Second Quarter Report 2018: J-Pop

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By Ryo Miyauchi

The second quarter of pop in Japan was a rather grim one to witness. Misconduct with young women by numerous male idols from the ages-old Johnny & Associates agency made headlines. While a couple of NEWS members were caught drinking with underage girls, TOKIO’s Tatsuya Yamaguchi was dropped from his group after sexually harassing a teenage girl. Reports later turned worse with a story on the suicide of a local Ehime idol, an act her family ties to stress from her agency. A Buzzfeed Japan story also detailed how a former member of Niji No Conquistador sued the president of Pixiv for sexual harassment. It’s an unfortunate reminder that toxicity isn’t too far in proximity of this scene of music, no matter how sunny it may all seem from the outside.

 

=LOVE - Teokure Caution

 
 

HKT48’s Rino Sashihara has been involved in quite a few releases this quarter. She knows what she's doing as the producer of =LOVE and its latest single. That melodramatic, string-led chorus escapes the shadow of producer's home AKB satellite group, and the intensity of it is doubled in comparison to any unit under the umbrella.

 

Someday Somewhere - Kono Koi wa Transit

 
 

Note: You can stream the full song on Spotify here.

Sashihara's work for Last Idol group Someday Somewhere, meanwhile, sounds closer to HKT's main single this quarter, "Hayaokuri Calendar." She hands in an energetic pop sound for the subunit, and the singers answer to the single’s bubbly spirit by shouting out loud of every obsessive detail of who their hearts want. It sounds like typical idol fodder on the surface, though the group sings with a modern attitude that beats out the other producers involved in Last Idol, featuring a much older generation such as Tsunku, Tetsuya Komuro and AKB's chief songwriter Yasushi Akimoto.

 

Nogizaka46 - Against / NMB48 - Yokubomono

Note: You can stream the full song on Spotify here.

After Nogizaka put out "Influencer" and Keyakizaka struck big with "Silent Majority," the two groups tried to shift away from their respective sentimental theatrics. The former 46 group decided to reserve that emotionally serious attitude more for its B-side this time around, as heard in "Against." That maudlin sound has carried its way instead to NMB48, who doubles down on both the stark baroque-pop workings and the commanding hooks of both 46 groups for its new single.

 

Hiragana Keyakizaka46 - Kitaishiteinai Jibun

 
 

With now a release of a new album, Hiragana Keyakizaka46 further complicates the AKB universe. The Hiragana subgroup exists along with its main 46 group as a unit of sunnier juniors in contrast to the edgy seniors. The lead single still carries a defeatist spirit sung in, say, "Eccentric" while built by familiar string-pop embellishments, yet the relative lightness sides the group closer to Nogizaka and its recent main single "Synchronicity."

 

EMPiRE - For Example??

 
 

A group born as a collaborative effort between Avex Trax and WACK, EMPiRE initially looked too clean and proper compared to the hot mess displayed by its sister groups. Yet not only does the group tackle music with an equal die-hard intensity as the others in its debut full-length, THE EMPiRE STRiKES START!!, the music shows a surprising amount of range within the agency’s aesthetic. There are the naval-gazing emo-punk numbers as expected from a WACK release, but the Avex A&Rs have also done their homework, culling a variety of dance-pop beats like this single to widen EMPiRE's palette.

 

Takoyaki Rainbow - Niji Iro Shinkaron

 
 

The Stardust group's cutesy yet placid first single, "Sotsugyo Love Tasty," did not do much to hype up its new album, Double Rainbow. Their second go with this dynamic take on modern R&B is a better sell for what is promoted as a showcase of the group's variety. The members try their best to wear a hip-hop brand of cool yet they don't let it fully rob their kansai-indebted personality.

 

Wa-Suta - Tapioca Milk Tea

 
 

You'd think tapioca milk tea would be a more popular subject for an idol song. The crowd-favorite beverage plays a big part in Wa-suta's latest summer jam, and the Idol Street group takes it a bit beyond the cliche, writing the drink as a center of heart-warming relationships. Coming from the typical, sweet idol vibe of its previous single, "Welcome to Dream," the slight throwback pop sound gives the song a refreshing kick.

 

Avandoned - After School

 
 

After a brief hiatus due to one of the girls focusing on college entrance exams, the duo returns with a cheery single to celebrate her getting accepted. "Ending is beginning" goes the hook, and both are ready to bask in the good news in a lively comeback record that sounds like the Go! Team producing yet another idol single.

 

Malcolm Mask McLaren - Light On!!

 
 

A skate park provides a much appropriate scene for the new video of Malcolm Mask McLaren. The rambunctious crew tackles a Warped Tour-ready metalcore track, breakdown and all, with a bubbly pop-punk energy. Despite the rowdy teen spirit, the group's sincere as it can be, all the way down to that chorus about friendship.

 

Passcode - Ray

 
 

Note: The above video is not an official upload

Speaking of Warped Tour, here's a group who actually performed at the Japan edition of the punk-rock festival this year. And Passcode makes a perfect fit for the line-up with its pop package of a more synth-charged metalcore, including the blood-curdling screams unique to the subgenre. For the group's latest single, though, the group tones down the screams and breakdowns to bring a more focused pop record.

 

Burst Girl - Great Fxxking My World

 
 

Burst Girl debuted in January from the ashes of the now-defunct metal idols Guso Drop, and the unit certainly takes some of its former group's no-fucks-given rock spirit in "Great Fxxking My World." Both the sound and vocals have less polish to them in comparison to, say, Passcode or Malcolm Mask McLaren above, though the rough-shot feel to it adds to the group's scrappy charm.

 

Band Ja Naimon! - Koi Suru Kanzen Hanzai

 
 

Band Ja Naimon's new double A-side offers two different moods, both produced by GLAY's HISASHI. While "Born to Be Idol" delivers cleverness in its meta-idol pop, I prefer the straightforward rock-out of "Koi Suru Kanzen Hanzai." The riff as well as its punchy chorus competes with any other metal-inspired bands, or any rock bands for that matter.

 

Yanakoto Sotto Mute - Louvre no Sora

 
 

Yanakoto Sotte Mute increasingly showed growth on its past two EPs, Stamp and Echoes, fine-tuning its earnest emo-rock sound into bigger, deeper-hitting songs. While the group's newest full-length Mirrors bundles those two records together, it also features new tracks like "Louvre no Sora" that up the intensity as well as the complexity of the group's music.

 

Payrin's - Soredemo Bokura No Kokyu Wa Tomoranai

 
 

Crooked guitar riffs play hot to the touch in "Soredemo Bokura No Kokyu Wa," and the trio refuses to let the restless energy go to waste. While the music already makes clear that the group prizes activity, the three gets further frustrated seeing you standing still in relation to life progress. With a lyric like, "even if you curse your powerlessness, god won't give you anything," to kick you in the ass, this isn’t your typical cheer-up idol song.

 

Sora Tob Sakana - Lightpool

 
 

A favorite Sora Tob Sakana quote of mine comes from a J-Melo interview when the group got asked how the members tackle such complex music of spidery math-rock tailored to idol pop. "At first we didn't understand how difficult they were," Fuka Kanzaki of the four-piece replied. "We just sang them at shows." The innocence behind that answer can be heard in the wide-eyed whimsy of "Lightpool," a strong single to the group's great alight EP.

 

Qumalidepart - Piano

 
 

A similar whimsical spirit can be found in Qumalidepart, a recent project of producer Kenta Sakurai. He takes a more typically idol-pop approach to his signature kitchen-sink production, which sounds here like the result of a cat walking all across the keys of this single's titular instrument. The girls add more charm to the song's fuzzy warmth as they vow to hold on to their promise with their respective crushes.

 

Maison Book Girl - Rain Coat To Kubi No Nai Tori

 
 

Kenta Sakurai's more known for his more art-pop-inclined group Maison Book Girl. The lead single, "Rain Coat To Kubi No Nai Shima," off its latest single elude takes a more dramatic turn with stern strings atop its usual assemblage of quirky toy-box sounds. The lyrics here remain impressionistic as its previous feels-heavy single Kotoeri, and it only deepens the group's mystique.

 

Kolokol - Squall

 
 

Kolokol works a well-defined aesthetic in its latest full-length, Nostalgia, with the group finding a sweet middle between emo-rock's earnestness and dream-pop's pastel softness. The group lays its emotions bare in the music of lead single "Squall," but the song sounds far from vulnerable.

 

RYUTist - Mujyuroku Fantasia

 
 

This B-side should sound familiar to anyone who fell for Especia and its future-funk-predicting pop music earlier this decade. RYUTist’s latest A-side, "Aozora Signal," may be a great cheery piece of idol-pop, but the dreamy midnight-funk of "Mujyuroku" overshadows it.

Second Quarter Report 2018: Rap

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By Maxwell Cavaseno

With yet another chapter of 2018 seemingly resolved, we’ve seen numerous developments in rap continue to unfold. Whether from the various pockets of the West Coast, mini-scenes of the once-destitute NYC, parts of the country with little national rap history, or even ‘across the pond,’ changes are still underway. Once again we have a number of selections here at Tone Glow to provide you with just a brief hint at the endless possibilities that rap has to offer, and a showcase for why this year has been endlessly intriguing. With only half the year concluded after all, one must wonder just what will stand out among the pack and will continue to linger in our memories for years to come. But for now, here’s just a few choice cuts to illustrate the infinite supply of gems.

 

Trippie Redd - I Kill People (feat. Tadoe & Chief Keef)

 
 

Perhaps no potential pop crossover remains more beguiling than the effort the industry is putting behind Trippie Redd. A young man from Canton, Ohio barely out of his teens who claims sets while also pairing up with Top 40 songwriters and crooning over acoustic guitars. This would be paradoxical were it not for the overtly melodic sensibilities dictating his musical output, making any other career path seem foolish. The sweet & sour clash of energies more often than not allows for an enticing mix, as demonstrated by his Chief Keef collaboration “I Kill People.” Trippie remains on hook duty, while Keef’s cousin and affiliate Tadoe (you know, the guy he spent the majority of his debut mentioning doing molly) turns in a blunt and leaden verse to counteract Keef’s more melodic approach. It’s fairly interesting both as a more conventional outing from Trippie and as another example of Keef, once a radical figure from the general scene, slowly meeting his progeny halfway under more commercial terms.

 

Playboi Carti - Fell In Luv (feat. Bryson Tiller)

 
 

Note: The above video is not an official upload. You can stream the song on Spotify here.

Carti’s official album Die Lit was met with a fair amount of positive reception, thanks in no short amount to Carti’s development as a rapper and of course the capitalization of the chemistry between he and producer Pi’erre Bourne for the majority of a full-length project. The only point of contention for many listeners with positive expectations were the numerous features, a dearth of individuals who were put to the daunting test of trying to adapt to the smeary sonic warps of Bourne. This drastic demand for adaptation to the extremity of existence that Carti’s rap universe seemed to require led to some very fascinating occurrences, including that of rapper/singer Bryson Tiller on Carti’s “Fell In Luv.” There, Carti’s straightforward approach over the phantasmal vocal snippets is the usual levels of amusing stream-of-consciousness nonsensicals, but listening to Tiller effortlessly switch between rapping and crooning within the production feels practically transcendental.

 

YoungBoy Never Broke Again - Traumatized

 
 

With his debut album Until Death Call My Name released, YoungBoy Never Broke Again effectively assured his place in the greater rap scene. The record is an impressive outing from the Baton Rouge-based MC that showcases his considerable talents in the melodic, lyrical, and technical dimensions with no signs of commercial tampering. “Traumatized,” however, works as a standout record thanks to the effortlessness of his dark imagery and emotional content, projecting not merely your typical rap game pariah complex but genuinely morbid obsessions with death that seem startling for someone still barely out from their teenage years. The viciously morose energy that pervades the album is incredibly grandiose and tragic in a way few of his peers—of all ages13appear to be permitted to achieve, and should not necessarily be the strict domain of so young a talent; still, the general rap game appears to be digressing further and further away from these emotive and darkly romantic albums in favor of trite sentimentality and vapid narcissism, only making YoungBoy’s talents feel more estranged and exotic.

 

Nef the Pharaoh & 03 Greedo - Ballout (feat. ALLBLACK)

 
 

By the time this article is printed, LA-based rapper 03 Greedo will be imprisoned for charges that could result in him serving up to 20 years in jail. The past year has seen Greedo’s profile rise from shenanigans in the media, but there has also been the building of a rabid fanbase who are captivated by his songwriting capabilities and considerable rap talents. Both in stylistic approaches and prolific nature (and unfortunate circumstances), one could easily draw parallels between Greedo and the still-incarcerated Max B, a comparison now abetted by the manifestation of such a large cult audience. That said, the last half a year has been the full capitalization of Greedo’s hype and talents with several figures of the West Coast eagerly collaborating with him to reap from his infamy. “Ballout” features Nef the Pharaoh and rising artist ALLBLACK (who’s material bears a notable similarity to frequent Greedo collaborator DrakeO The Ruler), and places all three of the MCs in straightforward rap mode with each doing their best to overpower the other at a breakneck pace. While perhaps this posse cut is not the greatest showcase for Greedo’s versatility, it feels strange that his natural rap talents have been overlooked in favor of his more melodic and pop-oriented works, even amongst rap fans.

 

Allblack - 07 Lynch (feat. Daboii) / Daboii - Onna Gang / SOB x RBE - All Facts Not 1 Opinion

Personally, I tend to frequently propose that one of the best rappers in America today is Daboii of SOB x RBE. The other members are all considerable talents of respect, and the group as a whole is one of the hottest rising acts this year. However, as demonstrated by last year's Y.W.N, Daboii is rapidly becoming an aggressive proponent of wordplay while also opting for more unconventional production choices compared to his teammates. The former is easily showcased on spots such as “07 Lynch” or “All Facts Not One Opinion,” but “Onna Gang” stands out in Daboii’s growing solo catalogue for continuing the ‘throwback’ trend in the group’s output, but instead leaning closer to 90s Bay Area Rap rather than 80s roller-rink soundtracks. Idealistically, a new project may yet emerge from Daboii, which can grant us insight as to how much more confident he’s become with the growing success meeting his dares.

 

Glokknine - Rickey Fowler

 
 

One of the considerable frustrations of the more recent years of rap is that audiences are much more intolerant of artists who too closely resemble talents they’ve only just started to tolerate. Whereas a decade age, Southern Rappers could easily mirror Mystikal, Pastor Troy, Gucci Mane, or Jeezy rather shamelessly and reap a brief period of success, fans are now quick to bemoan the merest hint of similarity (See: Desiigner). Glokknine has been a similar case of beneficiary/victim due to his vocal similarities to fellow Florida native Kodak Black. Granted, initial efforts have seen the drawl adapted to similar enough singles that the perpetual comparison made a certain amount of sense. However, more recent efforts such as “Rock N Roll” and “Rickey Fowler” appear to be taking some of those vocal characteristics and attaching them to post-Detroit style thumpers at a higher tempo. Impressively, this perhaps suggests that Glokknine is going to rapidly distinguish himself from any presumptions of redundancy.

 

Sada Baby - Cheat Code

 
 

One of the more ‘mercurial’ artists out of the still burgeoning Detroit scene, Sada Baby feels like the rare artist from the scene whose personality transcends the regional style’s oppressive qualities. A malignant showboater akin to Sauce Walka or Peewee Longway, there is a logical future where Sada Baby overwhelms his rapping with his personality and takes the Meme Fodder approach that has served Plies or Blac Youngsta very well in these last few years to glance over the shoddiness of their actual musical output. Instead, there’s a constant oscillation between those excessive amounts of personality and the rap craft, which the latter is demonstrated on “Cheat Code.” Solid, straight ahead versions of the Detroit rap scene, but unquestionably colored by his zany and vivid imagination and characterisation. “Cheat Code” is impressive because it demonstrates Sada at his most pared down and least eccentric, which is still somehow a rather frenetic sort of personality who jumps out in contrast to the withdrawn and sulky nature of his scene.

 

Sheck Wes - Chippi Chippi

 
 

In an unlikely turn of events, Soundcloud appears to be providing a creative rebirth and restoration for New York City’s rap scene despite the city’s inability to truly thrive as time and time again promised. It’s hard to determine why or how, but the city’s resurgence has led to a rapidly developing and expanding scene with various differning takes on the more ‘culturally flattened’ rap landscape. A clear example is Harlem’s Sheck Wes, current protégé of Travis Scott, who’s “Mo Bamba” appears to be a rising cult hit and relies on a contrast of boisterousness and effervescence with a distinctly East Coast energy to contradictorily fit in and stand out all at once. Interesting in its own right from Sheck is his follow up “Chippi Chippi,” which relies on post-Raider dread and imagery that echoes “Bringing the Phonk”-era SGP. With no amassed project in sight, Sheck’s career still remains gestative, but offers plenty of potential to indicate where a good number may head towards.

 

Dee Aura - System (feat. Lite Fortunato) / Jay Critch - Thousand Ways

 
 

Note: Dee Aura's "System" was featured on his #FreePromo tape but has subsequently been removed

Unlikely as it seems, one of the bigger potential influencers of the aforementioned NYC Soundcloud Scene is former Atlanta-rapper Rich the Kid. The QC affiliated talent did well enough in recognizing the talents of Chicago’s Famous Dex early on, but more recently he’s been grooming two talents emerging out of NYC: Jay Critch and Lite Fortunato. Both rappers are interesting in that they have a basic understanding of the rootless trends of the present rap game, but are slowly starting to work in ways to allow themselves to keep one foot in and one foot out of NYC traditions while doing so. Critch’s “Thousand Ways” is produced by long-standing New York veteran producer Harry Fraud, whose ethereal sampling chops reflect his work for French Montana and Chinx Drugs as well as numerous others, while Critch feels like a ‘safer’ more traditional version of Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N***a” as he provides playful swag raps and boasts. Meanwhile, on Queens-based Rapper Dee Aura’s “The System,” Lite Fortunato attempts to use rapid-fire speed raps akin to Uzi or XXXTentacion yet affects a voice that sounds almost parodically like early Jay-Z while ducking and weaving in producer Cash Cobain’s neon pinball machine cluttering. How profound that these two and their various attempts to remodel this classic style of rap is at the behest of someone so seemingly antithetical to that approach.

 

MIKE - Time Ain’t Enough

 
 

While more commercial rap lanes have benefitted from a hyper-aggressive attitude towards prolific releases (perhaps occasionally to their detriment), so-called ‘underground’ rap generally seems to have deferred to fairly traditional methods of output. Working against that this year, however, is rising star MIKE who’s managed to release multiple projects within the last half-year to fairly rapturous reception. His smeared, tidal foam approach to rap (both in production and performance) gets plenty of comparison to later-day Earl Sweatshirt but lacks any of the surges of hypermasculine insecurity that plague his works. While the video of “Time Ain’t Enough” off of his Black Soap looks like a warped VHS rip of an 80s Black Indie Comedy, the accompanying production provided from the Standing On The Corner crew he’s affiliated with makes MIKE sound like a drunken attempt at scoring, poetry superimposed beside. There’s a pained resignation and solemnity that’s surprisingly inscrutable when you remember how young the artist in question is and that he can offer so much maturity in his works. 2018 is only halfway done, but there’s more than a fair argument that it’s been an impressive year for MIKE that demonstrates his vitality in the current rap climate and one hopes he will become a blueprint for many others.

 

Lucki - Facts Only

 
 

Chicago’s Lucki currently has himself marketed as ‘alternative trap,’ a self-applied label that is more about branding than any substantial genre-direction. True, his efforts reflect that of the more outré Chicago rappers influenced by street rap such as Valee or Adamnkilla than anything from the more straightforward street rappers nor the pleasant ‘tips of the hat’ to the styles provided by the more conservative Savemoney collective. And yet, his efforts find himself less middle of the road with broader appeals to differing fanbases... and more drifting off into a ditch. “Facts Only” is a hyper-distorted attempt at snippet rap by someone who clearly aspires more to structure and injecting content than a majority of the field. At the same time, the brevity and the terseness feel at odds with this approach, which gives a fragmented and half-formed feel to the track. Aided by a ghostly flute loop, “Facts Only” truly encapsulates the temporality of snippet rap by making the song (barely clocking in over 90 seconds) so momentary and ephemeral that it points to the feelings of impatience and restlessness among this current generation of rap.

 

Snowprah - Yank Riddim

 
 

New England is an area of the United States that’s historically remained fairly obscure as far as impressing the general rap climate, and even then it’s mostly been upheld by the city of Boston as sole representer. Interestingly, there’s been an effort made by certain media circles this year to go outward and establish the Northeast beyond New York. It has yet to result in any footholds established for newer artists, but it is most certainly an interesting step. Of the few records being circulated, Snowprah’s “Yank Riddim” is one of the most fascinating in reflecting an East Coast sensibility that isn’t hard-headed ‘true-school’ rap. Even with the casual dips in and out of the Busta Rhymes sample, the danceable groove is the kind of rap that even the Tri-State has had trouble releasing beyond itself without internal policing. No telling if this is a brief media aberration or the beginning of a potential new arena for rap, but it’s still a welcome change.

 

Headie One - Broni

 
 

The Road Rapper of Choice for 2018 appears to be Headie One, as proven by his successful string of recent singles which have seen him stand head and shoulders above a majority of the scene in a surprisingly short time. His records boast a pained sort of foghorn melancholy via his sung hooks, making him feel like a UK Response to late-period Future, but with the post-East Coast sensibility of lyricism and wordplay deliberately embedded within instead of the “Absolute Minimum” attitude plaguing a greater deal of the Atlanta Commercial Rap scene. The beneficiary of the ghostly drum excesses of M1OnTheBeat, Headie One’s simplicity and precision create a spiderlike balancing act that makes his records seem fragile. Yet the potency of these songs—such as on recent single “Broni” to promote his newest project The One Two—is unmistakable. Here, Headie’s rhythmic sways and bops are punctuated with clear verbal trickery, demonstrating the absolute calculation and discipline at hand. From the way things are looking, the eventual breakthrough of Headie One might just be a defining moment for UK Rap as it continues to redefine itself.

 

Cadell - Roman

 
 

After considerable oversaturation and rampant commodification, grime in 2018 has been very close to an afterthought. More and more, the older generation flood the scene with middling attempts at career revivals while the youngest wave falters to release projects that demonstrate any characteristics to inspire real investment. One who has managed to defy this trend is, perhaps ironically or maybe fittingly, the younger half-brother of Grime’s Godfather Wiley: Cadell. Last year’s L.O.N.D.O.N. was by far one of the most impressive LPs in the history of the genre to date—not even regulated to his peer group—and his future releases do not lack any sort of punch. Arguably his greatest attribute is an innate ability to successfully modernize grime not by turning it into an odd replication of US Rap or simply chase after true-school orthodoxy to the genre’s best known tropes, but to synthesize it along styles such as jungle and drill into newer and more exciting variants. Recent single “Roman,” produced by Teeza, works hard to do as such. Cadell’s flow-switches swivel and spiral within the spaciousness punctuated by the drums, avoiding the post-garage half-step for a terse shuffle that feels much closer to the drums of a Carns Hill than a Skepta or Jammer. While grime itself feels incredibly uncertain, the career of Cadell feels like a guaranteed winner.

 

T Face - Hermione / Muller - Just One

As 2018 rolls along, UK Drill appears to be in a much more uncertain position than it was at the very beginning. Law officials have begun to block and restrict the audiovisual output of crews on suspicion of promoting crime, thereby setting an unseen precedent for Real World Consequences for lyrical content. Additionally, the scene’s flood has resulted in largesse among some of the larger crews who frequently add on newer members to infuse new life, often producing mixed results. Now more than ever, the individual approach appears to be the greatest argument for why and how artists should be gauged creatively for remembering and investing in, even if legal forces might easily argue otherwise. Yet who or what presents the greatest approach? T Face’s “Hermione” holds the usual affair from a writer’s perspective but instead relies on a tricky flow that pivots and slides on a whim, bringing a release to the stiffness plaguing the scene at large. Meanwhile, Muller’s “Just One” doesn’t reject the clichés, but instead enhances the lyrical detail to a jarring and stomach-turning specificity and brutality. It’s hard to say if any specific direction is ideal or if they’ll become fostered among the bulk of the younger artists populating the scene, but room for development and experimentation still appears to be ready for discovery.

 

Thiside - Bet

 
 

Given that Soundcloud Rap represents notions of borderlessness, it feels in many ways inevitable that more and more countries would attempt to fit themselves into this dialogue. After all, if regional characteristics are themselves being unrooted and placed into public consciousness, why shouldn’t they transcend national borders? London-based group Thiside certainly have plenty of hallmarks from popular US Soundcloud acts as well as more than a few UK tropes, which blend to a degree that can either be impressive or simply reflect what’s made impressions on the young rappers. Still, of all their singles, “Bet” is impressive as a showcase for their technical excellence and ability to demonstrate variation amongst the ranks, hinting that they too can become a national or maybe even international presence of note.

First Quarter Report 2018: J-Pop

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By: Ryo Miyauchi

Graduations of idols happen all the time from the top to bottom of the chain yet the first quarter of this year saw a few that shook up respective areas of the scene. Momoka Ariyasu left Momoiro Clover Z in January, and it’s still sort of odd to see the group as a four-piece on TV; Pour Lui exited BiS in March (she returned but as a member of Billie Idle in May), closing the bridge to the Society’s past legacies in the underground. After such big departures, it amazes how Morning Musume has lasted so long after many cycles — 20 years to be exact, an anniversary which the franchise celebrated this February. Such a benchmark raises a question: is it better for a group to try its best to persist or fold while it’s hot? Momo Clo also hit year 10 this year, and it takes up too much space to stop now, but look at Idol Street groups GEM and Cheeky Parade, both set to disband this summer: lasting a decade into this business is a very rare thing.

Despite the departures, the idol scene in Japan in 2018 is already off to good start from rich pop singles by groups old and new. Here are some of them.

 
 

Gang Parade - Breaking The Road

 

Gang Parade experienced its own goodbyes too, with some of its beloved members returning to their original groups after several months spent bonding. But GanPare overcomes separation with inspiring optimism in its punk-pop single, overflowing with newfound energy. "The shape may be different / but we are the one / we're looking at the same thing," Yumeno Yua sings, and that lyric perfectly sums up the group, if not the overall idol scene these first few months.

 
 

BiSH - Paint It Black

The rise of BiSH as a mainstream idol group since last fall has been fascinating, if not slightly overwhelming from just how fast things happen. Perhaps its exuberant pop-punk single "Paint It Black," slotted as the title track to the anime Black Clover, sped up the process. While it cleans up a lot of the muck and grime that added a charm to its previous pre-Guerrilla BiSH music, its screams as far-from-perfect underdogs still seems well earned.

 

BiS - Whole Lotta Love

The other huge news concerning talent company WACK was the graduation of Pour Lui, who with BiS arguably inspired if not birthed a lot of the so-called alt-idols covered in this column. That shake-up may have inspired a devastating song, but the future of the group seems rather bright from the sound of this lightning bolt of punk energy. BiSH may be bigger in popularity, but BiS remains far unmatched in hunger and drive.

 

Billie Idle - P.S.R.I.P.

The future of Billie Idle, meanwhile, looked unpredictable during the first quarter. Half a year after the cryptically titled full-length, Last Album, the group parted ways with WACK producer Junnosuke Watanabe to be solely produced by Nigo -- yes, that guy currently behind the clothing line Human Made. That said, B.I. tackles the unknown without an ounce of doubt in the last co-produced effort "P.S.R.I.P." Atop one cheerful pop-punk, the four laugh off any uncertainty to instead enjoy their company together while they still can.

 

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders - Koi no Shadanki

Note: The full song can be heard on Spotify here

Out of the many choices in niche genres explored by an idol group, the jazzy, swing-pop sound adopted by Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders (ironically, Leaders of the New School) in this single stands out through its proximity to a more domestic source of reference. It’s no city pop, though the base of its poised, sepia-toned piano-pop recalls records from the Showa era. Elsewhere in its solid full-length debut, Maenarawanai, similarly aligns itself to a retro-pop path paved by the likes of Etsuko Yakushimaru and her descendants.

 

Dots Tokyo - Kimi ni Ochiru Yoru

Dots Tokyo stirred up some headlines last year for its "shoegaze idol" concept but also its various gimmicks, starting from the group's impossible-to-Google name, literally a series of nine dots. Fortunately, the music justifies a follow: members from cinematic dream-pop band For Tracy Hyde handle the music for this surging synth-pop cut that finds the girls a bit more extroverted than its older songs, like this one directly taking from the noisy scrawls of My Bloody Valentine.

 

Saka-Sama - Owarikara

Aside from Dots Tokyo, Trash-Up! Records have also produced dream-pop idol group Saka-Sama -- definitely a much easier act to search on the web. "Owarikara" leans to the more tender, starry-eyed side of the group's inspirations, closer to the school of Slowdive than Kevin Shields. Though not ones to be easily pegged, Saka-Sama explores a variety of hipster-friendly genres from '00s dance-punk to late '80s New Order in its latest Yumeno Hate Mademo EP.

 

There There Theres - Soil

The group formerly known as Bellring Shojo Heart began a new life last year as There There Theres, now three singles deep under its new name. The maudlin art-pop of "There's Something Behind" from last fall was a bit too musically stuffy for its own good, with crooked piano riffs spilling out from its seams. Third time seemed to be the charm with this year's "Soil," where the group smoothed out the rough ends of its former record to bring a neatly tied pop song.

 

Yukueshirezu Tsure Zure - Paradise Lost

The metalcore four-piece also known as Not Secured, Loose Ends brought yet another anxiety-heavy single. Instead of gunning harder with more brutal blast of music, the white-knuckled song retreats intensely inward. The members mentally push themselves into the edge over their insecurities while the serpentine guitars coil into mesmerizing shapes.

 

Junjo no Afilia - Sore Dakega, Ikiru Imi Nanda

This sweeping, loosely meta string-pop ("That's the Only Meaning to Life") looks at the road of an aspiring star with a pretty bleak perspective, favoring talks about being shot down by reality over reflecting upon inspirational dreams. Yet the chorus ends in a signature idol-pop call-out: "remember your promise / stay by my side forever / that's the only meaning to life," the singers passionately claim, and I can't say it doesn't work.

 

E-girls - Pain, Pain

Even Avex's leading girl-group E-girls had a run with forlorn string-pop in "Pain, Pain." A much darker affair than the collective's usual sunny disco, the single trades the joys of nights out in the city for a forbidden romance shrouded in elements of fantasy. The result is actually a welcome change of pace, especially after post-lineup-change single "Love Queen," which did not do well to assure the group's future after the departure of Dream.

 

Keyakizaka46 - Garasu wo Ware!

Keyakizaka46 seems to let others -- its sister units in the AKB franchise as well as other groups -- handle the lane of stern string-pop. The punk-pop call-to-arms "Garasu wo Ware" knocks out the facade behind its previous single, the bitter and dramatic "Fukyowaon," with a gutsy, Gen-Z chorus. Naturally, the teen-rebel anthem hits slightly cheesy due to its naivete, but it only adds to the group's appeal that's well tailored for the youth.

 

Tokyo Girls' Style - Last Romance

Another voice of a young generation, Haru Nemuri offers a rather apocalyptic pop for Tokyo Girls' Style, whose recent trendy dance-pop excursions don't seem fit for such a tone upon first impression. The four-piece imagines the title as the end of the world quickly approaches, atop an otherwise bright city-pop-revival tune. The clash between the bleak and hopeful actually results in an exciting, new sound for TGS.

 

Cheeky Parade - Marigold

Label mates of Tokyo Girls' Style, soon-to-disband Cheeky Parade tackles a similarly sleek, loosely Chainsmokers-inspired dance-pop sound for its new slow jam. This page of modern romance doesn't end on a uplifting note, though: the group observes a faded love gone from staring into each other's eyes to focusing only on Smartphone screens in this break-up song.

 

Callme - Hello No Buddy

Callme remains a rather unsung unit from Avex Trax while its earnest yet sophisticated synth-pop keeps getting sharper with each release. The trio got a lot deeper in touch with its feelings for its latest full-length, Hello No Buddy, which featured the group's most nakedly sincere songs to date. The melancholy of its title track should write that home, if not in the yearning chorus, then the soft, winter beat.

 

OnePixcel - Howling

After last year's solid full-length, Monochrome, OnePixcel returned with more mesmerizing electro-pop in "Lagrima." Yet the trio's dynamic B-side, "Howling," is a more memorable song from its latest single. The pumping synth production shouts like an updated Eurobeat track, and not to be outmatched, the girls tackle that workout of a chorus no problem.

 

Tsubaki Factory - Teion Yakedo

Hello Project! understandably put a majority of its attention this quarter on Morning Musume's 20th anniversary, and Up Front Works acts were more productive in the second quarter. Though, Tsubaki Factory dished a single worthy of attention amid the busy period. It's a top-to-bottom textbook HP! release from dramatic sentimentality to corny monologues, especially this title track: the girls groan at themselves for having feelings for this idiot of a boy, trying all they can for attention over a production equally bursting with shine.

 

Tenko Shojo Kagekidan - Chocola no Kokohaku

Equally pouring dramatic emotion is Tenko Shojo, who will soon drop Kagekidan off its name after a half of its group graduated this year. The members pull their hair in frustration yet again after falling for a close friend; "But I decided not to ever fall in love again," they groan in the chorus. It's classic idol pop that blows up teenage feelings, and actually a little bit of Hello Project with that loose aside of monologue going into the last spurt of the song -- traditional yet very reliable.

 

Sayonara Ponytail - Kabe wo Buchikowase!

Sayonara Ponytail mines its music from a different retro corner of pop, with its airy vocals and soft, whimsical organ keys lifted from pop records that Shibuya-kei geeks may have fawned over. The sound suits the exploration of teen-romance nostalgia in its new album, Kimi wa Boku no Uchuu (You Are My Universe), as well as the album highlight, "Kabe wo Buchikowase" (Break That Wall!). The bashful murmur sets the scenario, a discussion between friends about a crush, while the asides playfully add to the cute story.

 

CY8ER - Hello New Generation

After changing its name from BPM15Q to CY8ER, the group probably got more attention last year for its meet-and-greet antic than its neon, hyperactive synth-pop singles produced by Yunomi. The new full-length from January, Hello New Generation, works as a nice catch-up as a good half of it collects some of the past singles. That said, the new title track is a fine introduction as well with Yunomi smoothing out his signature sugar-high drop into a more contained hook for a pop single.