Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart

Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart | Random J Pop

BoA’s Japanese debut album Listen To My Heart was released in 2002 and is very much an album of its time. Every single R&B cliché you can think of from the early 2000s is thrown into this album. Every. Single One.

Listen to My Heart is very one note in its approach, in that it distils the sound of R&B and R&B tinged pop down to about 3 things, which is a harpsichord, bubble ‘n’ squelch sound effects and syncopated drum patterns. It wears really thin, really quickly. And with the amount of money SM Entertainment and Avex were putting into this album, I don’t get why they didn’t just have BoA work with US producers; something which was slowly becoming a thing in Japan at the turn of the century, with Namie Amuro tapping Dallas Austin for Genius 2000 and Hikaru Utada working with Jam & Lewis and Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins for Distance.

Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart | Album image scan courtesy of | Random J Pop

The issues with this narrow approach to producing these R&B-alike songs is that they all sound SO similar, but the most offensive thing is that some songs legitimately sound like they’re trying too hard to emulate a sound or just outright copy another song. “Listen to My Heart” straight-up copies elements from Dream’s “He Loves U Not”. Every song on this album (with the exception of the tacked on Kumi Koda-less version of “The Meaning of Peace”) will have you going crazy and playing “Guess Who? on which songs are being copied on this album.

Listen to My Heart’s J-R&B offerings work best in the instances where songs fuse US R&B staples with traits of J-Pop. “Kimochi wa Tsutawaru” does this to great effect. Sure, the intro gives a harp intro, which at this point was a well-worn trend after Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” popularised the uses of harps in R&B. But the song then goes through this shift of key changes and variative melodies, which is far more common in J-Pop than R&B, and it works so well because the song is then immediately elevated from JUST being a US R&B wannabe cut. It’s providing a style of R&B which feels unique to Japan. It’s a shame the album didn’t lean into this more across every song.

Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart | Album image scan courtesy of | Random J Pop

Despite Listen to My Heart opening with the album title track, and the entire album’s promo really channelling in on BoA’s energy as a performer, it’s actually in the slower moments where this album shines brightest. The songs still adhere to a template of mimicking R&B, but in a far less aggressive way. The truth of the matter is that in the late 90s, J-Pop had already done a great job with the R&B tinged J-Ballad, and was on the cusp of really perfecting it, and Listen to My Heart played a part in that. It’s also interesting that whilst albums that were predominant J-R&B weren’t of the best quality, the strongest songs were also the slow jams and the ballads. Kumi Koda’s Affection? Same shit. Uptempos R&B joints? Whack. The slow jams and ballads? All great. Another example of when R&B fuses with J-Pop signatures, it’s always a winner as opposed to trying to just do straight R&B. “Every Heart: Minna no Kimochi” and “Share Your Heart (With Me)” are both great songs. And looking back on this album retrospectively, it’s actually nice to see that BoA has really grown into these sorts of songs, built a pretty good repertoire of them and shown an immense amount of growth through them, which is part of what made songs such as “Only One” and “Kiss My Lips” so damn good.

Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart | Album image scan courtesy of | Random J Pop

BoA has never been an artist that anybody listens to for vocals. But I can’t just NOT talk about them for that reason, because...after all, a bitch is singing on every single one of these songs. BoA’s vocals are a mixed bag. One some songs, she manages to sound better here than she does on albums which came 4 years after. But on others, she sounds terrible. BoA tries to give R&B style ad-libs and runs at the end of “Kimochi wa Tsutawaru” and she was like a bull in a china shop, hitting everything but the notes. Homegirl sounds like she stubbed her toe whilst gargling mouthwash. I don’t know what that shit was, but the sound engineer should’ve cut the mic and deleted those vocals. But for however good or bad BoA sounds on a given song, it never makes or breaks any of them. But it’s clear on this album that there wasn’t really much of a focus on BoA’s voice, and that this followed her through subsequent albums, hence why her vocals never really got better until she returned back to her K-Pop career full-time in 2012.

Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart | Album image scan courtesy of | Random J Pop

Despite being BoA’s first Japanese album, you can feel SM Entertainment’s hand all over it in ways you didn’t with many of her albums which came after. At a point, the sound of BoA’s Korean releases and her Japanese releases began to fork, with SM seemingly conceding to a team of people who knew the Japanese market better. But Listen to My Heart has the exact same sound as her debut Korean studio album, ID; Peace B. This was a smart move, because it meant whichever album you got to first, you were getting the same introduction to BoA - although Listen to My Heart is definitely the stronger of the two.

As wonky as Listen to My Heart’s R&B takes are, it was part of the wave of releases that hit Japan in early 2000 that helped usher in J-R&B. BoA is often left out of the conversation when it comes to the rise of popularity in R&B in Japan, and it being marketable at one point in time - which is crazy given how big Listen to My Heart was, and that BoA was delivering a package which mimicked US R&B the closest.

Album Review: BoA - Listen to My Heart | Album image scan courtesy of | Random J Pop

Where Listen to My Heart falters the hardest, is that the entire album sounds like an emulation of other artists’ sounds or recreations of a trend, as opposed to actually showcasing BoA musically. BoA likes R&B. Great. But, what else? With Hikaru Utada’s First Love, it was also clear that Hikaru liked R&B, but we also got a sense of her character and her approach to songwriting. The sound of the album didn’t define Hikaru Utada. SHE defined the music. It’s one thing to be a fan of certain artists and sounds and do your own takes on it, but it’s another to just copy it outright, not even out-do it and then get lost in trying to be something or somebody else. This is what I feel hurt Listen to My Heart - it worked better as part of a visual package than it did as a standalone album, because the music didn’t give you all of who BoA was. It only provided half the picture, even if that half of the picture was good.

But I won’t completely shit on BoA, SM Entertainment or Avex for this, because the early 2000s was a period in music when it seemed everybody was trying to be and / or compete with everybody else in a space which felt so narrow. And BoA debuted as a K-Pop artist where so much hinged on visuals and performance, and drawing from the US.

The potential in BoA was always as a performer first and foremost, not in her music - especially at this point in her career. But Listen to My Heart is a pleasant enough listening experience, and there's definitely enough here to make you want to hear where BoA would go from here. And despite the heavy J-R&B push, BoA still retains a sense of being enough of a blank canvas that she could branch into other sounds, which is even more exciting.


■ Every Heart: Minna no Kimochi
■ Kimochi wa Tsutawaru 🏆
■ Share Your Heart (With Me)
■ Amazing Kiss
■ Nothing's Gonna Change