For many people consumed by heavy, angry, fast, Western music, the mere mention of the words “J-pop” is laughable. Just giving it a casual listen is a strict taboo and should one actually know anything about the genre (like groups or artists) he has branded himself a blasphemer for life. I, myself, used to be one of these people who judged and shunned entire genres before evening knowing anything about them. If anyone tried to sway my tastes away from anything other than nu-metal or mainstream rock, I’d just laugh at them and start playing one of my Disturbed CDs. Slowly, but surely, my tastes began to develop, but J-pop, something that some of my friends was very interested in, still remained the strict taboo that it had always been. It wasn’t until one day when I found some random track mixed into my music library, that I started to develop a taste for J-pop.
Plotted right in between Audioslave and Black Sabbath was her, Ayumi Hamasaki. To this date, I still have no recollection of how she got there, as even all my J-pop loving friends have made it clear that they did not send me that song. I’m not even sure why I listened to it so much. Most likely it just fell into the mix, while I listened to my regular shtick. But alas, I did listen to it, and it began to grow on me. The song, so aptly titled “Evolution”, was something so different than I was used to. The music wasn’t afraid to go places, try different things, and abandon all the typical American mainstream pop stereotypes that had attached to it. I was hooked. I liked this J-pop song, and I didn’t care who knew.
Not too long after, my friend bought me one of Ayumi Hamasaki’s albums for my birthday (well, about seven months before my birthday, but he called it a birthday present anyway). Rainbow was the album. J-pop was the genre. For a while, I reverted back to my judgmental ways. “Sure, maybe that one song of hers was cool, but I bet that an entire album would be just crap”. So, I didn’t listen to it for a while, and if I did, it wasn’t very actively. It wasn’t until I actually gave it my full attention that I finally acquired some respect for it.
From the start, it makes itself clear that it’s a very easy album to listen to: nothing crazy or outside of the norm. In fact, it plays very much like any other pop album, only more refined and sophisticated. With “everlasting dream” being one of the few exceptions on the album, each song is at least four minutes long, with most of them reaching five minutes, and a few even coming in at six. The last track clocks in at over nine minutes, but it’s actually two songs pressed into one track. The result is a seventy-one minute, fifty-two second epic of a pop album, comprised of fifteen tracks.
What impressed me the most about this album is the wide variety of musical facets it has buried within its songs. Electric guitar is no stranger to this album, as it makes appearances all throughout as needed. Piano, synth, and strings are also mixed in throughout, each complimenting each other in some way or another. What sets Rainbow apart from other albums is that the music doesn’t take a back seat to Ayumi’s voice all throughout the album. The music is shifted from being forefront of the song to sliding back and created the atmosphere. There’s even a few songs strictly dedicated to the great musicianship on the album. Songs like “taskinillusion” and “neverending dream” are short, ambient tracks that help create or maintain a mood on the album.
Furthermore, my favorite part of Ayumi Hamasaki’s Rainbow is the way it flows nicely with itself. Each song coincides with each other, making smooth transitions between. Each of the fifteen tracks on the seventy-one minute epic combine nicely to form one unique and beautiful piece of art. It establishes itself as more of a journey than just an album with a bunch of singles on it, something that many artists fail at miserably.
There’s a fair share of tradeoff between English and Japanese lyrics on Rainbow. Some songs, such as “Real me” are nearly split down the middle, while others are strictly Japanese. No song on the album is sung entirely in English. But, regardless if the lyrics are in English, it’s still difficult to understand what Ayumi is saying, as her English appears to be not very good. Even while reading through the English lyrics as they appear on the album, I find it difficult to interpret what she’s saying. For example, in one chorus in the song “Real me”, the lyrics read as “a woman can be dangerous/a woman can be generous/in order to survive” while when Ayumi sings them it sounds more like, “a rumahn cun be dengerahs/a rumahn cun be gengerahs/in ordah to survie”. The English portions of the album, for the most part, take away from the singing. The coarseness of it is one of the things that brings down the album.
And even when she isn’t singing in English, Ayumi’s voice is noticeably limited. Some songs portray her voice in a very good light. Songs like “WE WISH”, “everywhere nowhere”, “July 1st”, and “Close to you”, while not completely flattering to her vocal skills, have key parts to them where she shines. The rest of the songs don’t present a devastatingly horrid representation of her singing, but they do play her as sounding very whiney and, well, Japanese sounding. Ayumi seems to do better in big choruses than in quiet, slow, delicate verses.
After listening to this album several times, I began to notice how indistinguishable some of the songs are from each other. As mentioned earlier, with all the songs being about five minutes in length, it makes the album play with a systematic feel to it. Sure, the whole thing does flows with itself, but then again things that sound the same do tend to flow with each other. That’s not to say that there aren’t standout tracks, but overall, the whole album sticks to a repetitive formula, which, after a few listens, can become sort of annoying. The most major standout track on Rainbow is definitely the last track, “independent+”, with its two songs, but unlike any other on the album.
When “independent+” starts up, you can tell there’s something different about it. The intro is upbeat and fast paced. Showing some of Ayumi’s better vocals on the album, it’s a great relief to hear after the last few tracks have blended in to each other so much. And after almost five minutes, the first song on track fifteen ends, and the second begins. This song is quite different from everything on the album. It’s yet another good song, especially in correspondence to the rest of the album, but this time around, Ayumi’s vocals aren’t so great. In fact, it’s arguable that this song has some of her worst singing on the entire album. With a chorus that sounds just like, “Wahh wahh ahh ahh ahh ahh wahh wah wah”, it’s not the best closer for the album. Still though, aside from her singing, it’s really not a bad song. It’s just that it’s not a terrific song either.
Overall, even with its non-shining moments, Ayumi Hamasaki’s Rainbow is still a very decent album. It has some low points, but it has some high points as well. I’d recommend this album to anyone interested in exploring the J-pop genre, though I must mention that Rainbow is not entirely representative of typical J-pop. Rainbow has a more Westernized feel to it that other J-pop albums, which could be a rub in the whole discovering Japanese music experience.
I give this album a 3 out of 5 rating.