Album review: Ai - Wa to yo

Album review: Ai - Wa to yo | Random J Pop

Ai has always double-dutched between her Japanese and US roots throughout her career. But her growing up in the US, being multi-racial and fluent in English isn't something that's ever been at the forefront of her career. Nor is it something that's obvious when you look at her or listen to her music. Ai's heavily R&B influenced sound alone was never going to be a giveaway at a time when artists in J-Pop were riding this wave for many, many years and built their entire careers on it. Her 11th studio album is a means to address this and make it known for those who don't know.

Wa to Yo translates at 'Japanese vs. Western' and is a two disc album. The Wa disc is sung entirely in Japanese (save for the odd English word here and there) and was produced to focus on traditional Japanese sounds (it doesn't, but more on that later). The Yo disc is sung entirely in English features 3 US singers / rappers and is more 'urban' focused. On paper this concept sounds straight forward, but the musical execution is as messy and contrived as the album art.
I'm always sceptical of double disc releases, because there are very few of them in existence which to me feel justified. Whilst I get the intent of what Ai was trying to do here, nothing about it really works.

Ai has openly said that she doesn't like being forced or questioned to choose between her Japanese and US heritage, yet she divides them on this album. A division which was pointless when the fusion of Japanese-isms and US Hip-hop / R&B go across both discs. The only difference between the 2 discs is purely linguistic. The style of music is exactly the same. Maybe this was the purpose. I'm not sure. Wa to yo is such a mess that its hard to tell. This album would have been better had the track list been kept to a lean 12 tracks. The Yo disc is shitty anyway. The only good song on it is "Right now", which makes me feel a little sick as it features the woman beater that was is Chris Brown. But it's a good song which at the very least upholds the Wa to yo concept. Ai having Chris Brown on one of her tracks is somewhat of a full circle moment given that Ai sampled Chris Brown's "Throwed" for her Viva Ai single "Feel for you" back in 2009. Ai would have been better of confining her 'concept' to one disc. Have the top 6 tracks represent the Wa and the bottom 6 tracks represent the Yo. Or, just make the concept fluid throughout an 11 to 12 track album.

The production on this album is a mixed bag. The music is often too busy and the fusion of R&B and traditional Japanese sounds feels outdated. US R&B went through a phase of utilising East Asian samples and traditional Japanese sounds many years ago and did it pretty well. It got run so far into the ground that Teenage mutant ninja turtles and Morlocks were bopping to it. But it was done well. Ai's peers had also done this whole thing years ago in a way that felt much more organic and less contrived. Namie Amuro did it in 2003 with "What if". Hikaru Utada did in back in 2004 with "Exodus '04". Hiromi did it in 2011 with "Cook". Atsushi of EXILE did it in 2014 with "Ao Ryuu". Even within Pop, Yasutaka Nakata produced an audacious song featuring traditional Japanese sounds for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu with "Mi". Fuck. Even Kumi Koda did this shit better with her album Japonesque and I didn't think much of that album for shit. Ai brings nothing new to the table here and what she does bring pales in comparison to those who did it before. There's no subtlety to the inclusion of Japanese instruments into the songs. Instead you're beaten around the head with the taiko, flicked in the face with koto strings and the getting poked in the eye with the shakuhachi. It's too much. Even on the songs which feature no Japanese instrumentation at all, the production is still too overblown and busy. It's just sounds sitting on top of sounds.

The lyrics and song structures on Wa to Yo are as slapdash as the production. Choruses often come out of nowhere in stark contrast to the verses and not in the good 'Oh, I love how that snuck up on me' or 'Ooo, that's dope' kinda way. "From zero" starts off as this nice soft mid-tempo with soft keys and a vocal turn from Ai which doesn't make my ears bleed. Then the chorus comes in with these marching style drums and piano chords which don't even sound like they're in the right key for the song. It also sounds so flat. Many of the choruses on this album feature way too much repetition, as opposed to anchoring a melody. Between the oft-busy production and weak choruses, the songs seldom stick. Only the more down-tempo songs such as "Home" and "It's gonna be alright" feature decent song structures which is in large part due to them being quite typical songs which come with an expectation of a set structure and style. "Home" sounds like your standard 90s, early 00s R&B ballad and "It's gonna be alright" is a standard J-ballad. Further emphasising that had Ai just kept things simple for the most part, she would have ended up with a much better album on her hands. But even so, "It's gonna be alright" doesn't have the best chorus. Ai literally stops singing it half way through. I was sat with my head tilted like 'Is a bitch not gonna finish!?'

Then there's Ai's voice, which is an acquired taste. I, for one, find myself having to tolerate it instead of just accepting or enjoying it. Ai has a very nasal tone which can often grate, especially when she starts reaching for higher notes. Ai's voice has power, but she only has one form of singing style, which is akin to loud croaking. There is no subtlety with the way in which Ai sings. The production of the album is brash, loud and has a fair amount going on. So Ai's voice sounds like it's battling the music and you as the listener are just sat caught in the middle of noise. This is what has always put me off of Ai's music for the most part. Ai's voice would sound so much better if she adopted a new singing style and gave range. Not in the power sense, but in varietal sense. Sing low, sing soft, use a new technique. Ai has a good voice in her, it just doesn't always sound great. The more she tries to push big vocals, the worse she sounds. The one thing I do like about how Ai approaches songs is that she gets the importance of layering and harmony. There are lots of really nice harmonies and vocal stacks on this album which help soften the rough edges of her voice. But only barely.

Album review: Ai - Wa to yo | Random J Pop

The concept of Wa to yo was never going to be executed as clear as Ai may have envisioned it in her mind, because the premise of this album is what has formed the basis of her entire career, along with that of every other J-Pop artist who transitioned in and out of fusing their sound with R&B. If Ai seriously felt that she's struggled after 16 years to have her Japanese and US sides coexist on an album and was only able to deliver this, then she has a serious problem.

The biggest issue that Ai has continually had is her inability to deliver consistent albums in terms of quality and sound. A bitch just can't do it. This is somewhat symptomatic of the way that singles and albums are rolled out in Japan. But with Wa to yo there was no excuse, as Ai had openly said that it was always her intent to do an album like this. But here she is, with an album packaged within a concept which isn't reflected well enough in the music. The concept doesn't feel genuine enough and just seems like an excuse for Ai to do a double disc album; which wasn't even necessary, as all 17 tracks could have fit on one disc.

Wa to yo features a couple of good songs, but I'm certain Ai fans will prefer her earlier releases over this. There's nothing on this album as slick as Viva Ai's "Feel for you", nothing that pops like Independent's "Futuristic lover" and nothing as smooth and feel good as "Unbalanced".
This is the kind of album I'd have expected from Ai 5 years and / or 3 albums into her career. Not after 16 years and 11 albums.

RATING: 3 / 10

Album highlights:
■ Wonderful world
■ Feel it
■ It's gonna be alright ★ J's fave
■ Right now