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Album review: Namie Amuro - Break the Rules

Album review: Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵) - Break the Rules | Random J Pop

When Namie returned to the scene in 2000 following a hiatus, she was adamant that she was not gonna keep doing that same pop shit she did before. Whilst she was at home sat in the living room at 3am wondering why she ever married that man, MTV was on the TV running back TLC videos, and she said ‘I’mma do that, with the same producer’. So she got her people to call Dallas Austin and give her songs to make the coochie pop.

Album review: Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵) - Break the Rules | Random J Pop

Genius 3000 saw Namie working with Dallas Austin and her long-time producer Tetsuya Komuro, but there was a divide in the sound. Because whilst Dallas was giving Namie more R&B driven cuts, Tetsuya was still giving Namie the old style shit. So the album wasn’t cohesive. On Break the Rules, Tetsuya got the memo and his sound started to morph into something which sat better alongside Dallas Austin’s productions, making for a more uniform sounding album from top to bottom. Tetsuya took genuine consideration of how his songs would fit within an album which features the production of somebody else, whose sound is effectively shaping it as a whole. Namie probably told his ass ‘You better get it together or you’re out’, which after this, he was. If nothing else, Break the Rules is notable as the last studio album Namie released which featured songwriting and production from Tetsuya Komuro. But it also shows that there was a sense of creating AN ALBUM, and not just a selection of singles, which will eventually make up an album - something which Namie had always taken far more seriously than many of her peers.

The Komuro sound still creeps in though. By the end of the album it’s like Namie and Komuro said ‘Fuck it, let’s throw it back for old times sake’, because the R&B-lite sound which leads the first half of the album is completely lost in the second. It’s a shame, because whilst Komura is being pushed out of his usual sound and comfort zone, he delivers some really good songs. “Break the Rules” could be mistaken for a Dallas Austin production. Namie rapping on the song gives it a great energy and fits in with her pivot to a harder R&B sound without feeling contrived, given that she’d rapped on Komuro productions long before on songs such as “Chase the Chance”. And with “Looking for You” Komuro once again delivers something very much in the vein of Dallas Austin, and goes one better by having Namie sing the entire song in English - which goes to show that long before Uncontrolled, Namie was dropping whole songs in English.

The considered stylisation of songs goes both ways, as Dallas Austin does a great job of providing a bridge between Tetsuya‘s straight pop and eurobeat inspired production and the vision Namie has for doing R&B, with “Better Days'' and “Think of Me”. These songs are of a far lighter sound than I think Dallas was primarily known for at the time, even though he showed versatility in a big way in 1999 with TLC’s “Unpretty”, a song that Namie would release her own variant of years later with “Anything”. The more ‘hood’ cuts such as “Never Shoulda” and “Girlfriend” actually feel a little out of place here and would have been better served on Style with Namie’s iconic Dallas produced hood banger “Put ‘em Up”; but they’re still decent enough songs for those who like them some Namie Thuguro.

Album review: Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵) - Break the Rules | Random J Pop

One of the biggest problems with this album is that the songs are far longer than they need to be, and as a result Namie gets lost in them. I’ve got nothing against a 5 - 6 minute song if it’s structured well, arranged well and doesn’t feel like it’s long. But there are too many songs on Break the Rules which outstay their welcome, and it’s the Tetsuya Komura songs which are the main offenders. “No More Tears” starts off really nice, but then it just drags on and on AND ON, and then we get a Black choir coming in out of nowhere who don’t give the song what Tetsuya thought they woulda gave. Then there’s “Please Smile Again”, which has Namie giving us a bit of a rock vibe and it’s cute. But instead of just fading at the 3 minute mark and calling it a day, the song drags on for another minute and a half. There’s no bad ass guitar solo, no new vocal arrangements, no live drum fills, no switch, no nothing. It’s just the hook, copied and pasted. You end up resenting these songs for being long and repetitive, which is a shame because neither song is bad...until it’s working your last nerve and you’re reaching for the skip button.

Now, let us talk about Namie’s vocals. The range? She doesn’t have it. We all know she doesn’t. But Namie at least reached a point where she knew how to sound good. That point however was 5 years after the release of Break the Rules. Any consistency that there may be between the sounds of the songs is dashed the moment Namie opens her mouth to sing them. Sometimes she sounds good. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s on key. Sometimes she isn’t. Sometimes she’s on the beat. Sometimes she isn’t. This woman did not know her voice back in 2000. Most of the artists Tetsuya Komuro worked with weren’t the best singers, and Dallas Austin was out here producing for TLC, whose lead singer had such little range that he had Debra Killings do most of the vocals on their songs. Shit. He even has her do vocals for Namie.

Album review: Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵) - Break the Rules | Random J Pop

Break the Rules falls into that odd space that many J-Pop albums in the 2000s fell into; where artists, labels and producers were still clinging to popular sounds and musical styles of the 90s, whilst trying to bring in the new R&B influenced pop sound which was emerging in the US and dominating radio. Nobody was able to avoid it. Even our beloved Hikaru Utada fell into this trap with her album Distance. This causes Break the Rules to sound very much like an album of its time in a way that dates it. But at a time when all that’s old is new again, there’s a charm to it when you listen to it now. Especially in light of albums such as Rina’s Sawayama, which pulls from albums of the late 90s and early 2000s. I listen to “Please Smile Again” and I’m reminded of “Dynasty”. I listen to “Never Enough” and I’m reminded of “XS”. Break the Rules manages to sound more current now than it did 20 years ago.

Album review: Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵) - Break the Rules | Random J Pop

Break the Rules is not one of Namie’s finest moments. Not because the songs are bad, but because as an album, Break the Rules just isn’t memorable. Even as big a song as “Never End” was, I always forget the album that it’s from. Break the Rules has a whole bunch of songs which are good, but no real stand-outs; and it honestly wouldn’t have taken much to turn some of these songs into something great. A few refinements, re-arrangements and some vocal work would have done wonders and turned Break the Rules into something more noteworthy and essential.

Namie’s Break the Rules is an album worth checking out to plot Namie’s journey to finally getting her sound together for Queen of Hip-Pop and then nailing the formula for Play. But it feels like an album that shouldn’t have been released as it was. The whole thing gives me a vibe of Namie fucking around to figure out what her sound was, and Avex saying ‘Let’s just release it’. If we wer eto pull a Carly Rae Jepsen, then Break the Rules woulda been Genius 3000 Side B. And if that’s how you approach this album, it’ll come off far better.

VERDICT: BIG IN AMURICA

Highlights:
■ No More Tears
■ Better Days
■ Never Shoulda
■ Think of Me

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