Channelling Southern rap, house music, and lush orchestral pop, the third release from Yusuke Kawai as tofubeats is one of the best J-Pop releases of the year.
Yusuke Kawai could have settled into the J-Pop background. The Kobe producer became a breakout name in the country’s netlabel scene in the late 2000s, creating high-energy breakcore often centered around anime samples under the name DJ Newtown, before adopting the name tofubeats for wholly original compositions. His nervy, genre-skipping dance-pop songs featuring radio-friendly choruses made him an apt choice to bring the internet-centric sound to a major label. Since, tofubeats’ albums have mostly highlighted his songwriting and production, handing vocal duties off to pop heavyweights, comedians, models and more. It’s a common path for artists plucked from the underground who focus on building a sound for other voices.
Fantasy Club, tofubeat’s third major-label album, breaks from that path. The guests are mostly absent, and instead Kawai’s Auto-Tune voice sits in the spotlight. It’s one of the stranger releases to get prominent space in the J-Pop section in recent memory—across its 13 songs, Fantasy Club channels Southern rap, house music, and lush orchestral pop. Compared to the generally upbeat tone of his compatriots, Kawai often sounds angry or tired here, his tracks full of unnerving sputters. Yet all these intricacies make it one of the best from Japan so far in 2017, a style-blurring affair showing what happens when a strong personality gets the chance to broadcast themselves fully through their music, regardless of how left-field they can get.
Kawai has discussed being introduced to the concept of post-truth, and feeling shaken by seeing the web he came up on turn sour. Early number “Shoppingmall” sets the album’s tone. Musically it’s simplistic, seasick synthesizer melodies and hi-hat skitters. But that emphasizes the vocals, which find Kawai gnashing outward (“What's real and what's not/Is just that exciting enough?”). It soon becomes clear he’s not angry at what’s around him, but grappling with his own confusion and anxiety.
The songs that follow are rarely stable, reflecting the unease that shapes the theme of Fantasy Club. “Lonely Nights” calls on rising rapper Young Juju to cooly rap through a digital mist before Kawai delivers a distorted hook full of stuttering syllables. “Callin” is melancholy electro R&B, underlined by Kawai’s mutated vocals, run through layers of effects to the point it sounds like a depressed burst of static. Dance numbers designed for the club feature warped details—the title track shuffles forward on house whistles and a galloping beat, but the edges of every sound quiver with echo, like they are wilting. Fantasy Club’s most outright floor-focused moment, “What You Got,” is crashed by a disorienting passage featuring a flurry of menacing Kawais tripping over each other.
Yet all these disruptions make the moments of release well-earned. Whereas older tofubeat’s albums played out as singles collections that could be played in basically any order, complete with tracklistings reading like J-Pop all-star squads, Fantasy Club is best listened to from start to finish. At its center is “This City,” which starts off like it’s malfunctioning—synthesizer notes going wobbly and electronic sounds chirping off over it like it’s on the verge of going haywire. But from this chaos tofubeats builds an ecstatic dance number, growing ever more upbeat as its seven minutes play on.
As tofubeats, Kawai has always been able to hopscotch across styles, but Fantasy Club marks the first time he’s been able to really explore the sounds he loves: minimalist wooze-pop (late comedown “Yuuki,” featuring singer/songwriter sugar me) or Houston rap (the outro to opener “Chant #1” serving as direct homage to DJ Screw, something you don’t usually see in J-Pop) without having to worry about accommodating big names or scoring a hit. Given how much before it is shaped by anxiety about the world at large, it’s a bit funny that Fantasy Club’s climax is a simple love song called “Baby.” It’s anchored by a string sample sourced from a song by celebrated Japanese pop star Yumi Matsutoya. In the wrong hands, it could be treated like a building block, an obscure find waiting to be sped up in Garageband and be called an aesthetic. But tofubeats celebrates the sound and creates an original song showing its warmth. It makes one glad he stepped to the forefront for Fantasy Club.