A Song for XX still speaks to Hamasaki’s status as a J-pop star: introspective, hopeful and ever-evolving.
“Big in Japan” fails to do justice to Ayumi Hamasaki’s status in her home country. A J-pop icon, she boasts the highest record sales of any solo Japanese artist, smashing dozens of other records along the way. She’s shot more than 120 music videos, more than Beyoncé’s and Destiny’s Child’s videography combined. Her fashion inspired numerous trends and styles in Japan and across Asia. She’s written all her own lyrics, which strike a chord among her fans for their poignancy and relatable qualities.
From a young age, Hamasaki saw herself in the arts, and music proved to be her pathway into this world. The mentorship of Avex Trax, one of Japan’s largest music labels, proved fortuitous. A Song for XX, Hamasaki’s second release and first major label debut, launched her unprecedented career on New Year’s Day, 1999.
A full decade before Lady Gaga’s song of the same title, Hamasaki’s “Poker Face” arrived as Hamasaki’s major label debut single. The single causes a minor splash, the first of many larger and larger ones from the young artist.
Hamasaki’s youth heavily influenced her subject matter. “Becoming an adult or being an innocent child/ Which one is more painful?” she asks on “Hana,” only three tracks into the album. Against tidal waves of guitars and violins, the title track explores similar themes of a person’s evolution from girl to woman.
Musically, A Song for XX combines pieces of the preceding decade. The echoing keyboards that open “Wishing” and “For My Dear…” recall the intros of many a ‘90s R&B ballad. More prog rock elements peak through on the title track and “As If…,” whose riffs following the chorus recall the Chic chestnut “I Want Your Love.” When Hamasaki kicks things into higher gear, she dips into power chords and Euro dance synths made famous in Japan by Namie Amuro and the Super Monkeys.
Hamasaki may write all her own lyrics but offers little in terms of composition, and one could argue the more awkward moments in her music stems from this dichotomy. It arises on the finale of the title track, where Hamasaki hits the higher notes by pulling them straight out of her nose. Understandably, singing in Japanese requires different technique than singing in English, but the slight strain on her voice reveals a struggle to hit certain ranges.
As a time capsule,A Song for XX highlights the emergence of a major pop star, whose qualities Americans would eventually see in Western acts. Hamasaki’s depictions of maturation mirror those of Britney Spears (“I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman”) while her aptitude for lyricisms foreshadow the pop blockbusters of Taylor Swift. It also shows the marked contrast between the Hamasaki of yesterday and today. Her reign upon the Japanese charts began to take a tumble nearly a decade after her debut, and the past 10 years proved difficult for the Empress of J-pop. Today, Hamasaki suffers from deafness in one ear, the result of an illness she powered through during one of her early tours; she also confirmed that her other ear grows weaker by the day yet she promises to continue working. This, coupled with fans’ seeming disinterest or downright dismissal of Hamasaki, shows the stark change in how she’s been perceived since her heyday. Yet if anything, the album parallels with Hamasaki’s story today. As a woman just in her 40s, she enters an entirely new phase of her life as both a person and a pop star. One of Hamasaki’s main draws is her lyrics, which fans find applicable to many areas of their lives. Whether she intended for to or not, A Song for XX still speaks to her status as a J-pop star: introspective, hopeful and ever-evolving.