“I don’t think it’s the music I’m concerned about. It’s obviously that I look really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people who are popular singers in the U.S. right now”.
Hikaru Utada (宇多田 ヒカル) made this remark around the unveiling of Exodus, her fourth LP. It was Utada’s attempt at penetrating the Western music marketplace after five years of dominance in the East. Exodus was never destined for a charmed existence, but Utada was aware of the cultural uphill battle awaiting her album―she didn’t flinch. Utada, then 21, continued on the progressive track of Exodus’ preceding album, Deep River (2002). Exodus was dense, dark and delicious; the album challenged the conventional pop groupthink prominent at the first half of the 2000’s.
Utada was no shrinking violet and Exodus was an uncompromising work that sought to satisfy her own artistic appetites, but somehow appeal to the fickle American pop populace. A decade removed from its release, Exodus retains its charismatic position in Utada’s discography.
The product of two accomplished musicians, Utada was born in New York City, New York in 1983. As a young girl, Utada jetted between Tokyo and New York City due to her parents work commitments―Utada became bilingual very quickly. Language wouldn’t be the only thing imprinted on Utada, she bathed in the cultures of America and Japan.
It was no surprise that Utada took to music and exhibited childlike prodigy traits. Songwriting her penchant, Utada inked a deal with Toshibi EMI who dropped her first major label record Precious (1996). She worked under the pseudonym “Cubic U,” a play on being the “third power” in the Utada family; the record was sung in English and written by a 13 year-old Utada. The album appeared in America and Japan on 1/28/98 and made no headway.
Undaunted, Utada fine-tuned her skills in arranging and producing. A year later, her real debut First Love (1999) caused a sensation in Japan. From 1999 through 2004, Utada monopolized the Japanese music scene with First Love and its followers Distance (2001), Deep River (2002) and Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004)**. Amid her hectic promotional schedule, Utada married her first husband Kazuaki Kiriya (15 years her senior). She also attended Columbia University briefly on a break from recording. In that same span of time, Utada recorded two songs in English for a film (‘Rush Hour 2’) and a video game (“Kingdom Hearts”).
The former, entitled “Blow My Whistle,” had Utada alongside The Neptunes and Foxy Brown; “Blow My Whistle” wouldn’t have been out of place on any of her first three recordings.
The latter, “Simple and Clean,” was a reworking of an established hit single from Deep River, “Hikari” (“Light”). The ethereal appeal of “Simple and Clean” created an immediate cult following, notably in America. Inspired by this, Utada decided again to record an album in English. However, Utada’s soundprint was turning toward something mercurial. Beginning with tentative steps on portions of Deep River, Utada experimented with ethereal wave, dream pop and classical music. All of these things coalesced on “COLORS,” the lone original recording on Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004). “COLORS” pointed to a moodier sonic space where the seeds of Exodus were sewn and cultivated.
Looking past the A&R maneuver to include “input” from Timbaland and his protegee Nate “Danja” Hills on two tracks (“Exodus ’04” and “Let Me Give You My Love”), Exodus was handled by Utada. There was an occasional contribution from her father Teruzane, working under the guise of “Sking U”.
Voyeurism acted as a central theme to the execution of Exodus. Even when Utada wrote about herself―“You Make Me Want to Be a Man” explored tension in her own marriage at the time―there was a distance. Utada seemed to want to step outside of herself here.
Musically, her previously three LPs dabbled in electronic music whereas Exodus wore its stormy electronic temper on its sleeve. The genre transformed throughout the course of Exodus’ playing time. Utada was tribal (“Devil Inside”), she smacked on arcade bubblegum (“Easy Breezy”) and manicured a post-prog-rock symphonic dirge (“Kremlin Dusk”).
The beats weren’t necessarily unfriendly, the bulk of them passed for clubby chic with a casual listen. But the fashionable surfaces of “Tippy Toe” and “Hotel Lobby” hid gloomier tales of infidelity and prostitution, topics not normally associated with pop. The most approachable song on Exodus was “Easy Breezy”. To the attentive listener, the song contained a tongue-in-cheek poke at American men’s ideas of Asian women (“You’re easy breezy and I’m Japan-easy…”) and one of the better phallic references ever written (“She’s gotta new microphone, she doesn’t need you anymore!”).
For the first time, Eastern flourishes were present in Utada’s output. Was Utada giving English listeners what they expected? Maybe, but in true Utada style there was an “in on what you think of me” air. Exodus poised itself to be the next enthralling chapter of this young woman’s journey.
Still signed with Toshibi EMI, Utada inked a deal with Island / Def Jam for Exodus Stateside. Mercury Records handled bringing the album to British ears in 2005.
Exodus debuted in Japan on 9/8/04, 10/5/04 in America and 9/25/05 in England. Four singles were culled from the project over the two year period: “Easy Breezy” (8/3/04), “Devil Inside” (9/14/04), “Exodus ’04” (6/21/05) and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man” (10/17/05).
While the record landed no hits on the Oricon Single Charts**, a first for Utada, Exodus did become the biggest selling foreign language album in Japan’s history. Exodus found a healthy life on all the Oricon Album Charts: weekly (#1), monthly (#1) and yearly (#6). The album shifted a million units and was awarded gold status; another success story for Utada.
Stateside it was a different, if not unexpected, story. In lieu of a diminutive campaign, Exodus placed at #160 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart; the record ended up selling 55,000 copies. Utada’s statement of being the first Asian singer to really reach out to American listeners had proved correct. She was an untested commodity and even with her clout abroad, the notoriously regimented U.S. radio formats couldn’t find a space for Utada.
With that said, the American clubs took to “Devil Inside”: U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales #5, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Airplay #10. Only two music videos were shot out of the four singles selected from Exodus: “Easy Breezy” and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man”. “You Make Me Want to Be a Man,” the only single to represent Utada in Britain a year later, fed her growing fanbase but didn’t cause a commotion: U.K. #227.
Critically, the album was greeted with positive reception. Andy Kellman of All Music Guide remarked of Exodus:
As the child of Japanese musicians who reside in both New York City and Tokyo, Utada Hikaru was perhaps predestined for a career as a performer informed by multiculturalism. On her first major-label English-language album, Utada delivers a diverse collection of urbane, modern, and, at times, almost avant-garde electronica and dance music.
Directed By: Jake Nava
Even as Exodus rescinded when Utada went onto her next LP, its effects lingered. The album was second in a three-part evolutionary trip that started with Deep River and ended with Ultra Blue (2006). All three albums had Utada pushing herself as far she could go and created one of the best back-to-back album stretches in popular music. Much of the material from Exodus Utada performed live on the tours Utada United (2006) and Utada: In the Flesh (2010).
Remarking of the record in 2009, Utada said: “Exodus was a very experimental album. I was like a mad scientist working away in an underground laboratory. I had the time of my life but it was a very intense, introverted process”.
Exodus might have been too powerful to make non-familiars comfortable with its sound. It does speak to Utada’s integrity that she would not eschew her music’s momentum to appease anyone. Utada bravely invited the uninitiated into her world, thus making her most introverted recording extroverted by sharing it. Risk is always worth the reward and as Hikaru Utada’s catalogue attests, that can never be a bad thing. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: **―Oricon Charts are the Japanese equivalent of our own Billboard charts. They split their album charts into three sections as seen in the essay. The Japanese often precede their first name with their last name. Exodus is available through any physical and digital music retailer. For current information on Hikaru Utada, please visit her official site.-QH]