The adored cult artist was a groundbreaking producer and J-pop singer.
Hikaru Utada is staring dead ahead. Sitting in a swivel chair in an identikit wood-wall office, the twenty-year-old Manhattan native is surrounded by older men and women in business suits. To her left, the chairmen of media conglomerates stage genial smiles; to the right, her mother and father face a photographer, smiling goofily. The oversized swivel chair, the presence of the suits, the pen raised in her right hand: all staging for a photo op. It’s Wednesday, March 20 in 2002, the year she signs a record contract with Island Def Jam.
She says little, but offers a diplomatic response to the Billboard journalist in the room as to whether she can crack the American market. Everyone smiles for the camera except for her. She looks daunted, realisation setting in. She has made a couple of records in New York before, but those were far smaller affairs. The pressure is on.
Except it was a little more complicated than the press-op photo, printed in Billboard, seemed. Her first album, a one-off for a New York indie label, was released when she was ten years old. At age fourteen, she moved to Japan; two years later, as Utada Hikaru, she was a pop star. Her 1999 Japanese-language debut First Love is the best selling Japanese pop album ever, going platinum thirty-two times; her follow-up Distance shifted three million copies in its first week. She has sold fifty-two million records, thirty-eight million of those in Japan alone. She had already worked with Jerkins; her introduction to the American market would be via the The Neptunes, Foxy Brown and the Rush Hour 2 soundtrack. Brown boasts “My girl sell units like Michael in the Eighties!” on that soundtrack’s "Blow My Whistle" and she isn’t far off the mark.
The US acquisition of Utada—as she would be mononymously known—was a “big deal” for Def Jam, according to Jonathan Benedict, an A&R Assistant at Def Jam that helped oversee the project. “There was a lot of hoopla about it,” he tells me from his Brooklyn studio. “It was a question of ‘what can we do to take this person who’s virtually unknown in the States and introduce her here?’” Rick Patrick was a Creative Director at Def Jam during the period that Utada joined the roster: “To break a foreign artist would have been big.” With the tantalising possibility of a cross-cultural Asian superstar atop of the charts in two different continents, full creative control was extended to Utada and her father/producer/manager Teruzane. Production began on the album, entitled Exodus. As Exodus approached its release, the American press jumped at the chance to build the J-pop star up as a classier alternative to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, using her semester at Columbia University as to say she was simply better than America’s teen-pop titans. TIME called her a “diva on campus”; the Washington Post puffed up their chest, announcing “Utada Hikaru doesn’t do cleavage.”
Then on October 5 2004, Exodus hit US record stores and nobody seemed to know what to do with it. Despite sustained success in Japan, the expectations heaped on Utada—as an acceptable teen-pop alternative, as an Asian artist breaking the US, as an expensive Def Jam signee—were never reached. “There may have been a little lost in translation where the two entities—the Utadas and the label—weren’t completely understanding what the others’ intentions or wishes were,” says Benedict, offering his theories on the album’s commercial failure. With little support from radio or video outlets, Exodus never cracked the Billboard top 100.
A decade removed from its unceremonious release Stateside, Exodus remains a risky major label debut: an in-house auteurist statement completely at odds with the demands of pop radio or MTV. Already closer to a singer-songwriter type than a typical J-pop star, the sultry R&B siren presented on "Blow My Whistle" is all but abandoned in favour of something more eccentric.
“I don’t wanna cross over between this genre, that genre,” Utada sings on the album’s pillowy New Age intro, the concept of regular crossover hits immediately negated by a mix of coos, croaking percussion and Eno-esque ambience. Let loose from the traditionalist aspects of her Japanese material, she wrestles with her personal identity after years in the public eye. One moment, she’s shaky and shuddering with neuroses; the next, she’s unrepentant and trying to fill out the sexuality she just realised she has. She associates the mundane—washing dishes, doing laundry, cigarettes—with the potential of high emotion. She quotes Edgar Allen Poe, Tutankhamen and the "White Lines" bassline. She makes dumb jokes, mostly about being Asian-American (she rhymes “easy breezy” with “I’m Japaneezy!”). She holds court with a born-again Christian she meets in a nightclub, the other woman in an extra-marital affair and a high-class escort in a plush hotel lobby, depicting each character with a humanist touch. An electronic howl about miscommunication finds Utada throwing her hands up and wishing she was a man instead; a seduction jam where neighbour's death triggers a panic about potentially wasting her life (and lust) away; and a cryptic centrepiece that amalgamates R&B, alt-pop and prog into five minutes, called "Kremlin Dusk."
Simply put, a lot happens on Exodus.
As a major label pop artist, Utada would have been expected to follow the route established by most of her American counterparts: meeting with a number of label-mandated producers and songwriters until something stuck. From the outset, the artist and her father listened to the wishes of the label—then-CEO Lyor Cohen spoke openly about his intentions to have Utada record with reliable early-aughts hitmakers like the Neptunes and Rodney Jerkins—but remained guarded over who they would work with. Their choices skewed more left-field than imagined.
“Teruzane came to me, saying ‘I want to work with the hottest New York production team there is,’” Benedict recalls. This led to a meeting with James Murphy and Tim Goldworthy of DFA, then-buzzing in the New York underground for producing The Rapture’s "House of Jealous Lovers." Despite enthusiasm from both members, the collaboration never took flight. “The night before the meeting, Teruzane called and said ‘look, we’re not quite ready to go into the studio with outside producers yet’.” The session was cancelled, and the Utadas began assembling a team of musicians and engineers to assist with the music’s creation. Def Jam left them to their own devices to set up camp at New York’s famed Hit Factory studios. “At some point” Benedict says, “it became apparent she was going to make the album she wanted to make.”
The musicians asked to collaborate on the album were in line with the left-field possibilities presented by DFA: Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, Style Council drummer Steve Sidelynk, former Alison Moyet producer Pete Davis. The making of Exodus pushed the available technological boundaries. Utada was composing large swathes of the album by herself in her NYC hotel room, using Digital Performer on her laptop, then polishing them off with the assistance of the contributing musicians and the hired enclave of synthesizers occupying the Hit Factory. While de rigueur now, a decade ago it made for a slow working process. “Back in the day it was a lot harder,” Sidelynk says via email. “You had to sync to a master tape, so things were a lot slower.”
Near the end of the recording period, Utada had grown comfortable with the idea of outside producers, leading to contributions from Timbaland (post-"Dirt Off Your Shoulder," pre-"SexyBack"). However, the eccentric superproducer’s contributions were fairly hands-off, with Utada left to pick from his archive of beats, then tinker with by herself. Her hands-on approach was as much a statement of intent as it was a need to maintain the vision she had for the album. In an interview with Teen People in 2004, she says the following: "There aren't enough girls who [produce]. You don’t have to be Moby to use machines."
Despite everything, critical reception to Exodus was positive. AllMusic described it as the "American arrival of an unusual and challenging artist"; USA Today, somewhat prophetically, offered that she was "more than a ghost in her own machine." However, such praise wasn't enough to make it a critical darling or influence Def Jam. Where reviews saw the start of a challenging career, the label appeared to see a foiled attempt at a crossover attempt. That, it seems, was that.
Meanwhile, Bradley Stern—Utada super fan and founder of popular pop site MuuMuse—was discussing the album on J-pop forums, alongside “[the] only people talking about it.” Mainstream attention was sparse. He recalls seeing lead single "Easy Breezy" playing on MTV while walking through university: “I was freaking out,” he says, adding dryly, “it was thrilling.” He wasn't lucky enough to catch it on the network again, but 'Easy Breezy' and its host album stuck with him.
In September 2012, Stern wrote an essay on MuuMuse about growing up with Exodus. As a teenager coming to grips with his homosexuality, he found Utada’s album acted as a “refuge.” The album’s busy affirmation of personal identity was something he related to: “Nothing within the album deals explicitly with being gay,” he wrote, “There are countless moments that seem to channel the frustration, shame and loneliness involved in the coming out process and beyond.” Upon publishing the essay, he was shocked to notice the comments—people from all over the world had similar personal connections to the album. Despite its commercial failure, Exodus had found itself a small-but-passionate cult following.
What confused audiences ten years ago sounds as though it would have a chance today. At various points, Exodus seems prescient of how pop music would adapt to an increasingly digitized world. 2004 was the start of the true social media age, an era where Livejournal and Myspace gave people the chance to place contrasting thoughts and emotions into a digital landscape. It sounds homemade and glossy at the same time; introverted and confessional while presented as a mainstream option; it insists on being sexy, weird and vulnerable, all at the same time, ideas and emotions appearing and updating like an RSS feed.
“I’m wondering if it was released now with Grimes and FKA Twigs out, if the reception would be different,” the album's Creative Director Rick Patrick ponders via email, motioning to two artists currently offering a distinctly post-internet vision of pop music. The album’s intensely independent focus also appears to have become the norm, reflected in a number of female pop stars from Beyonce to M.I.A. to 2NE1’s CL that use social media to present various shifting artistic identities. Ten years on, it sounds state of the art, and even on the ball with a generation of millenials: adventurous and ambitious but confused about life’s path, amalgamating pop-cultural interests and personal issues into short bursts signifying personal identity.
And yet, the Utada camp has kept quiet regarding Exodus as it turns ten, the antithesis to the lush fifteenth-anniversary re-release of First Love. Requests for interviews were denied, with a focus on Exodus not functioning alongside "the global plans for Hikaru Utada." “This was the biggest statement of intent in her catalogue,” reasons Stern, “which might be why she’s tender about it.” Regardless, Utada has been on hiatus since 2011 and recently relocated to Italy with husband Francesco Calliano, who she married in May. The Utadas are legendary about their privacy; perhaps the new attention surrounding Exodus was a peak behind the curtain.
The fan in Stern hopes, however, that Utada will return, rejuvenated, from hiatus. “I would love it if she celebrated Exodus properly,” he says with a smile. “Whether it’s this year or next year, she’ll come back for sure. If she never wanted to again, she’s achieved what she’s needed to.” For a superfan, it's a mature approach to take, but those that subscribe to the cult of Exodus must think alike. On that New Age intro, Utada sings “You and I / We can wrestle borders." That line suggests a mission statement shared with whoever listens, and has maintained despite mainstream disinterest. Ten years on, those borders seem less distinct and Utada's vision feels like the present. The exodus can come home now.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is on Twitter - @danielmondon.