Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Next Level

Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Next level | Random J Pop
I'm no fan of Ayumi Hamasaki. But I decided to check out her latest album in case it yielded some surprises. And I have to say that Next Level did indeed surprise me. It's one of the few Ayumi Hamasaki albums that tries something a little different, but it doesn't quite reach the next level that the title implies. 

The most glaring problem with Next level is that Ayumi's voice doesn't suit a lot of the songs. The album has a very electro pop, synth heavy driven sound, which does not suit Ayumi at all. She is no Britney, Lady Gaga, Tommy february6 or Kumi Koda - she doesn't have that 'one-size fits all' type of the voice that the aforementioned artists have. Ayu sings these electro songs the same way she sings her regular stuff and it just doesn't work. Only on the song "Rollin'" (the album's strongest electro synth pop cut by far) does it SOMEWHAT work. Ayumi just about gets away with this song because there are large chunks of it which are instrumental, and on the few occasions she does she's either auto-tuned or drowned out by all mixture of synths, guitars and warbling bass lines. Crystal Kay or Namie Amuro would've shut this song DOWN.

The slow songs are all great though, and have Ayumi in her complete element. Ayumi has a very old voice on her, which has a tone to it that isn't completely unlike an enka singer, and this is put to great use on the ballads. "Green" is stunning. Ayumi gets overpowered by the instrumentation and she warbles off key one too many times, but the production is so grand and epic that you kind of forgive the vocal shortcoming. "Days" is your run of the mill, typical Japanese ballad. I'm a complete sucker for these songs, so I fell for this song on a first listen. "Days" would've been better in the hands of Kumi Koda, who has more vocal power than Ayumi; but as with "Green", musically the song is so damn good that you get caught up in it. The album's first proper track "Next Level" sits nicely between a ballad and a full on uptempo cut, and has Ayumi sounding in her element. More songs which bridge the gap between something uptempo and a ballad would've done the album justice and given Ayu a new lane to try.

Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Next level | Random J Pop

Next Level gets points for having a pretty consistent sound aside from the odd deviation on a couple of tracks. But the problem is that Ayumi doesn't sell all of the songs. The electro pop club numbers all feature interesting enough sounds, but as soon as Ayumi opens her mouth to sing, the songs just fall apart. The instrumental interludes (of which there are 4) are wasted. It's a real shame that Ayumi just isn't able to deliver vocal for electro, because "Bridge to the sky", "Disco-munication" and "Pieces of seven" could have been great fully fleshed out songs. But I guess we can enjoy the fact that we don't have to listen to Ayu struggle over them.

I have to admit that Next Level is better than I expected. But there's no getting away from the whole album being a case of great material that went to the wrong lady. Ayu should've given all of the songs to Tommy february6, as she would've sold the songs every which way and showed Ayumi that she's steering in the wrong lane. From a woman who has been in the music game for over a decade, you'd think Ayu would know what sound works for her by now, and be able to put out an album which showcases her talents from start to finish. But instead she slung herself head first onto the electro pop bandwagon and put herself in a position where she's completely out of her depth. Maybe Ayumi will get it right in a years time, when she'll probably have yet another album out.

VERDICT: Game Over

Album highlights:
■ Bridge To the Sky
■ Next Level 🏆
■ Disco-munication
■ Rollin' đŸ”„
■ Green
■ Love 'n Hate
■ Piece of Seven
■ Days


  1. According to wikipedia Next Level is not due out til 25th March - it's leaked in full already? Wow.

    Nice review; I'm still unsure about her but I liked Rollin and Next Level - maybe I'll check the album out at a later date.

    I am surprised though; I thought that if you'd be reviewing anything it would be Utada's or BoA's english albums - not Ayumi Hamasaki's latest!

  2. "She should've given all of the songs to Tommy february6" - LOL, so that Tommy february6 could catch a ride on Ayu's and her team's lyrical and musical talents haha? Aren't you insulting BOTH Ayumi AND Tommy February6? Ouch. :P

    I don't want to be mean towards your ultra biased review, but just to say that fortunately, your view represents a fractional minority of Japan's younger population.

    To each their own, but to some people (like myself) Ayu has created a deeper sense of energy and inspiration than any friends or mentors could ever accomplish. I pretty much owe my life success to her, and I'm far from the only person to feel this way.

    At least don't demean and insult what you can't relate to, unless you intend to keep falling into the vast category of faceless, meaningless internet people with nothing constructive to say. x__x Having said that, I realize that everyone is entitled to an opinion. Just don't call your opinion a "review", because a review it is not. At best, they're just your disorganized thoughts.

    Again, please don't take offense from this comment. I'm just honestly responding to your feelings with my feelings. :]


  3. I was wondering how long it'd take a comment like this to pop up... *lol*

    First off, let me address the artists giving songs to other artists issue. Many artists ride on the "lyrical and muscial talents" of other artists. It's no bad thing. Beyonce rode on Ne-Yo's for "Irreplaceable", Britney rode on Keri Hilson's for "Gimme more", Kelly Clarkson rode on Katy Perry's for "I do not hook up", Namie rides on Michico's for the majority of her songs, BoA rode on Britney's for "Look who's talking". Need I go on? Artists give other artists songs all the time. If an artist gives a song to somebody else because they feel they'd do it better than they would themselves, then I don't see how that's insulting to either party involved. In the case I mentioned in my review, Ayumi would get credit for writing a good song, and Tommy would get credit for carrying it off well. So I don't see where insult comes into it.

    Now...I don't see how my review is biased. I didn't just "demean and insult", I gave full and frank reasons why I didn't think the album worked. There wasn't a damn thing disorganized about anything I said. My points were pretty clear. I'm not a fan of Next level because Ayumi doesn't have the vocal style or swagger for uptempo electro pop songs: plain and simple. My dislike of the album has NOTHING to do with me not being overly keen on Ayumi Hamasaki. I praised her at one point in my review, but I guess you were too focused on the negative things I said and the score I gave the album to have even noticed or acknowledged that.

    Reviews won't please everyone. They're not supposed to. My review representing a "minority of Japan's younger population" is absolutely fine. At least they'll know not everybody stans for everything Ayumi Hamasaki does. The only reason you're deeming what I wrote was not a review is because you don't agree with it. I knew as soon as I wrote it that Ayu fans may read it and wanna get straight on the defensive - which is fine. I'm not going to sugar coat to make fans happy.

    But you can't be getting all bent out of shape and be having a hissy fit because I didn't love the album and love Ayumi Hamasaki the way you do. I based my review purely on the music Next level presented to me. You owing your life success to Ayumi is fine. Whatever. But am I supposed to give the album a 10 and claim it's the best thing ever because at some point in the past a fan had an epiphany because of her?

  4. I disagree with you on mostly everything on what you said.

  5. The only reason you're deeming what I wrote was not a review is because you don't agree with it.

    Damn straight!

    @Nick: You say "Everyone is entitled to an opinion", but then in the very next sentence dismiss J's by saying this isn't a review, but disorganized thoughts? Are you kidding me!

    I bet if this review was a 8, 9, or 10, this dude would have been saying it was one of the best reviews he's ever read and how it's so nice to find a fellow spirit who was also touched by Ayumi.

  6. I just finished listening to Next Level on imeem and as a fan I'm rather disappointed. I liked eight songs and that includes all four instramentals LOL. Not good by my standards. I think Guilty was so much better. The songs on that album were full and much better developed. There is some great music on Next Level but I agree that her voice is not a good fit on some of these songs. I'll probably get this eventually but I'll wait until I can get it used or get the Korean version. I certainly don't feel it's worth it to pay $37, the import price.

  7. I bought Next Level on the day it came out last week in Nagaoka (Niigata-ken) and have to say, it's a darned ace album. I have every album Ayu has released to date and whilst I'd have to agree with a couple of comments on here that it's not her best album to date, it is interesting and represents a new direction - glad I already booked my Arena Tour tickets before the album went on sale.

    It's been good enough to be played pretty non-stop in my car for the last week, although I was a little disappointed to see HMV giving away free posters for it in Shibuya on Friday :-(

    I'm most impressed with the S&M theme running through the PVs - if you get the chance, watch them (they come on the DVD anyway if you buy the album).

  8. If she could hone this new direction to make it work for her, then she'd have some great songs on her hands. When Ayumi just touches on electro-pop, auto tune and all that shit, whilst retaining a strong song that she can work with at the heart of it: she does good things. "Real me" comes to mind - which was the first Ayumi Hamasaki song I actually loved and played non stop (had a great video too!) As for what's on the new album: "Next level" is a great song, and I LOVE the beat on "Rollin'". I think she went a step too far with the whole electro pop dealio though. She should've toned it down a few notches - she's no Britney or Lady Gaga. It doesn't suit her.

    I noticed the S&M theme in the videos myself. Even the album cover touches on it with her PVC gloves and dress. Hmmm...

    Sorry to hear about you not nabbing your posters in Shibuya though mate. I think I may have missed nabbing some free Beyoncé goodies when her album released. I ended up buying I am... Sasha Fierce at the Virgin store in Ueno, when I should've gone to the HMV in Shibuya. I remember being there and the large screen on the building opposite HMV had nothing but Beyoncé videos playing on it, HMV was decked out in Beyoncé shit and I am... Sasha Fierce lorries were driving up and down the street!

  9. I totally agree with you. I'm not a fan of Ayumi but I didn't mind her previous album GUILTY which was why I decided to try this album.

    However, I was strongly reminded why I didn't like Ayumi Hamasaki so much. Her vocals aren't fantastic and she sounds like a hollering banshee in most songs. But despite that, there were some songs that I did enjoy.

  10. Hm...some things I agree with in this review, and others, not so much...

    While it is possible that Ayu was inspired to do an electro-laced album because of Lady Gaga's success in the U.S., I was shocked to see you compare the style to Britney, someone who's musical direction is totally controlled by her company. None of the songs on this track reminded me of Britney's mediocre, occasionally hot, dance tracks. "Rollin" is electronic, but so what? It has no where near the same structure or blandness as most of Britney's generic synth pop. And the auto-tune, though used, was used well. Auto-tune works well as an element in electronic songs, and she only used it in about a third of the lyrics. Ayumi's voice isn't an absolute stunner, but at least it's memorable and she can use it live, unlike Britney. But I do agree that Namie or Kumi's voice would have been more suited for it.

    However, though Ayumi has some ballads that definitely suit her voice, I'd say "Curtain Call" as not one of them. Beautiful song, but her slow vibrato ruins some of the longer notes. I agree with you about "Days"- lovely, but it's pretty much been done before.

    "Green" is one heck of a song, and really does deliver the whole package. Ayu's deep voice shines in it. At first I hated it because it seemed to move so slowly in the beginning, but the grandoise of it later on makes it worth it.

    Oh, and I really don't know what you mean by "club tracks". Maybe "Rollin'" and "Energize?" I don't think I've ever heard an Ayu song suited for the club, lol. "Energize" was probably the only real disappointment for me on the album- the mellow verses are ruined by the brashness of the chorus. But I think it was more experimental that way, which is why it wasn't on a single. "Love n' Hate" is also experimental-sounding, but sounds more controlled, especially with the vocals, which is why I liked it, even though it was probably the most unexpected-sounding on the entire album.

    "Identity" was another stand-out on the album. It had the hard-rock sound Ayu did in "Guilty", but with an original melody line that had almost a swing feel in the verses. Not to mention the electro-march bridge leading up to one heck of a guitar solo that spiced up the song and set it apart from what Ayu has previously done.

    I'm actually shocked you didn't mention "Rule" or "Sparkle". Two high-energy songs that Ayu's vocals are truly suited for. Especially in "Sparkle"- the creepy calmness of the song soon escalates and is interjected with an angry, fierce chorus that I just absolutely love. And the acoustic guitar in the bridge! I have heard no artist in the U.S., electronic or otherwise, come out with a song whose musical genius is comparable to this. I commend her composers. It's a new sound for Ayu that she just ran with and rocked.

    Oh, and btw, your use of the term "robot face" was extremely unprofessional. It shows your biased and came off as rather immature. You can think what ever you want about Ayu's appearance, but don't think that calling her childish names will have anyone take you seriously in this review. This made me see where Nick is coming from, butthurt as he is. You really do write off Ayu as a singer and an artist a lot in this post. Idk if you speak Japanese or not, but the one place everyone knows Ayu shines is her original, heart-felt lyrics, something no American mainstream solo singer, and even few Japanese ones can even touch. It's why she's so appealing to so many people. She shows herself as a person consistently throughout all of her music. Even if the music actually sucked, I could never say I hated any of her albums because her lyrics are pure poetry.

    -insert brilliant transition here- So yeah, this is Yunhottie from Seoulbeats, btw. Even though I am at odds with this review, I love your site and definitely support your unbiased analysis on most of your articles- esp. the "This Is The One" and "BoA" reviews. Oh, and sorry this post was so long.

  11. Sorry mate. But me calling Ayumi "robot face" doesn't make me biased at all. I call her "robot face" because that what she looks like in pictures most of the time. I call Rihanna 'The Forehead' (for obvious reasons), but I still check for her music, think the chick is hot and dug her 'Good girl gone bad' album. I call Beyonce The Beyondroid because I believe she's not human with all the shit she does: but I got nothing but love for her and own all of her albums (one of which I only gave 2 makrs more than what I gave 'Next level'). It's all in jest. I don't call folk names simply because I dislike them or out of spite. You're going on like I called her a slut or said I hated her. If that's immature: fine. I can deal. I don't like straight laced seriousness. It gets old and bores me. Though if I'd said Ayumi Hamasaki looked like 'a super cute Hello kitty I'd like to snuggle up to', I doubt anybody would call that out for being unprofessional and immature: purely because it's a complement to her.

    Not everybody is going to agree with what I say and that's okay. I'm not expecting everybody to. My reviews are reflections of how I feel about an album. You think certain songs are genius, I don't. You think some songs suit her voice, I don't. I'm not speaking for everyone: just expressing my feelings on an artist work. I gave Ayumi props and praise within the review on several occassions. But it seems you and others have just fixated on nothing but the negative aspects, and proceed to tell me exactly why and how MY opinion was wrong. I still gave the woman's album a 5 out of 10! I gave one of Hikaru Utada's albums a 5 out of 10 and I stan for her! If I really straight up hated Ayumi Hamasaki that much (as certain people seem to think I do) I would've just given her a 1.

  12. Actually, I probably would still say that you were unprofessional if you called her a super cute Hello Kitty you'd like to snuggle up to, loltastic as that would be. Most fans wouldn't though, I'll give you that.

    I don't think your opinions are wrong- opinions aren't right or wrong. I just feel as though you glossed over too much of the album. If all the songs were the same, I would understand that, but pretty much all the songs stand apart from one another. And when I say genius, I pretty much mean unique. As never been done before (at least not in mainstream music). Incredibly (or at least definitely) original and unexpected, if you will. Now, if a song was genius and you just hated the way it sounded, more power to you, but that doesn't make it less innovative. I guess that's what I was trying to say. For instance, I frickin' hate Kanye West's music, though so many people in the music industry seem to think he writes ground-breaking music. Well, maybe it is, but I still don't think it's worth a listen. That would just be my opinion.

    Your last sentence I find troubling. You would rate an artist's album a 1 just because you hated them, regardless of the quality/originality of the music? Um...well, then.

    I guess your ratings must be based more on how well the music suits your taste as opposed to what it contributes to music as a whole, in Asia, or otherwise. But it's your site, so whatever, can't tell you what to do.

    Oh, and just out of curiosity, could you tell me what albums you consider to be 10/10 or a 9/10? Because I've browsed through many of your reviews and I have yet to see anything above an 8, and there were only like 2-3 of those that I saw. I'd love to know what is perfect or near-perfect album in your eyes (or ears, ha).

  13. I said "If". That if I hated an artist THAT much (or as much as people claim with some of my reviews) then that's what I'd do. But I'll make it clear now: I don't, so I haven't. I go purely on music. I won't just give an album a high review because I stan for the artist and this goes both ways. I won't just score an album low because I'm not a fan of an artist. I'm not like that. I don't really like Ayumi Hamasaki, but "Sunset / Sunrise ~Love is all~" are great songs and her song "Real me" was bloody amazing! I like 2PM, but I think their music is a bit sucky. I'm not THAT biased.

    My reviews are based on my tastes for the most part. If I don't like an album, then I'll say it. I'm not going to say "I hate it. But you might like it" and then give it a 9 based on the cross section of those who would like it. Otherwise in that respect, everything I review would get a 9. As for what an album contributes, it depends. BoA's album releasing in the US was a big deal. Not many Asian artists could say they've done that. But I think the album was crap. So what: I should give her album a high score just because she got a US release and possibly opened doors for another act to do the same? I think a good couple of T-Pain's albums are utter garbage. But should I score them highly now because they're contributed to the auto-tune boom which has spawned hot songs in Korea? It can't always work like that.

    As for perfect albums, there are quite a few I think are perfect 10's :)

    @ "Actually, I probably would still say that you were unprofessional if you called her a super cute Hello Kitty you'd like to snuggle up to"

    Well... you say that now. But I feel if I'd put that in the review and given the album a 9, you wouldn't have made the unprofessional" comment and I wouldn't have gotten walls of text on how my review is bad / wrong / crap / out of order and the rest of it. I guess I'll never know now.


  14. "Ayumi doesn't have the vocal style or swagger for uptempo electro pop songs: plain and simple" you dont know anything about music. koda kumi has a bland pop R&B voice, namie amuro has a slightly better version. both of them dont know how to sing, and both sing mediocre and generic. they have no style at all and dont know how to improvise well which is the whole point of being a singer. ayumi has a voice which is unique, stylistic and she has the talent to know how to use it musically. this album is not about fitting R&B style its about experimentation and trying to create a new sound. they are trying to NOT fit a mold. this is on purpose. her voice complements the songs just fine. if any of the other singers tried to sing bridge to the sky they would have ruined it because they dont have the musical intelligence ayumi lends to her songs. they would just sound totally generic.

  15. i notice a lot of people bash ayumi for her vocals but it seems like theyre trying to fit her into the category of standard singing vocalist. ayumi is not a vocalist she is a singer theres a difference. vocalists are like mariah carey, leona lewis, and mary j blige. singers are like gwen stefani, britney spears, and katie perry. they are NOT the same thing. ayumi is a singer who also tends to have good vocalist chops as well. you are comparing apples to oranges.

  16. "Ayumi doesn't have the vocal style or swagger for uptempo electro pop songs: plain and simple" you dont know anything about music. koda kumi has a bland pop R&B voice, namie amuro has a slightly better version. both of them dont know how to sing, and both sing mediocre and generic."

    Wow. Pot calling the kettle somebody who doesn't know anything about music don'cha think?

  17. Hi Random! If any, which albums of Ayumi would you recommend? I currently have "And Then" of of LOVEppears and "Angel's Song" off of Memorial Address.

  18. I actually enjoy all of your review because they are fresh and funny, so they're very entertaining me so much, many of your opinion are different from mine but with your writing style I just enjoy it so much, I always check your latest review everyday though, hopefully you can review more about japanese releases, you still haven't review artists such as nishino kana, every little thing, l'arc ~en~ciel, etc, older releases also okay, please keep on hard work . . .


Post a Comment

HTML tags for bold, italic and hyperlinks are allowed