Album Review: Meisa Kuroki - Unlocked

A vinyl of Meisa Kuroki's album ‘Unlocked’, lying on a piece of pink plastic.  The cover art features Meisa in a pink leather corset vest, posing whilst stood inside of a pink locker. With the album title and her name superimposed over the top in a stencil style font.

Whitney Houston may have only listened to [pauses for emphasis] singers and very rarely listened to people who cannot sing, but not me bitch. Which is why Meisa Kuroki is in my playlists, in company with the likes of Perfume, early 2000s Namie Amuro and Hikaru Utada’s First Love and Exodus.

Meisa Kuroki cannot sing. She just cannot. Her voice is as flat as the tortilla in Mary J. Blige’s crispy chicken wrap. But she and her team have always been smart in pairing her with producers who can make it work. When it comes to Meisa’s music, one thing which is oft assured is that at least some of the beats will be fire. Meisa’s first two EPs and her first ever LP all skated on featuring pretty solid production. And Meisa’s second studio album Unlocked is no different.

Meisa has pretty much worked with the same roster of writers and producers since the very beginning. But the one who stands out is U-Key Zone, who has been working with Meisa Kuroki since the beginning of her ‘music career’ with his songwriting partner in crime Momo “Mocha” N. They are the reason why I listen to her music. Almost every song of Meisa’s that I like was produced by U-Key Zone and written by Momo. But because they are also vocal producers, they are able to have Meisa sound good enough that she doesn’t distract or ruin songs, and actually compliment the music. One thing about Meisa on a U-Key Zone production, her shit is going to be layered, there are going to be harmonies, there will be ad-lins. And credit to Meisa Croaky, she sounds decent and feels like a necessary component on the songs. A replaceable component. But still, a component. Unlocked album cut “The Last Code” being one such example. As much as I could listen to the instrumental of this song (and others), there is never a part of me that feels I would rather listen to the song without Meisa on it, because of how well U-Key Zone and Momo arrange and produce her vocals. This is exactly why I always highlight the importance of vocal production on songs. Because even if you have a great voice, if the vocal production and arrangements aren’t good, it can really let a song down. But on the flip side, you don’t need to be the best singer to sound good on a song. You barely need to be a good one. You just need to have somebody who knows how to produce and arrange your vocals to sound good. And U-Key Zone and Momo make a bitch sound good.

A shot from the 'Unlocked' album photoshoot. Featuring Meisa Kuroki in a pink leather corset vest and a pink skirt. Posing as she's exiting a pink locker next to a table of reflective purple balls.
Meisa Kuroki - Unlocked | Sony Music Entertainment Japan Inc.

U-Key Zone’s production style and sound preference is a cross between Rodney Jerkins and Bryan-Michael Cox. Hiromi’s songs “Yes”, “Rainbow”, “Your Song”, “Stay in Love” and Namie Amuro’s “The Meaning of Us” - all produced by U-Key Zone. He definitely has a style, to a point where you can listen to Unlocked and Magazine and identify the songs he produced just by ear. He’s a great match for Meisa. He may not be able to give her ‘a sound’ per-se, but he knows how to work with her to make her sound good and she seems comfortable enough with him to trust his vision. He is a very key part of what makes Meisa’s EPs and LPs work.

Magazine was a pretty bland listening experience. But it was punctuated by the U-Key Zone productions, which seemed to bleed into some of the other songs he had nothing to do with. His contributions were the centrepieces of the album which steered and influenced some (I repeat, SOME) of the other songs, and it’s the same case here with Unlocked. All of the U-Key Zone productions are the highlights and pretty much shape the direction of the album. Not enough to rescue it. Not enough to even make it memorable. But enough that the listening experience has peaks so good that you can never write the album off completely, just as the case with Magazine.

The biggest problem with this album, as has been the case with Meisa’s previous efforts, is that for each song on the album which works, there is somebody who could have done it a far better justice. But what is even more glaring here, is that these instances all sound so much like songs from other acts anyway. “Flash Light” sounds like a Daisuke Imai produced song Beni from Lovebox, and she would’ve done it better. “Wired Life”, “Woman’s Worth” and “Parade” all sound like Namie Amuro songs, and she would have done them better. And then there’s “Aimai de Zeitaku na Yokubou”, which sounds like a Miho Fukuhara song, and she absolutely would have done it better.

Even for how well Meisa sounds under good vocal arrangement guidance and solid vocal production, it’s nothing that Beni, Namie and Miho couldn’t do and have not already done, which makes Meisa feel wholly replaceable and the album feel unessential, despite it featuring some amazing songs. Because even as amazing as some of these songs are and as fine as Meisa sounds on them, there are other acts doing them just as well, if not better with the same producers and writers.

A shot from the 'Unlocked' album photoshoot. Featuring Meisa Kuroki in a gold cowboy hat and gold bangles, as she rests her hand on her face and looks directly into the camera.
Meisa Kuroki - Unlocked | Sony Music Entertainment Japan Inc.

Just recently I was throwing tweets into the ether of how not every act is able to put out a good album, regardless of their musical talent. And Meisa is one of those acts for me. She must have realised it herself, given that she has only released two of them. Unlocked is not a terrible album. Neither was Magazine. But there is a sense that the music is being stretched thin. There is repetition of sounds, because everybody is aware of a formula that works and that they can only do so much with Meisa’s vocal and artistic limitations. A Crystal Kay she is not. A cute little 5 song EP would have worked better, but I get why Meisa released albums.

At one point in pop, it wasn’t uncommon for popular figures in reality TV or modelling to branch into music, because ‘You look good and you might as well’. And some have had varying degrees of success with this. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is always my go-to example of somebody who really managed to make this work in the best of ways. Kyary’s music always felt like it was propositioned as a soundtrack to things she was doing outside of music, and the sound matched it, so it worked. And also, the music was really fucking good. The man behind all of her music, Nakata Yasutaka, had a clear understanding of who Kyary was as a public figure and what her music needed to be. Where-as with Meisa, there isn’t this same approach. Credit to her team, she was paired with great producers who were able to create a package for her in terms of her sound. And U-Key Zone was able to take Meisa’s deficit of musical talent and have her sound good. But where-as some of Kyary’s songs had an element of feeling unique to her, Meisa’s don’t. She feels like an avatar for a sound. Specifically, an avatar for U-Key Zone’s sound. He is the reason I listen to her music. So there is this lack of intent with Unlocked when it comes to the space in which Meisa and her music is supposed to occupy. Particularly because Unlocked a rinse and repeat of what she did on Magazine and Attitude, with no real sense of growth, newness or evolution. The consistency of the sound is there, I will give her and everybody involved that credit where it’s due. But none of it truly says anything about Meisa or where she wants to go. There’s no point of view. There’s no stamp she puts on any of the songs. There’s a very ‘Here’s some music, I guess’ energy about Meisa’s music. It’s almost as though she doesn’t really get how good or bad any of it is. It’s just another thing for her to do, which kinda does a disservice to the producers who are actually putting in the effort with her. But this is just how I see it. I, of course, have no idea about how Meisa feels about her own music genuinely. I just get a sense of what her comfort zones are and that it’s J-R&B / Pop, Jeff Miyahara, U-Key Zone and Momo “Mocha” N.

A shot from the 'Unlocked' album photoshoot. Featuring Meisa Kuroki in a pink leather corset vest. Posing as she's exiting a pink locker.
Meisa Kuroki - Unlocked | Sony Music Entertainment Japan Inc.

Unlocked is not a bad album. I can listen to it from start to finish without skipping anything, because the songs on it are good and there is no song on this album which is so God awful that I cannot tolerate it. But as a body of work, Unlocked is not that memorable. It really is a ‘yank five of the best songs and leave the rest’ type of album, the same way that Magazine was. The songs on this album which are good, are great. “Shake It Off”? Better than Mariah and Taylor’s songs of the same name. “Take Me Away” is a stand-on-a-helipad-on-a-high-rise-and-slow-wine-at-sunset-as-the-camera-circles type of vibe. “Flash Light” is the song for the tiara and bedazzled heel bitches. And “Parade” is for the cigarette hags who want their “Lady Dynamite” moment.

In terms of ranking, I would say that Unlocked is better than Magazine. The sequencing isn’t great, which is primarily because of how weak the album starts off, with “Hit the Road”. A strange choice when “Shake It Off” or “Wired Life” would have been stronger starts to the album. And whilst the lead song of an album doesn’t necessarily need to be representative of a whole entire thing, I think “Shake It Off” and “Wired Life” would have at least done a better job of setting the tone. And the album ends with a ballad, because…I guess the album needed a ballad and this felt like the best place to put it!? But Unlocked generally does flow better than Magazine did.

But what hurts Unlocked in the grand scheme of things actually has nothing to do with the album at all. At time of writing, Unlocked is the last studio album that Meisa has released; right out before she fell pregnant by that man from KAT-TUN and then threw up the deuces to her career. Between Unlocked and Magazine, there is a consistency of sounds as a result of the same producers working across both albums. So, Meisa has a little village of talent that she’s comfortable with, which is important for anybody in music. And remember; Meisa was just doing music to do it, because it was another thing to make money and gain exposure. Not because she was born to do it and had this passion for music and performing. But because Unlocked is where she tapped out, all I can do is take this album for what it is and not what it represents - which is how it should be really, given that this is a review of this album and what it is presenting to me.

And on that flat Meisa note, I will say that Unlocked is cute and has some really good songs. But as an album, it doesn’t say much of anything.

▪ Shake It Off 🔥
▪ Take Me Away 🔥
▪ Flash Light 🔥
▪ Last Code 🏆
▪ Happy To Be Me
▪ Aimai de Zeitaku na Yokubou