Album Review: Cubic U (Hikaru Utada) - Precious

A vinyl of Cubic U’s album ‘Precious’, laying ona blue textured surface.  The cover art for ‘Precious’ features a blue logo consisting of the letters ‘C’ and ‘U’ and the word ‘ubic’ inside the letter C, spelling out the word ‘Cubic’. This logo features on a white backdrop, with the text ‘Precious / Cubic U’ in Helvetica beneath it.

Before Hikaru Utada’s official debut under their own name, they had recorded an album titled Precious under the name Cubic U. The album didn’t make much noise, got caught up in internal record label foolishness and it flopped. But when Hikaru Utada debuted as ‘HIKARU UTADA’ with First Love in 1999 and it became a huge success, EMI said ‘Bring back that Precious shit’, ran the album to print immediately, dropped it mere weeks after First Love and it became a hit. Since then, Precious has become a collectors item. It isn’t regarded as a part of Hikaru Utada’s discography proper. And whilst some fans may be peeved at that, I for one am glad that it isn’t.

Hikaru. Sweetie. Don’t ever put Precious on streaming platforms. Don’t give it no vinyl re-release. Let everybody fight on marketplaces to get a physical copy.

I am not a big fan of Precious. But its existence is special, because of what it represents and the part it played in helping First Love become what it became. Precious is a product of who Hikaru Utada was at a specific point in time, which speaks to the life they once had. And a side to their life that we never got to hear much about in their music, aside from “Exodus ‘04” - which was a song on an English language album that far fewer people heard than their Japanese language releases.

Hikaru Utada was born in New York and grew up living between New York and Tokyo. There are numerous interviews Hikaru had done over the years where they had spoken about having feelings of not truly belonging, as a result of bouncing between the U.S and Japan. And they had also spoken about times when they would not be fully confident in their Japanese when they returned to Japan after extended periods in the U.S. As a result of this, when it came to songwriting, there were instances where Hikaru would write songs in English first and then re-work them into Japanese; choosing to keep certain parts in English because they just worked better. This is an important context when it comes to Precious, because the entire album is not only in English, but it was recorded in New York, with the intent of being released in North America.

Precious is an album recorded in a language Hikaru felt comfortable writing and singing in. In a place Hikaru considered home. It was also recorded at Sony Music Studios, which is a cool foreshadowing of Hikaru eventually moving over to Sony once their contract with Universal / Toshiba-EMI expired.

Spending a bulk of their childhood in New York. An important city for music. The birthplace of many amazing talents. Music was part of the fabric of the city during the 90s. So it’s no surprise that a lot of the music which was coming out of New York and / or influenced by New York at the time shaped so much of Hikaru’s musical tastes, and they would choose to record an album which spoke to them. Going by Precious alone, we can deduce that Hikaru’s [turns and looks into the camera] first love was R&B. And this is something which has always stuck with fans over the years. Because once Hikaru moved out of R&B, as much as fans liked what their sound had become, there was still the odd ‘But I’d like it if Hikaru Utada did some R&B tho’. And in any instance where Hikaru Utada released anything R&B adjacent, fans were always warmly receptive.

Precious is one of the few albums of Hikaru’s where you get a super clear sense of their influences. After their second Japanese studio album Distance, this became far more nebulous, as Hikaru’s sound diversified so much and became kinda genreless.

Hikaru Utada was 13 years old when they recorded Precious. And you can tell that their vision for the album was for it to be based on what and who they liked at the time. And to be quite honest, this is not just typical behaviour of a kid making an album. Folk still approach albums this way as adults. Precious was Hikaru living out their fantasy to be one of the R&B stars they were fans of. And during this period, young girls doing R&B were a hot commodity. Aaliyah, Monica and Brandy all had music out and were part of a new age of R&B, which they helped usher in. So if you take Precious as just Hikaru’s love letter to the music she loved, then it’s fine. But you can’t really view it as anything more, because…it isn’t really a great deal more. The great deal more is First Love.

Hikaru Utada’s parents were both in the music business. Their father had connections and was able to get his daughter a record deal, so that they could have some fun and make an album with no real expectations of what would come after it. But this isn’t to say that this album doesn’t have any value in the grand scheme of Hikaru Utada’s music, because it absolutely does. Elements of Precious were carried over to First Love. First Love is in many ways a re-imagining of Precious. Approached from a far more commercialised stand point, with a team of people who were able to extrapolate what worked on Precious and refine it. And with Hikaru better knowing the expectations of what comes with recording an album and what it takes to put together a song.

I would say that almost all of Hikaru Utada’s albums feel pretty self-contained. Hatsukoi bucked this by feeling very much like a continuation of Fantôme, with a shoe-horned ‘full circle’ narrative because of it releasing on the 20th anniversary of Hikaru’s career, the album title (‘Hatsukoi’ = ‘First Love’ in Japanese) and there being a tour in which to package all of this. There are themes and bleed-throughs between each of Hikaru’s albums, for sure. But on the whole, Hikaru Utada’s albums each exist in their own bubbles. Exodus and This Is the One included. With Precious, it’s kinda both. It’s in its own bubble. But is also very much a prequel to First Love. And if you view Precious as the latter, and temper your expectations based on this, it works a lot better.

A shot of Hikaru Utada lying on the ground, wearing a sheer maroon blouse, her hair out and her eyes closed, whilst holding the the leaves of a flower / planet in their hands.
Cubic U - Precious | Toshiba-EMI

Precious and First Love are very different albums in terms of how Hikaru Utada comes across and what their approaches were.

Precious is very much Hikaru mimicking the R&B stars they were fans of (such as Aaliyah, who they had said they were a fan of) and their adoration of R&B music at the time. Where-as on First Love, Hikaru is channelling the energy of the R&B stars of the late 90s and their love of the genre, but expelling it in a very Hikaru Utada way; which felt far more authentic to who they actually were. Precious was how Cubic U wanted to be seen by those they admired. First Love was how Hikaru Utada wanted the world to see them. The honesty and purity of First Love is what made that album work in ways that Precious does not. Precious was coming from an honest and pure place, but the end result was still a performance. And this ‘performance’ really affects the framing of some of these songs.

First Love had a clear framing of it being stories of what a young girl thinks love is and how real it feels to her at a period of her life where she apparently knows what love is. Where-as Precious isn’t framed in quite the same way. The horniness and sexualisation of boys in R&B was a real problem back in the 90s. But it became more of a problem when these songs featured girls. And three of the songs on Precious feature Stanley “Jamal” Hampton of the short-lived boy band Imajin, who was three years older than Hikaru Utada at the time, but still a child himself. And he’s crooning for his life about his needs and desires. It’s just weird and it takes me out of the songs. But from a production standpoint, none of these songs feel like Jamal and Hikaru are singing them together. Jamal takes over pretty much all three songs. It’s like Hikaru and Jamal were given two different briefs for the songs and neither knew they would be put on the songs together. But Hikaru had to go with how the final songs turned out because somebody probably told them ‘Imajin are the next big thing’. And to Hikaru, they’re young, they sound good, they’re Black and they’re signed to Jive records; the same label that Aaliyah was signed to. So there’s a slight co-sign and a stamp of authenticity brought to the album as a result of Jamal’s inclusion, and Hikaru was probably excited about that. But the slight sexual insinuation that Jamal’s performances bring to the songs is dog messy, because it negates the innocence of the album and just isn’t appropriate. Especially when you consider the Jive Records of it all, with the age at which Aaliyah recorded her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, who she recorded that album with and how insidious that album and song title is in and of itself given that.

R&B for young women in the 90s was a very different landscape. Girls were coming out with debut albums at 14 and 15 and sounding like grown ass women on songs. But there was a line to tow. And I think Brandy and Monica had a really solid balance between a look, a sound and a performance which could appeal to both kids and adults, without erasing the fact that they were very much still minors. But with Aaliyah, it was a whole different kettle of fish. Because there was a clear effort to downplay just how young she was. Young girls who were Aaliyah’s age wanted to be her, because not only did she look so insanely cool, but she seemed grown. She sounded grown. She was singing about grown love. You forgot how young Aaliyah actually was, which for better and worse, made the songs work in the ways in which they did. Hikaru on the hand, unmistakably sounds her age on these songs. And yet she’s singing ‘I'm yours tonight...’. It’s a tad weird.

The best moments on Precious are the ones which are age appropriate and speak to the charms of the Hikaru fans grew to adore. Basically any song which sounds like it could have been included on First Love. “How Ya Doin” is one such song. My favourite song on the album. The beat bangs. The lyrics are age appropriate. And it dramatises something as simple as just wanting to say hello to somebody and converse with them. Real shit for anybody at any age. Especially those with social anxiety. “Take a Little While” is also a really sweet song. Coming off like is like a pre-teen version of Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait a While”. When the songs are from the perspective of a young girl’s perception of love and being in the stages of a crush, the songs work. But when the songs are from the perspective of trying to be grown and be in the throes of love, they don’t really work. And it’s not like Hikaru’s vocals are so good and the production is so amazing that they could work better with some changes.

Precious hasn’t aged as well as Hikaru Utada’s Japanese studio albums. All of the songs sound dated. Hikaru’s voice sounds raggedy across every song. But it is an album worth a listen for anybody who wants to hear more of Hikaru Utada before they became ‘HIKARU UTADA’. And it is a testament to the team Hikaru had around them. The music industry is an absolute shit heap right now when it comes to record labels holding albums hostage, there being no artist development and artists having to just figure stuff out on their own. So it’s nice to have a somewhat documented account of an artist who was allowed to mess around, throw stuff at the wall to see what stuck and then have a team rally around them to make something which was fit to be considered a debut album - which would go on to be one of the best-selling albums in Japan. And this sense of regrouping and refining is something which you can see has been applied to all of Hikaru Utada’s albums, right up until this day. So I guess Precious is kinda...precious.

▪ How Ya Doin’ 🏆
▪ Take a Little While