While much has been made over the comebacks of pop princesses Gwen Stefani and Fergie over the last month (and with good reason!), there's one artist who we at PHF feel is criminally underrated. Departing from fanbase expectations of her traditional style, she broke out in the same year as our two favourite frontwomen; reinvigorated the pop music scene with fresh new dance sounds straight from the far east, as Gwen did with R&B and Fergie did with hip-hop; and explored the same anxiety over the big time seen in songs like 'What You Waiting For?' and 'Glamorous'.
Her name? Utada Hikaru - Utada for short.
Bursting onto the American music scene for the second time just over a decade ago (her first foray into the American market came with 1996's Precious, which failed to chart anywhere until it was re-released in 1999 at the height of her Japanese popularity), Utada's Exodus album came at a significant time for not only the artist herself, but also for the world at large. With a title alluding to the singer's move from Japan to America, as well as her transition from rather straightforward, if odd R&B to experimental dance music, the Biblical allusion may have given the album a lot to live up to - but Utada (or Hikki, as fans call her) delivered in droves. Like Britney's Blackout after it, the album documented the electronic emancipation of a 20 something former teen star who was tasting her first bite of freedom, and licking her lips with every morsel. Capitalizing on a post 9/11 fear of the foreign and the so-called "Asian invasion" which permeated much of early 2000's popular culture, Hikki shocked her fans and the public at large with a dark, eclectic album perfect for the dancefloor, and the post-dancefloor hangover after it.
What makes the album even more incredible is the level of input Utada herself had. Describing herself as a "mad scientist" who shunned human contact and label intervention during the making of the album, Hikki self-wrote and produced every track on the album, bar two co-productions with her childhood inspiration Timbaland on 'Exodus '04' and 'Let Me Give You My Love'. Disregarding the slightly ill-advised introductory first single, 'Easy Breezy' - whose fun, irreverent lyrics of "You're easy breezy/And I'm Japanesey" clash a little with the overt darkness of the rest of the album, the majority of the work is filled with quirky, unexpected clashes of eastern and western sounds and surprisingly honest, personal lyrics documenting the failure of Utada's marriage to her director husband, Kazuaki Kiriya. 'You Make Me Want To Be A Man', whose music video was directed by Kiriya himself, features shockingly intimate lyrics such as "I really want to tell you something/This is just the way I am/I really want to tell you something, but I can't/You make me want to be a man"; while 'Kremlin Dusk', which features possibly the most epic breakdown of any song ever, contrasting Hikki's concerns over her break into the American music scene with the neediness of a first love with lyrics like "Is it like this?/Is it always the same?/When a heartache begins, is it like this?/If you like this/Will you remember my name?/Will you play it again, if you like this?". Yet other songs explore Hikki's obsession with the fantastical, such as 'Hotel Lobby', which describes a working night for the prostitutes of Japan over an understated, sultry beat; and 'Tippy Toe', which describes the desire for an adulterous relationship in almost uncomfortable detail. Linking all the tracks together is an insatiable desire for honesty which pushes the singer further and further into the realms of her own mind, before exposing her thoughts brazenly for all to hear.
Sadly, the brightness of Hikki's star was not for us to experience eternally. Following the release of her somewhat less epically experimental R&B album This Is The One back in 2010 and the exhibition of a few compilation albums in the following years, Utada announced an indefinite hiatus from music back in 2011. She's returned a few times, releasing the beautiful one-off single 'Sakura Nagashi' in 2012, hosting her own monthly radio show and responding to the tragic suicide of her mother in 2013, and revealing her marriage in 2014 - but she's yet to make plans for a true comeback, or even let us know if she's ever coming back at all. Recently, a cover album dedicated to Hikki's work and featuring big J-Pop names such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Miliyah Kato was announced for release next month, reflecting her ongoing popularity as the nations sweetheart - but nothing quite matches the excitement running through your veins the first time you listen to Exodus the whole way through, with an empty house primed for dancing all to yourself.
And that's why, as the fourth quarter of the year approaches and the joyful Christmas season begins, we can't help but feel a little disappointed at the lack of the most important face in the comeback crowd for 2014. Gwen and Fergie have both wowed us with innovative, fun comeback singles recently; but 2004's Holy Trinity of Pop just can't be complete without a new album from Utada. Here's hoping for a Christmas miracle.