Seeing as so many of us are finding themselves spending far more time inside than usual these days, what better company is there than music? To help provide a mental reprieve from the confines of your homes, here are my picks for five of the best Japanese tracks of March.
Dos Monos, ‘Rojo’
“Rojo” is another bafflingly abstract lyrical work from Dos Monos, the Tokyo-based hip hop trio of Zo Zhit, TAITANMAN and AKA NGS. It’s also perhaps their best and most unique track yet. Set on an instrumental fashioned out of some antique strings and a samba bassline, all three members offer verses that tread the fine line between what is thoughtful and philosophical, and what is confusing and impenetrable.
Of the three performances, Zo Zhit provides the highlight. He references artists Rothko and Velazquez, he name-checks Stalin, Mao and refers to the Asama-Sanso incident. Ango Sakaguchi, the notable Japanese writer of the post-war Decadent School, and Leopold von Sacher-Mazoch, from whose name the term ‘masochism’ derives, both find themselves caught-up in Zo Zhit’s cryptic verse.
“Rojo” is too abstract to really determine what Zo thinks of such topics, but they all have something to do with “Rojo,” or the color red. The pertinent red palettes of Rothko and Velazquez, the red of communism and the Red Army, the red of violence and chaos more generally.
A lot of Dos Monos’ 2019 debut Dos City was terrific but slightly too lost in its influences. “Rojo,” however, sees the trio find their own footing as experimental lyricists. I can’t remember the last time I was so engrossed in a song’s lyricism (nor, for that matter, has my browser had so many tabs open trying to figure it all out); “Rojo” is a lyrical puzzle that harks back to everything hip hop should be about and is a new landmark in the careers of Dos Monos.
TofuBeats, ‘Somebody Tore My P’
Tofubeats’ latest single is loud and pacey electronica with steady, sunken bass beats and skyward synths. Unlike the instrumental hip hop style that made him famous, it is more brazenly electronic. “Somebody Tore My P” (short for “somebody tore my poster”, before you get any ideas) takes after the French Eurodance style synthwave, combining house beats and different tastes of ‘80s electronica.
The result is slightly cheesy and somewhat bareboned, but never overbearingly so. Even over six minutes of continuous build, it never wears its welcome. Indeed, it only seems to get more cinematic and momentous. “Somebody Tore My P” certainly isn’t going to win over any electronic music purists but it might – along with its companion EP TBEP – lift your spirits as a dead-set piece of exuberant electronic pop.
Rina Sawayama, ‘XS’
With the revelation of Britney Spears’ socialist tendencies on Instagram only the other week, a generational icon of mainstream pop took an unexpected leftist turn. London-based Japanese artist Rina Sawayama has been a disciple of Spears since her early days, but now they have even more in common. “XS” may be her most blatantly political track yet, an anti-capitalist anthem that riles against consumer culture and excessive greed. Political and societal critique are common to Sawayama’s vein of arty, thunderous pop music and “XS” shows her lyricism at its most subversive and cutting.
Instrumentally, however, “XS” shows that ancestry to Spears more clearly than any of Sawayama’s work so far. Its songwriting and vocal melodies beg to be sung along to, its verses paying tribute to Spears’ glossy early 2000s sultriness. The rest of “XS,” meanwhile, continues to play with styles and sounds one would usually deem at odds with pop music. The track’s manic pace throws field samples, string synths and even bells up against nu-metal-esque walls of thick distortion. With the detail of Clarence Clarity’s production and tightness of Sawayama’s songwriting, “XS” is as multifaceted, amalgamating and thrilling as pop music gets right now.
Chai, ‘No More Cake’
Intended as “a sarcastic poke about wearing makeup,” “No More Cake” is more about getting people to question why they’re trying so hard to look like someone else than it is critical of makeup more generally (indeed, if you’ve ever come across any Chai press shots over the years, they’d clearly be hypocrites – and very colorful ones, at that). “No More Cake” is another particularly progressive statement from the J-pop/punk fusion band, a criticism of beauty standards not because Chai think makeup is ugly, but because they think everyone is beautiful enough already.
While Chai’s feminist power statements and humor are more typical of them, the style of “No More Cake” is less so. Chai trade in their usual mix of J-pop and punk for an electronic, alternative dance style with heaving distortion and, with its maniacal giggles, an ever-so-slightly demented air. Bar the group vocals, in many ways they are hardly recognizable from Punk and Pink. Chai have always had an edge, but that edge used to be in the brutality of their hardcore punk rhythm section. Now, it pulses throughout their sound and adds yet another dimension to their vibrant, hyperactive style of social commentary.
“Incantation” is strange, disconcerting electronic music. It creaks and groans, there’s as much about it that has majesty as is also hollow. T5UMUT5UMU (read: Tsumutsumu) specialises more in a particular vibe than any specific genre, his sound here bringing together deconstructed bass beats alongside high-timbre metallic high-hats, some jungle rhythms throbbing together with chanted vocal rhythms (or humming? It might be humming) and some kind of hand drums.
If Tofubeats’ “Somebody Tore My P” is in this roundup to lift your spirits, then “Incantation” (and its EP of the same name) will bring them crashing back down. T5UMUT5UMU’s sound is murky and grotty, a somewhat grim alternative that, nevertheless, is just as engrossing.
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