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Rediscover: Ayumi Hamasaki: A Song for xx

Rediscover: Ayumi Hamasaki: A Song for xx

Japanese pop culture at the turn of the new millennium revolved around Ayumi Hamasaki.

Japanese pop culture at the turn of the new millennium revolved around Ayumi Hamasaki, who captured the nation’s attention with her breakthrough second album, Loveppears, in 1999. The popularity of that record shot her into stardom, and the 21-year-old singer soon cast a massive influence in the country’s hot trends: countless women of the era emulated her looks and fashion while adopting the star’s obsession with accessories and nail art. Yet her quick rise to fame was unpredictable based on the strength of the singer’s debut, A Song for xx, released at the very beginning of 1999. It may have got people interested in a fresh voice in J-pop, but it didn’t achieve the same kind of ubiquity in the next decade as her subsequent work.

While Hamasaki’s first album matched her following releases in terms of units moved, the record pales in comparison to the later blockbusters when it comes to scale. She had yet to define her now-signature sound: a stadium-minded dance-pop inspired by flamboyant arena-rock and the Eurobeat and trance remix compilations put out by her home label Avex Trax. Her skills as a singer weren’t quite there either. While she swings operatic highs on the regular for her current-day performances, her voice then couldn’t quite deliver big choruses without it trailing off.

A Song for xx sounds closer to a typical ’90s J-pop album that hit the top spots on the decade’s charts. Chintzy, twinkling synths accent earnest pianos, fitting for adult-contemporary pop records. Machine-programmed drums thwack with echo, and electric guitars bring the needed edginess for the showier cuts. The bold melodies and an even bolder flair in the music as heard in “Hana” or “You” easily date the record. The production sounded best in a song like “Trust” to deliver melancholy from a pensive soul, yet that moodiness could also be pushed to the edge.

Despite its sound being more specific for its time as that decade recedes from memory, A Song for xx remains essential to the singer’s catalog thanks to its introduction of Ayumi Hamasaki, the lyricist. “Why are you crying/ Why are you so confused,” she sings in the title track as the first words heard in the album. Hamasaki’s best songs from her long career have been intimate conversations between “you” and her about trying to overcome personal scars. Her direct address as well as her openness makes it easy to slip into the songs to be part of the dialogue, and that reliable, approachable voice in her writing was first established in her debut album.

The album title suggests a collection of comfort songs from the singer — the silent “xx” is a blank space to fill yourself—but Hamasaki openly acknowledges being a lost soul herself in A Song for xx. The young singer has yet to fully mature emotionally as an adult as she fixates upon her need for another half who can support her during her darker moments: she apologizes throughout the album for being too self-obsessed to recognize their own pains. But her honesty about her own flaws defines a human quality to her music, which has only become more vital as she has further ascended into stardom.

Rather than look back with regret, Hamasaki treasures the lessons learned and pays thanks to those who helped her along the way. Her best tributes in the album still ring bittersweet as she reminds that those addressed are no longer by her side. But the preciousness of what she gained ultimately wins out: “Since that day, I felt I can be stronger/ I can have pride in myself,” she sings in the chorus of “Trust.” She would further explore the theme to better results with the ballad “Love (Destiny),” the first number-one single released after A Song for xx, and these meditations upon relationships continued to inspire her biggest hits since.

“In the beginning, I was searching for myself in the music,” Hamasaki told Time back in 2002. As her fame grew exponentially, her music showed more awareness of her place in culture: in that same 2002 interview, she explained how 9/11 inspired her single “A Song Is Born” and how the event made her realize it’s not the “time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes.” The girl in A Song for xx was a naive youth in comparison, too caught up with life to see beyond herself. But that very innocence heard in the music makes Hamasaki’s debut album a unique document to revisit almost two decades later.

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