J-pop star finds voice on “JAPONESQUE”


Koda Kumi walks a fine line between being trashy and sexy. Either way, she stirs up a significant amount of controversy via her image.

By Nick Desideri, Staff Writer

According to popular belief, everyone has a doppelganger. For example, my doppelganger is a German stockbroker. My mom sent me photographic evidence, but, unfortunately, he’s more attractive than I am.

For the famous, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. Take Madonna for example. Already preoccupied with Lady Gaga constantly trying to sneak into her closet, she continues to provide an evolving blueprint for artists here and abroad to imitate.

Koda Kumi is Japan’s answer to Madonna. While the singer does not blatantly copy Madonna’s formula, she does encompass the crucial bits: constant image reinvention, fantastic dancing and a decade-long stream of number one hits in Japan.

But most essentially, she’s sexy for her shock value. While it may seem odd that a country in which you can buy used panties from vending machines could be scandalized by Koda in a bikini, the diva has earned her fair share of controversy.

Though she has had past success, the problem with Koda is that she often loses the balance between sexy and trashy. Her second most recent album, “Déjàvu” definitely veered more towards the latter than the former.

From painfully clichéd English lyrics to dated production, “Déjàvu” was a major misstep. I mean, a single called “Lollipop” featuring the predictable phrase “Lick my lollipop?” Koda, honey, come on.

But “Déjàvu” containing a lot of filler isn’t surprising. Koda’s albums have always possessed their fair share of fat. Making 15- to 20-track albums does not denote discerning production.

What’s remarkable about Koda’s newest album, “JAPONESQUE,” is that it is unexpectedly a pleasure to listen to. While this sounds like a backhanded compliment, Koda finally shows that she can piece together a cohesive collection.
Although it would be extreme to apply the old pop music adage “all killer, no filler” here, “JAPONESQUE” offers more hits than misses.

The best part of the album is how confident Koda sounds. Her voice, though not particularly strong, has a husky tenor perfect for pop music. From her alluring murmur of “Diamonds/and sapphire/ and you/ oh my!” on James Bond-esque track “Love Me Back” to the cracking frailty on the gorgeous closer “All for You,” Koda pulls off her songs unlike any other artist.

Also surprisingly, “JAPONESQUE” strikes a good balance between sexy and smart. Songs like “ESCALATE” or “V.I.P.” are pulsing floor-fillers, but they never feel cheap.

Koda also rectifies her other Achilles’ heel: her pop-rock tracks. In the past, they’ve felt forced and inauthentic, but “Boom Boom Boys” and “In the Air” show that the diva can pull off a convincing rocker’s swagger.

All the strengths of “JAPONESQUE” come together to create “Poppin’ Cocktail Love.” The track is completely ridiculous, but, somehow, it works. As featured rapper TEEDA stumbles over lines like “Girl, you looks like horny,” Koda alternates between a faux-rock guitar line and hand-clapped beats.

The fact that Koda’s English in the song is limited to phrases like “Whatchu want” and “Sexy boys, sexy body” only makes the track better. It’s completely unpretentious, it revels in its own ridiculousness and, most importantly, it’s insanely catchy. Even at an unusually long five minutes, I wish it went on longer.

Despite these strengths, “JAPONESQUE” suffers from its excessive length. At 19 tracks, the album feels needlessly heavy. It is common business practice in Japan to pack albums with songs, since albums are so expensive, but “JAPONESQUE” stretches in the middle.

And while Koda overcomes most of her worst habits, some tracks demonstrate how she hasn’t kicked them completely. The album opener, “So Nice,” worried me on first listen with its tuneless moaning and overused harem melody.

Aforementioned “V.I.P.” also falls prey to a similar problem. While the single version was a great pop song, Koda and her team felt it necessary to add a needless verse by American rapper T-Pain in the middle of the song. Featured rappers and so-called “sexy R&B beats” are so 2005.

Koda continues to have problems with her mid-tempos, which never seem to go anywhere. “Everyday” sounds like any American ’90s song, and “Slow” meanders for three minutes without evidence of a hook.

But the worst offender is “No Man’s Land,” which is the most clichéd pop-rock song on the album. Surprisingly, Koda butchers the English in the chorus, which is unusual, since her English is usually flawless.

These issues prevent “JAPONESQUE” from reaching the heights that its best songs set. But for once Koda has produced a mostly cohesive set of songs, which led to the best album of her career. Hopefully next time she’ll try to deliver more quality, and less needless quantity.