One of the first things, long-running Japanese pop and R&B singer, AI points out during the release show for her latest album Wa To Yo are the socks she’s wearing. They are traditional Japanese tabi, and they are a must when performing on a stage usually devoted to Noh, a classic type of Japanese play. She notes how smooth they feel, before Moon walking across the wooden floor. Her DJ, a few steps behind her, laughs and then shows off his white socks too.
A Noh theatre isn’t a normal backdrop for a show built around a mix of hip-hop inspired cuts and slow-burn ballads, yet a physical manifestation of centuries of Japanese culture felt right for AI in 2017. Since emerging on the J-pop scene in the early 2000s, she’s stood out primarily thanks to a radio-ready style blending R&B, rap and pop together, especially inspired by American artists such as Ashanti and Janet Jackson.
This June’s Wa To Yo, though, zeroes in on a personal dichotomy; AI was born in the United States, but grew up in Japan, frequently splitting time between the two. Her latest is divided into two distinct sides, the first (Wa) sung primarily in Japanese and incorporating traditional Japanese instruments. The other (Yo), is completely in English, and bends more towards high-energy R&B and rap. Artists in Japan have split releases in half a similar fashion before, but AI’s take results in a sonically diverse set that, despite being split in two, ultimately shows how R&B sounds can work against numerous backdrops. It is one of 2017’s more interesting J-pop releases as we come to the year’s midway point.
AI held the special release party for Wa To Yo at the new Noh theater in the basement of Ginza Six, one of Tokyo’s bigger new openings of 2017. Despite the traditionally Japanese backdrop, her set ran through both sides of her latest album, touching on songs anchored by taiko drums (“Justice Will Prevail At Last”) to more American-inspired electronic cuts (“Welcome To My City”). The live experience only further drives home what the album conveys so well; that the sonic elements of R&B, the style AI is best at, work wonders when surrounded by Japanese flutes or drum machines. It shows the gap between countries isn’t as drastic as they are often made out to be, and whether hearing the songs play out in front of a set evoking ancient Kyoto or on headphones, it makes Wa To Yo a highlight out of Japan this year.
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