubles as a dedication to those who matter in her life, good or bad. “The real ones, they know” that’s the most you’re gonna get out of her about this “they,” and it’s for the better.

[8]

Wiley – ‘Godfather’

Godfather by Wiley (Wiley/CTA Records, 2017)

Skepta won a Mercury Prize last year for Konnichiwa, his victory lap of an album by an artist who sparked media interest for U.K. grime again. While his run rightfully diversified the attention to more of the scene’s newcomers, one founder who could use more ears to his music is Wiley, a member of Skepta’s Boy Better Know collective.

The veteran announced his latest album Godfather will be his last, but who knows if his promise will be kept. Because despite it being quietly released, it’s one of the first exciting albums to come out in 2017.

Potential singles don’t immediately emerge from the artist’s eleventh album. One shared as a loosie for the web, “U Were Always, Pt. 2,” with Skepta and Belly, is a somber look upon a failed relationship. Tracked by a loop of a pained soul sample, it’s the least indicative of what Godfather feels or sounds like except for the fact that things are reportedly ending.

A better pitch for a preview would be “Back with a Banger.” The goal of Godfather is fixed in the song’s title: this is all work, no games. He sidesteps mainstream radio entirely in favor of the pirate. But also as the track suggests, his final statement is not a diss to the business. Rather than gripe about industry struggles on record, he just lets his work show for itself. And he makes right with his promise: “Back with a Banger” is, yes, a banger that follows its own rhythminstinctively but also musically with Preditah’s drunken glitch of a beat.

The rest of the producer lineup follows the freak of Preditah. Of course, Wiley himself produces a few, a favorite being the space funk of “Birds n Bars.” Fellow Boy Better Know member JME hands in an 8-bit battle track in “Name Brand.” Mucky and NoizBoiz contribute a blast of wonky bass in “Speakerbox.” Darq E Freaker blasts the room with booming brass in “Can’t Go Wrong.”

Wiley’s experience makes the chorus of “Can’t Go Wrong” ring bittersweet: “If it’s straight from the heart, it can’t go wrong,” he boasts. Work dominates as the main theme throughout Godfather so the message is humbling though also kind of a bummer, reflective of the album cover with Wiley sitting alone, hunched upon a cramped cubicle of a studio. He doesn’t wear the titular crown so much as an originator but a survivor of grime, and it’s a wonder how his words don’t echo so jaded with his history behind him. The quality of the album shows he made right on his words. The man didn’t say anything about sales after all, and I get the feeling he can care less.

[8]