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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Verbal wants to hit the reset button on pop

Artist's debut solo album 'Visionair' brings U.S. club sound to a Japanese audience


Special to The Japan Times

In the middle of her recent Japan tour, pop superstar Kylie Minogue surprised her fans by announcing a new song on YouTube. The song, written by Japanese rapper and producer Verbal, is called "We Are One" and is the pair's effort to try to raise donations for Unicef following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

News photo
Sound on "Visionair": Verbal's debut solo album features stars from both sides of the Pacific.

Verbal opened for Minogue during the Tokyo leg of her tour and the Australian singer found time to squeeze in promotion for their collaboration backstage. Minogue went ahead with her shows despite numerous warnings from overseas record-label executives about radiation, so she made sure her contribution to Verbal's disaster-awareness efforts was emblematic to her visit. It's not too surprising, though, since Verbal has a knack for connecting with overseas celebrities.

For his debut solo album, "Visionair," m-flo member Verbal has tapped the talents of artists from both sides of the Pacific. Contributions from U.S. hip-hoppers Lil' Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Jermaine Dupri feature alongside those from Japanese star Namie Amuro, Cream's Minami and DJ Shinichi Osawa. The result is a collection of songs that would be just as likely to pop up in a Dexpistols DJ set in Tokyo as they would sandwiched between Far East Movement and Ke$ha tracks spun at a Las Vegas nightclub.

"It's not about having the songs register specifically to a Japanese or overseas audience," Verbal tells The Japan Times, "but to create something so I will have my own audience."

Verbal is attempting to find that audience on his nationwide "Angree Yung Robotz" tour with electro DJ Mademoiselle Yulia, which began May 2 in Matsumoto, Nakano Prefecture. And judging by the Swizz Beatz-produced "Ball N Bounce" and the Osawa-produced "Dope Boy Fresh," Verbal wants that audience to party.

The first single off "Visionair" is titled "Black Out." The track was coproduced by Jermaine Dupri and features Verbal rapping in Japanese and English alongside Amuro and Lil' Wayne. While lyrics such as "I see ladies, lasers, bottles with chasers" conjure up images of Shibuya's scenester lounge Trump Room, Verbal says the song is about pressing the reset button on a stale and soulless J-pop scene. He says the underlying sentiment behind all of "Visionair" is one of rebellion against the sheltered world the music industry creates for its talent.

"The music industry isn't experiencing any upturn in general sales," Verbal says. "Being borderless and working with artists internationally, without following the past trends and data, is my way of differentiation and creating a niche."

Were a North American audience to listen to "Visionair," they might not think what Verbal is offering is much different to what they hear on the U.S. pop charts. In Japan, however, Verbal's sound is more adult than that of hugely popular teen-girl idol group AKB48 and less schmaltzy than that of boy bands such as Exile, two groups that currently dominate the charts.

Verbal grew up as Young-Kee Yu, a third-generation zainichi Korean (a Korean resident of Japan) who faced his share of inconveniences and discrimination. He teamed up with Taku Takahashi and they created m-flo in 1999. Verbal says the success led him to quickly adapt to the pampering he received from industry players, and in the process he says that he lost touch with the aspects of life that affect regular people.

"I don't want to put anyone down and say 'Don't do commercial music,' — everyone likes to run away from reality," Verbal says. "But here, people ... like unreal idols — like they never go to the bathroom.

"I believe in my music. People focus on my sunglasses or how young I look, but (I needed) to put my edgiest work to the forefront and I needed to do it myself (with this album)."

"Visionair" is Verbal's first attempt at creating music purely according to his own agenda. He is acutely aware of worldwide changes in the music industry and the need for the Japanese market to keep up — both musically and business-wise.

In 2002, he refashioned then-fading J-pop artist Amuro into a successful R&B singer with a project titled "Suite Chic." By bringing together up-and-coming DJs and hip-hop producers such as DJ Muro, Dabo and Ryosuke Imai — who would later go on to greater successes — he cultivated a style of introducing new talent within his work. "Visionair" continues that approach, with unknown names such as Suguru Yamamoto taking production credits alongside international superstars. Verbal now also has his own production agency, KOZM, representing the knob-twiddlers of tomorrow.

He has also changed his business model to focus on fashion, merchandising and DJing, with an emphasis on getting out and "on your feet to meet people." That attitude has kept him a few steps ahead of the J-pop curve and keeps him in close contact with his fans.

The duet with Minogue is just one part of Verbal's charity plans. He is planning a giant matsuri (festival) in collaboration with this year's MTV Video Music Awards Japan in which he hopes "artists will be selling personal items in a flea-market style, doing yatai (food stands) and making yakisoba (fried noodles) to help raise proceeds for the Red Cross." (This writer is involved in organizing the matsuri event.)

Verbal, like many others, was moved by the plight of those affected by the disasters in the Tohoku region. He also wonders if these catastrophes will bring back some of the soul to the idol-centric world of commercial J-pop that he has begun to rebel against.

"Things are being reset," he says. "I think people are going to come back to the core of what music is about. It's at times of crisis that the most powerful music is created. I will be really surprised if people return to the same surreal idol thing. Escapism will always be there, but it's time for change."

The "Angree Yung Robotz" tour hits Club JB's in Nagoya on May 6; Planet Cafe in Hamamatsu on May 7; and Sekai World in Kyoto on May 20. Shows cost ¥3,000 in advance and doors open at 10 p.m. The tour stops at various other cities through September. For more information, visit www.m-flo.com or www.kozm-agency.tv.


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