Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Rainbow

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - Rainbow

The early 2000s was an exciting time in J-Pop, because it felt like the point in J-Pop music history when US radio was influencing the sound of it in ways it hadn’t before. Not only did we see the rise of J-Pop acts shooting their shots with R&B, but the debut of acts for whom this was their core sound. And whilst the R&B bug hadn’t really bitten Ayu before, it did for Rainbow. Well, for one song at the very least. And whilst it didn’t colour the entire album, it probably should have. It would have made for a more interesting album than what we ended up with. Even if it were a complete mess, it woulda been SOMETHING more than what ended up as a pretty tepid and unremarkable album.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - Rainbow

Ayumi Hamasaki and R&B don’t sound like two things that should ever intersect, but here we are. Rainbow presents a rare instance where Ayumi Hamasaki flirted with the sound; most evident in the song “Real Me”. This sound and production style manage to strike a balance between utilising what was an R&B signature of the early 2000s, the harpsichord, but within a soundscape which still feels like Ayu without coming off as a shameless attempt at doing all out R&B. The same goes for “We Wish”, which also features R&B-lite harpsichords on the verses, but goes full rock in its choruses. Although “We Wish” has a far heavier weighting towards the sound that Ayu was and is still known for, compared to “Real Me” which sits evenly in the middle. So much so, that not everybody will even note any traces of R&B in “We Wish” at all. Ayu and R&B of any percentage shouldn’t really work, but it does here because there is an understanding that producer CMJK has of Ayu’s sound thresholds - still retaining the elements of what makes an Ayu song an Ayu song, whilst pulling parts of it in new directions. It’s a shame Ayu nor the rest of the producers (CMJK included) didn’t manage to find this balance again on other songs on the album; because as you make your way through the songs, the sound becomes more and more forgettable, with nothing really standing out in any way. And another issue arises. Rainbow feels like three albums rolled into one.

When you listen to Rainbow it starts off as one album, then turns into something different in the middle, and then becomes something different three songs from the end. The album features three instrumental songs placed as an intro and two interludes which segment the album; but this feels like a cheap attempt to block the three parts of the album, as opposed to actually better unifying them. And it also doesn’t help that the instrumental songs themselves, whilst good, also feel like they’re part of a different concept altogether. It’s like somebody just slapped in some pieces of music from Final Fantasy XIII-2. (Yes, I know Final Fantasy XIII-2 came out after Rainbow. But this is me reviewing the album in 2021. Also, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game centred on time travel, so let’s just go with it). Something about the sequencing of this album just feels off, but there's also something about this selection of songs. No matter how you re-order the songs, they just don’t work together to create this top to bottom listening experience.

The approach to how Rainbow is structured KINDA makes sense when you link it to the album title and the subject matters of the songs themselves - each of which focuses on the journey of bearing pain before you can truly appreciate love for yourself and others: through the rain, to the sunlight, and then the rainbow. But the way the album places clear segments partitions the album in a really unnecessary way. There’s not the same elegance that we got on Mariah’s album of the same title, with the sequencing of “Petals”, “Rainbow (Interlude)” and “Thank God I Found You”.

Buggered sequencing is something that plagues many J-Pop albums, because of how albums in Japan come together. Albums don’t start as albums, but as a string of singles, which are recorded with the intent of being singles. Then 6 singles in 'OH. TIME TO RELEASE AN ALBUM' and then 5 or so songs are recorded to make it up. So it often means that album concepts go clean out of the window, because they may only apply to the 4-5 songs on an album which weren’t singles. So then you’ve got 8 songs with completely different sounds and themes. I feel this is part of what happened to Rainbow. And it’s something that Ayu albums such as Next Level, Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus and Party Queen got fucked over by. So a bitch clearly didn’t learn her lesson.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - Rainbow

Ballads are Ayumi Hamasaki’s bread and butter. And whilst there is a consistency that she’s maintained with them, they’re not all particularly memorable because of how many of them sound the same. And it’s a shame to say that Rainbow doesn’t feature Ayu’s strongest ballad offerings, and are made worse by all being shunted together in one place on the album - causing them all to sound the same. “Real Me” producer CMJK throws my praise at fusing R&B with Ayu’s sound in my face on “Hanabi” - a song which is basically a typical Ayu ballad with what sounds like a stock Timbaland snare, which throws the sound off for me because it sounds so intrusive, and it's what my ear focuses on rather than the music itself and Ayu’s singing. “Over” on the other hand is a really nice song which sounds like it was destined to be the credits theme to some Snowpiercer style anime shit, where hella people die, but it’s fine because two kids survived. “Dolls” is probably the strongest ballad on the album for me. The only setback is Ayu’s vocals, which sound paper thin. Dropping the key down by a step or two would have worked wonders. But Ayu was still at a point in her career where she was figuring out the ‘sweet’ spot with her voice and hadn’t yet embraced how good she sounds in lower registers. Either that or she was forced to sing high, because J-Pop lives for that shit.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - Rainbow

The arrangements of songs on Rainbow are a really mixed bag. A common thing with songs on Rainbow is the ways in which they hopscotch between sounds and vibes. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It sucks if you’re listening to a song and fall in love with the vibe, just for the chorus to be like ‘Nope’ and then completely turn the song on its head. This isn’t an inherently bad thing for a song as standard. But when the switch is bad, it drags the entire song down. How good the verses are is irrelevant, because the chorus just fucks up everything. “Free & Easy” is one such example of this. Really nice verses and then some rock-remix-of-Ultemecia’s-castle-from-Final-Fantays-VIII-sounding- ass-shit just interrupting the song. These types of songs would become a bit of an Ayu signature, that she’d pull off on occasion. “Free & Easy” isn’t one of those occasions though. But “Over” is.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s voice truly is an acquired taste. But she gives me something on Rainbow that she doesn’t often give. Harmonies. Hearing Ayu lace choruses with two and sometimes three point harmonies gives the choruses across this album a fuller sound. And whilst hearing four Ayu’s sing simultaneously sounds like a recipe for disaster, vertigo and tinnitus, the blend actually takes the edge off. But Ayu’s singing style and technique still isn’t great. And something which is highlighted on the song “Independent” is that Ayu is not good with ad-libs at all. Her go to’s are always ♫ La La La ♫’s which are not only basic, but with her style of singing, it sounds like drunken karaoke.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - Rainbow

The only thing worse than an album that’s bad is one that’s just overwhelmingly safe and unremarkable, and this is Rainbow. The songs on it are fine. The only songs on this album that I skip and would not listen to unless my lactose intolerance depended on it, are “Free & Easy” and “Independent”. Everything else is fine. But that’s just the problem. The songs should be more than just fine. Rainbow as a whole should have displayed a greater level of growth from Ayu than it does. Ayu didn’t try new things or really push herself at the one point in her career and at a point in music where she could and should have. She dipped her toe into something out of her comfort zone for “Real Me” and then said ‘Cool. I’m done’ and it was back to regular Ayu programming from track 4 onward. Ayumi Hamasaki should have been giving so much more than this. Ayu’s peers were all making far bigger moves with their third, fourth and fifth albums.

Rainbow being such a beige album sonically is a shame, because I really like some of the lyrics of the songs. “We Wish” being a song about accepting who you really are certainly feels poignant on an album titled Rainbow. And something about the lines ♫ We are free, but we're too free. We can go everywhere, but can go nowhere ♫ in “Everywhere Nowhere” really hit. I don’t know if it’s because of me reading that through the lens of a Black guy knowing how these racist ass white people and cops see Black folk, but that line struck me. C’MON AYU CIVILRIGHTSAKI. And “Real Me” speaking about the personas women have to take on JUST to be able to get by feels as relevant now as it did in 2002. Ayu’s songwriting on this album is good, but the blandness and raggedy arrangements of some of the songs don’t do her lyrics justice.

Rainbow just doesn’t feel essential. The fact that Ayu recorded an album title track and chose to slap it on a Best release album instead 3 months later was a whole mess and spoke volumes. As an album in Ayu’s discography, Rainbow is just...there. It’s pleasant enough, but it doesn’t bring enough to the table, even though the pieces were RIGHT there and the timing was so right for it to be able to.

VERDICT: Dangerous Woman

■ We Wish
■ Real Me 🏆
■ Taskinillusion
■ Everywhere Nowhere
■ Dolls