Album Review: Namie Amuro - Concentration 20

An image featuring the cover of Namie Amuro’s album Concentration 20.

Namie Amuro’s second studio album Concentration 20 is one which is oft overlooked in her discography. It’s not difficult to understand why. Concentration 20 is a better album than Namie’s debut Sweet 19 Blues. But it doesn’t feature as many big songs. Aside from “Can you Celebrate?”, there’s nothing on Concentration 20 that comes close to contending with “Chase the Chance”, “Body Feels Exit” and “You’re My Sunshine”. I bet there are a whole bunch of Namie listeners who don’t even know which album “Can you Celebrate?” was even from. Yep. It’s Concentration 20. And it’s the one song on this album which feels like it doesn’t belong on it AT ALL. But we’ll get to that.

Concentration 20 is a bit of an outlier in Namie’s discography, largely because of its sound. It’s still pop. But it delves into pop rock across so many songs, that it defines the sound of the album. Rock and Namie aren’t exactly synonymous, but it does work. Sometimes. And it makes for a listening experience and a vibe that you won’t get from any other Namie album. This is neither a good or a bad thing. It just…is a thing.

The vibe of Concentration 20 is VERY different to Sweet 19 Blues, to a point where if you liked Sweet 19 Blues and was more invested in the music than Namie herself, then you may not like Concentration 20. And there is no real through line between these albums, aside from Concentration 20 featuring a song or two, such as “Me Love Peace!!”, which sounds like a Sweet 19 Blues off-cut. But if you are a Tetsuya Komuro fan however, then you’ll love Concentration 20. Both Sweet 16 Blues and Concentration 20 are effectively showcases and vehicles for him more than Namie. Much like Nakata Yasutaka does with Perfume, Namie’s albums would take on the forms of whatever Komuro was into or doing with his solo / group material at the time. For better or worse. And this is probably what dictated the inclusion of rock more than anything else.

Concentration 20 is produced almost entirely by famed J-pop producer and songwriter, Tetsuya Komuro. During the time of its release in 1997, Komuro was pretty much at the peak of his career, thanks in part due to the success of the number 1 hit singles he had penned and produced for Namie Amuro for three years straight, from 1995 to 1997, which would pave the way for racking up a string of hits with Ami Suzuki in 1998.

Whilst Japanese Hip-Hop and R&B producers were the ones who had their fingers on the pulses of US music trends in a way that J-pop producers never really did; Komuro was one of the few who at least had an awareness of what was happening in US and European music, beyond the American acts who were big in Japan. Komuro’s references weren’t always the most current, which is what led to his sound becoming outdated as soon as the 2000s hit. But Komuro’s awareness of music styles and trends outside of Japanese music is what gave him such range, and it colours Concentration 20 nicely. Even if it does lead one close to disastrous song, “Me Love Peace!!”. Namie Marley puts on her rasta hat and red, gold and rgeen pum-pum shorts for this reggae inspired song, and it’s a mess. The music itself isn’t that bad. It’s Namie’s singing, and the lyrics which feature zingers like ‘What’cha gonna do when natty wake’. That age old thing of Japanese songwriters hearing a phrase or a word, not knowing fully what it means and just putting it in a song. Mess. But, still. Komuro managed to balance the signatures of Japanese pop with things which weren’t typical of J-pop at all, such as gospel choirs and rapping. Namie raps a lil’ bit on Concentration 20, which probably wasn’t a result of Komuro pulling from Hip-Hop, but American and British dance music of the mid the 90s, where artists would speak / sing, recite or just straight up rap over beats. There is also A LOT of English on this album, which is why I was always shocked by people’s responses to Namie singing so much in it later in her career; because hella Engrish has been a staple in her music since the beginning.

A couple of problems with Komuro’s production and arrangements on Concentration 20, is one which is still a problem with his music today. And that is he doesn’t always have the ear for honing in on parts of songs which work best, and having that be the centrepiece. Or, Komuro creates songs which have these wonderfully arranged and lengthy intros that create a vibe and a tone, which is then steamrolled by monotony and repetition once the song actually starts (i.e “Close Your Eyes, Close to You” and “A Walk in the Park”). This can also lead to songs outstaying their welcome. Five of the twelve songs on Concentration 20 are 5+ minutes long, and not a single one of them needed to be.

Whilst Concentration 20 sounds very different to any of Namie’s other albums, and seems so far away from what her music would become from 2003 onward, a lot of the groundwork for Namie’s future albums was unknowingly laid with Concentration 20. Something that I don’t think Komuro’s production and the album is credited enough for.

Despite Komuro’s lack of editing down, and a few raggedy arrangements, I genuinely think the production on Concentration 20 is good. It marks the last album Komuro produced for Namie which was actually decent. When Komuro was just in his own world, and fusing sounds and genres as he pleased, without thinking too much about how and where it would sit in the musical landscape at the time, things worked. But the moment that Komuro tried to compete with other producers, and tap into popular sounds which weren’t in his wheelhouse, he started to fall off. And Namie was not sticking around for that shit. She could probably sense it was going to happen and that Komuro was going to get left behind. And this is what also makes Concentration 20 kinda special, or at least defines it in a sense aside from its sound - as it is the last Namie Amuro album which would feature production from Komoro almost exclusively.

A shot from the inlay booklet of Namie Amuro’s album Concentration 20. Namie is sat on a bed, putting on a pair of knee high leather boots.
Namie Amuro | Concentration 20

Namie Amuro’s vocals on Concentration 20…are not great. But I don’t know who goes into a Namie Amuro album expecting great vocals. She is not that type of artist. And a bitch was not singing in key consistently until Play anyway. So if you’re coming into Namie’s discography fresh and you end up starting with any album before Play, then leave vocal expectations at the do’. There is no consistency when it comes to Namie’s vocals. Sometimes she sounds okay, sometimes she doesn’t. And many, if not all of these songs are pretty easy to sing. “A Walk in the Park” is quite literally a walk in the park to sing. But not for Namie. You know that scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where everybody is running through the maze to find the trophy? That’s Namie trying to find the right note on this song. She even finds a way to rap off key and sound flat on the album opener “Concentration 20 (Make You Alright)”. Namie’s vocal inability may make some songs pretty tough to listen to. But Namie giving nothing is part of her package, and I’m so used to it, that it doesn’t pull me out of songs the way that it probably should and would with other artists. But I completely understand if somebody else were to listen to some of the songs on this album, hear Namie hit a note pitta flat and turn the shit off.

A shot from the inlay booklet of Namie Amuro’s album Concentration 20. Namie is looking in a mirror whilst adjusting her hair.
Namie Amuro | Concentration 20

Concentration 20 has a clearer focus sonically than Sweet 19 Blues, which felt a bit all of the place. But there is still an issue concerning Komuro’s lack of consistency when it comes to vibe and tone. And his lack of trying to actually create a sound for Namie Amuro versus indulging in his own musical endeavours and using a Namie album as a sandbox. It’s still just a case of Namie featuring on Komuro productions, and little else. Concentration 20 doesn’t really make a statement about the type of artist that Namie is, which I feel is something that would plague her with a couple of her later albums, even the ones that some of us adore.

But for all of Namie’s missed notes, and Komuro’s questionable arrangement choices, what really fucks up Concentration 20 is the sequencing. Concentration 20 has no real sense of flow, and I don’t understand why, given how easy it would have been to have better sequenced the songs. The likes of “Can You Celebrate?” sticks out like a motherfucker. Yes. But even so, it can be sat on the album in a place where it would work better. I have no idea why the ballad-esque “B w/z you” is the second song on the album, and the jolting “How to Be a Girl” is the last song on the album, when it shoulda been the first.

Concentration 20 is an album that Namie pretty much ignored for many of her tours, with the exception of “Can You Celebrate?”. The one song which feels completely out of place on the album. And it’s a shame. Because Namie started folding rock back into her sound from Style, with songs like “The Speed Star”. And then did so consistently throughout her reign with the likes of “Violet Sauce”, “Shut Up”, “Damage”, “Time Has Come” and “Mint”. So Namie reworking her older material to align with her post 2005 sound would have been a chance to breathe new life into these songs and reimagine them. But I guess Namie hates this damn album THAT much. I feel like Namie would have gladly never performed any of her older material ever again, were it not for them big hits that she wouldn’t be able to get away with omitting from setlists. It’s probably why a bitch retired. She would rather never sing again than perform “Try Me ~Watashi wo Shinjite~”, “Body Feels Exit”, and do another 400m dash during “Chase the Chance”.

A shot from the inlay booklet of Namie Amuro’s album Concentration 20. An out of focus shot of Namie Amuro walking through a curtain of tinsel, with her back to the camera.
Namie Amuro | Concentration 20

Concentration 20 is a pleasant listen. The sound of it is so different, and feels so separate from any of Namie’s other albums, that it feels almost like a concept album. And if you take it as such, then it comes off a lot better. There are some really cool moments on this album, and a lot of potential. But the lack of special sauce and finesse stops a lot of the songs from being as great as they could have been, and it stops Concentration 20 from being anything more than just ‘fine’. What Concentration 20 needed was an executive producer who could see the vision for this album and steer it toward being something great. Because the potential for Concentration 20 to be great is definitely there. Namie’s demeanour has always been so ‘fuck it’ and rock ‘n’ roll any way, so the genre pivot doesn’t feel strange or like a bad fit. But the one foot in pop / Eurodance and one foot in rock approach that Komuro takes with some of these songs displays a lack of commitment on his part, even if the choice was an inspired one that made sense. And that’s the one thing Concentration 20 and Namie herself needed. Commitment. Whether it was to one sound or the other, or bringing together properly. What Namie needed to do with this album was to either pivot into a sound and nail it, or really hone in on an element of Sweet 19 Blues and refine it - but she and Komuro did neither. So we end up with an album which isn’t bad, but isn’t great. And offers something promising, but ultimately doesn’t fully deliver.

Verdict: Me wanna dance with natty dread

▪ Close Your Eyes, Close to You
▪ A Walk in the Park
▪ To-day
▪ Whisper
▪ How to Be a Girl