Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Party queen

Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎 あゆみ) - Party queen | Album review

If there's one thing which Ayumi Hamasaki is bad at doing, it's creating a wholly consistent album. It seems to be an epidemic at Avex and it's one we can blame Ayu for. Having developed a recent penchant for giving her albums conceptual titles, with music which doesn't reflect it when you play the album through. Something many wanted to hang Ayu to a wall by her wig for with Rock 'n' roll circus. Enter Party queen (aka ♪ Parlee kweeeen ♪). An album makes out that it's going to be this loud, all singing and dancing album. But 4 tracks in you realize it's business as usual. Ayu beez in the trap. Not the one which makes money. But the one which has her sounding stale and irrelevant. No amount of kneeling under an oak hotel room table arsed out in underwear in a pair of Leopard print Louboutins can mask how dry this album is. And just how badly Ayu needs to move to London and hibernate until 2014.

Party queen is Ayu's 'I'mma be aight' album. Her first release since her split from her husband Manuel Schwarz, the album see's Ayu taking assertiveness with her image by dressing like a skank. Performing on tour looking like hotel porter trash. And running around the -6°C streets of London in denim cut offs and tank tops for the music videos. Ayu's not having a breakdown. She just realizes that her music is stale and is hoping we're so pre-occupied with her skanknicity and drawing direct comparisons to her arch nemesis Kumi "Black Mamba" Koda that we won't notice. Fission mailed. We see you Ayu, but we also hear you. And what we hear is some bullshit.

Ayu's ode to skankdom kicks off with the album title track "Party queen", which is one of the albums better cuts. Heralding back to a time when Ayu was genuinely fun and colourful - as opposed to hollow and giving us vapid happiness to mask how miserable a bitch must really feel inside. Ayu's vocals are a warbled mess. But the 80's / 90's hit factory production is so on point that you let Ayu's lack of vocal prowess slide. Ayu tries to run this same trick again for "NaNaNa", but it's nah-nah-nah. With a musical backdrop sounding like some basement production from a Need for speed game, male vocals dominating the entire song and Ayu sounding like she's choking on auto-tune - the song is a mess. Ayu tries for a third time with "Shake it ♥" - which once again has Ayu getting her glam rock skank on. She manages to pull this song off, but she doesn't own it as she should have. A song this rambunctious needs a vocalist who can tame it, but here Ayu sounds like she's given up and has resided with letting the music carry her instead. This doesn't ruin the song, but for a song so loud and commandeering it's strange that Ayu wasn't able to command the song fully herself.

As every Ayu album does, things take an overblown turn into a fusion of rock and opera style orchestrations. "Letter" is your typical Ayu rock ballad. It sounds like ALL of the other songs Ayu has done in this vein, and it's almost indistinguishable from Rock 'n' roll circus' "Last links" save for a few chord changes here and there - but it's not a bad song. This vibe bleeds into "Reminds me", leaving me wondering why Ayu even bothered separating the two into individual songs, when they both sound more or less the same. "Reminds me" is the least derivative of the two songs, but it has the weakest chorus, which is just Ayu wailing ♪ LA LA LA LA LA LA ♪ as though she's forgotten the lyrics or plain couldn't be bothered to write any - fuelling the sentiment that perhaps Ayu ran out of ideas for another of this type of song and should have just left it at "Letters" and called it a day. "Return road" is the albums' big goth rock moment. For no Ayu album these days can release without one. You know how this song is going to play out as you listen to it. Church bells, violins, screaming on the chorus and an instrumental section where some Japanese n***a goes mad on an organ. As predictable as this song is, it is good and marks one of the few instances on this album where Ayu absolutely owns the song and feels as though she's in her element. For all of the lavish production and rich musical layering, she comes out head and shoulders above it all. The theatrics are eased up on  in place of a brighter soundscape for "Call", which harkens back to Ayu's fun loving days of "Blue bird". It's by numbers and you'll forget it in a week. But it's a nice song, if oddly placed on the album.

Every now and then Ayu will dip her toes into an attempt at R&B. Not submerging herself fully into it. But trying a little s'um-s'um. Sometimes it works ("Real me" and Why") and sometimes it flops ("Another song"). "Tell me why" is one of those moments where it flops...and boy, does it flop. You wouldn't be far off from thinking that Ayu snatched a sound from Kumi Koda's Deja vu, which makes them even after Kumi stole that album cover from Ayu's Rock 'n' roll circus. The piano and overall sombre vibe of the song whiffs of Kumi's "Passing by", but is nowhere near as good a song. "Tell me why" doesn't go anywhere and Ayu's voice is too crusty to pull it back from the brink.

As is obligatory for every standard J-Pop release under Avex, no album can be pressed unless it features at least one ballad. "How beautiful you are" is Ayu's string laden opus of self acceptance. The sentiment of the song is nice, but it feels like an after thought. And there are numerous artists in Japan who have done a song like this before and done it much better. I feel like this song is just a way of her saying 'It's okay too look a ho under a table and to stay down on yo' knees and do them thangs when he comes through the do, because you are STILL beautiful. Love yo'self'. It's an ingenuous song which lacks any true heart and sums up the whole of Party queen in a nutshell. Vapid.

Ayumi Hamasaki's vocals are a...required taste (to put it nicely). She wails over songs and sounds like a banshee with emphysema. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. Aside from having a voice which grates easily, Ayu doesn't have a very flexible voice and isn't able to sell every type of song with ease as some of her contemporaries are / were able to. Hikaru Utada is no vocal virtuoso. But she has a voice which is able to sell a range of genre's. Over the years, she's managed to tame rock, pop, dance, R&B and acoustic ballads with ease. It never felt strange, never felt forced and Hikaru never once sounded as though she was out of her depth or comfort zone. The same can even be said for Ayu's arch nemesis Kumi Kehovah. But the problem with Ayu is that her voice is too particular and she's unable to truly mould it and adjust how she sings to suit a particular genre. So what you get is Ayu's trying to fit a triangle fisher price block into a circle hollow. She knows it doesn't fit, but she obnoxiously jams that shit in anyway. This is Party queen all over. Ayu singing over a third of songs which she's trying for her life, wigs and Loubiton collection to sell, but is failing to do convincingly.

Party queen does something very strange for me. It makes me appreciate Next level a whole lot more, an album which I cared very little for. I think it's because in my head when I hear the term 'Party queen', I think of songs such as "Rule", "Sparkle" and "Rollin'" - all of which throw near enough every up-tempo song on Party queen under a Nozomi bullet train.

Ayu is running out of steam and running out of ideas. As much as I was never a huge fan of Ayu's back in the day, I always appreciated her craft and her artistry in both her music and her videos. But much of that seems to have waned over the past 5 years. Ayu shows flecks of it here and there, but never gives enough to captivate for a whole album and really show what she's made of. Her name is what is selling her records, not the music. And given Party queen's first week sales, her name is barely selling the Ayu brand any more. Ayu needs to find that creative and instinctive place within her which made her who she is / was - otherwise she may as well not bother. She runs the risk of damaging the Ayu brand if she keeps releasing these samey albums which bare no classics or memorable songs. She's not winning over any new fans and she's making her existing ones ask questions and leave her shit on the shelves of HMV.

Everything about this album feels so thin on the ground. Five felt unnecessary (as much as I didn't mind it), but if there were a full length release which should have been condensed into an EP and released in its place, then it's Party queen. Had Ayu capped this off with "Party queen", "Shake it", "Call" and "Letter" she would have had a tight little mini album. But the whole album feels so badly thought out and light on tangible substance that it never holds up on its own and marks one of Ayu's weaker releases.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Album highlights:
■ Party queen
■ Shake it ♥
■ Call J's fave
■ Letter
■ Return road

8 comments:

  1. I actually disliked 'call' it sounds like 'Last links' to me which is a song I also disliked. Even though the songs on Love songs are similar, it's way better than Party Queen. Return Road and Shake it are my favorite tracks. Letter, call, reminds me, and all the interludes for me are just not that memorable... but I'd probably would have given this a 5/10. Loved your review though!

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    1. I wasn't keen on Love songs. It was too slow, too dreary, too samey and featured an overlong tracklist. But it was at least aurally consistent. Ayu had a clear focus of what she wanted to convey with that album and that came across as you listened to it.

      But Farty queen is just a random mess. I don't know what she was trying to achieve with it. And much like Ploponesque it's just an album full of diluted versions of what Ayu has done many times before.

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  2. this album is the biggest mess i've ever heard in jpop. -10/10*

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  3. I can't help but to compare Ayu with Kumi and Namie, Party Queen feels like a bad try to rip Queen Of Hip Pop, with bot titles you expect loud music you can dance with. Namie delivered so well (all for you killed the momentum, but alarm and no got it back). And Ayu's Party Queen is a mess, she's not giving me anything but signs that she's losing it, finaly someone agree with me! Ayu's giving me Koda Kumi in all her work, this bitch needs to take a brake or something. Party Queen is a mess, as you said, she doesn't have that 'it' in her voice that lets Utada and Kumi work many genres and make it work, Ayu is an anime, cute and lovely singer, she doesn't fit in anything else. Can anyone please bring Barney to this bitch and see if they can make an album together?!

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  4. Kuu and Ayu seem to be stuck in this never ending cycle of releasing the same material like clockwork. Every time this chick drops an album you get:

    -mid-tempo happy song
    -non convincing emotional rock song
    -regurgitated ballad
    -blaring organ church song
    -mid-tempo happy song
    -non convincing emotional rock song...

    Wash, rinse and repeat.

    At least she occasionally tries to incorporate new sounds into her music every now and again. But like J said, her voice doesn't mesh well with other genres.

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  5. I believe that 'Party Queen' is one of the highlights of Ayu's career right now. It'll probably go down as one of her most underrated albums, although I think it's her magnum opus, right along with 'MY STORY'. I liked that the album was broken into sections and we didn't get a "cohesive" album with a singular sound. That's what I hate about most albums---homogenization of sound.

    I feel like I'm one of the few people who believes the title of the album does remain consistent with the songs. The title "Party Queen" didn't need to be a singular concept in which Ayu has to wail over dance beats and auto-tune the whole way through (although I would've liked that just as much). The idea is that the "party queen" is this trashy, messed up woman who's a pariah of the media, and the events/troubles of her life are depicted through the lyrics of these songs.

    That said, I can still completely understand why people wouldn't fancy this record, even though I gave it 11/10. "Party queen", "NaNaNa", and "Shake It♥" definitely would've sounded better if Ayu had someone to make the production fuller and thicker. Her voice has been an emotional rollercoster to, but I actually found that endearing on this particular album given the trashy party queen concept. It's only fitting that her voice should be a hot mess.

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    1. "I believe that 'Party Queen' is one of the highlights of Ayu's career right now."

      "Magnum opus, right along with MY STORY"




      Don't know if kidding or delusional.

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  6. I've always kept an open mind when it comes to Ayumi. Her music changes, but for years she's surprised me. That's why I always followed her career, cause it would go from Rap-hop, to Electronica, to Techno, to Rock, to Metal, to Classical, to Jazz, and many genres in between. She never got hammered in a certain "sound" where I expected everything. She kept it fresh, even if her music did tread over some familiar territory from time to time.
    The point in which I personally believe her music began to wane was when she fought for the rights to control her own image. She was fairly consistent with how her sound was due to Avex and Matsuura. After she gained control, she started changing lots of aspects of what I liked about her. Her singing got more exaggerated and she used less aggressive vibrato most times in her songs. The live band thing was great, but some songs had a musician's performance that made the rest of the album sound less interesting. (ex- HAL and Evolution's familiar Bass Style come to mind)
    When Ayumi was crazy into her writing and trying new off the wall things, that's when I was all about her many changes. When she started to run out of steam and "borrow" aspects of styles I've heard in other artists' songs, I began to lose sight of what she was all about. I think it's come full circle for her. She took control of her image and sound, but it led her away from what made her original. Now maybe is the time for her to let Max Matsuura have another go at it. He knows her well, and the years he's given her has let her build herself up and become a stronger person and gain a secure image for her fans. Max may be all it takes for her to have another 10 consecutive years as Pop Queen again.
    "Party Queen" is as far as I believe Ayumi should go with her musical experimentation. I love Ayumi and everything she does. I just hope for that spark again, that shock and awe she so wholesomely delivered in the past. Duty, I Am..., Rainbow, My Story, (miss)understood, Guilty, Next Level; all those albums have a place in my heart. They all proved why Ayumi is who she is today.

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