Single review: Utada - Devil Inside

Single review: Utada - Devil Inside | Random J Pop

“Devil Inside” was a peculiar listen initially, because it sounded nothing like anything Hikaru Utada had released before. Very little did on Exodus really, which was part of what made it such a fresh and interesting album to listen to, even if none of it immediately gelled. But “Devil Inside” was an outlier. Even amongst the oddities on Exodus, there was at least a trace of the Hikaru who we’d grown accustomed to across First Love, Distance and Deep River. But not when it came to “Devil Inside”. It felt like an introduction to a side of Hikaru that we hadn’t met before. And it also came off like catharsis, because it was never a song that Hikaru would and could never have released in Japan. And given how “Easy Breezy” was made the lead promotional single for Exodus over “Devil Inside”, I guess Def Jam felt it wasn’t a song Hikaru could never release in the US either.

A criticism I had with much of Hikaru Utada’s US debut album is that the production felt a little too basic and unrefined, and “Devil Inside” falls victim to this. It has a vibe as though Hikaru Utada sequenced it herself, and that it was perhaps one of her earlier attempts of putting a track together with no input from anybody else. But whilst I do feel “Devil Inside” is a little very under produced, it does have a great sound on the whole. “Devil Inside” sets a clear mood, and unlike “Easy Breezy”’s awful Japanesey line, the nods to Hikaru being Japanese is in the sound itself, with the use of the koto, although maybe some feel the koto is a little too on the nose for a US release.

I hate the term ‘ahead of its time’, but “Devil Inside” did in 2004 what many other artists wouldn’t do until years later. The whole sound of the song is one that Kanye West would adopt for his critically acclaimed album 808s & Heartbreak 4 years later. And this lo-fi production style is one which would permeate Hip-Hop, Trap and even sectors of pop and dance many years later to this very day. “Devil Inside” sounds as good now as it did back when it was first released. Even better in fact.

But the things that sonically make “Devil Inside” cool are also the things that let it down for me. The simplicity of the music helps channel your focus, but it also highlights how unrefined the production is. A song can be simple, but still sonically sound rich. “Devil Inside” doesn’t sound as big as it should. Hikaru Utada’s vocals don’t feature harmonies and layers in places where I feel there should be, and where I feel Hikaru themselves would place them if the song were being recorded for a Japanese release. The unrefined sparseness of the album version of “Devil Inside” is why I often find myself listening to the Scumfrog remix instead, because it has the polish and the fullness that the original lacks, whilst still retaining the tone. And speaking of remixes and the topic of “Devil Inside” being ‘ahead of its time’, the Richard Vission remix sounds like something from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Hikaru was really out here living in the future with a song made in GarageBand about getting their pussy ate under the table.

Single review: Utada - Devil Inside | Random J Pop

The title of the song tells you all you’d need to know about what to expect. The song is about somebody exclaiming that there might be a devil living inside of them. Not literally, but maybe literally. The lyrics to “Devil Inside” will probably take on a far greater meaning now than they did when some were listening to it back in 2004. The line 'You don't know cos you're too busy reading labels' has more gravitas to it now given the current landscape of sociopolitics and Hikaru themselves coming out as non-binary since. But “Devil Inside” was always a song about two things, at least to me: a potential fuck record and a declaration of acceptance, which I don’t think is too far off given that sexual liberation and self acceptance are two of the most prominent themes of Exodus. Another reason why “Devil Inside” would have made a good promotional single to set up the album. And another instance of Hikaru playing Nostradamus and predicting future discourse, as sexual liberation and self acceptance also happen to be big topics in music right now when it comes to women, specifically Black women. But sexual liberation is something which is rarely discussed in Japan when it comes to women, and that’s a WHOLE thing in and of itself.

Then there’s the mention of the devil, which can be cut all manner of ways. A devil is a widely known figure associated with being bad, so the song could just be about Hikaru stating that they have a bad side; whatever that entails. But being a devil or some product of satan is a term which is oft used for people who are seen to be different by those who are devoutly religious. According to these people, gays are the devil. Poppin’ pussy is the devil. Showing ass on Instagram is the devil. Getting an abortion is the devil. So “Devil Inside” can be seen as a declaration of admittance that one is different and embracing it. Regardless of whether this song was about one thing or the other, the sentiment remains the same. And the lack of specificity makes the context broad and inclusive. Hikaru’s pen y’all. It’s tight. “Easy Breezy”? We don’t know her.

I had a rough time with Exodus when I first heard it. But one of the songs I always liked was "Devil Inside", because of how different it was to everything else on the album and anything Hikaru had ever released. But maybe subconsciously the song spoke to me; as somebody at the time who felt like they were hiding parts of themselves and feeling conflicted between wanting to show others these parts of me, and shaming myself into never showing them to anybody.

Whilst I get why “Easy Breezy” was made the lead promotional single for Exodus, I do think it’s a shame that Def Jam didn’t take the risk and service “Devil Inside” instead. “Easy Breezy” felt like a joke in the worst way. There was nothing interesting or intriguing about it, compared to literally EVERY OTHER SONG ON THE ALBUM. “Devil Inside” was different and a bit dark, but at least it felt earnest. As a Hikaru Utada fan, it pulled on the thread of being a song about the human condition. And as somebody new to Hikaru Utada, it was a cool, dark, edgy song which didn’t seem to be saying a lot, but said enough to intrigue you as to who the artist is and what the rest of their music sounds like. For a song so simple and unrefined, “Devil Inside” features a fair amount of layers and says a great deal about the artist behind it. And it predicted the future. Doctor Strange could never.

VERDICT: It's Mephisto