tofubeats, First Album

Patrick St. Michel

By Patrick St. Michel

on 10.02.14 in Reviews

Japanese artist tofubeats‘ music sounds like a night spent clicking “related videos” on YouTube. The Kobe producer — real name Yusuke Kawai — spent his teens flooding message boards with his homemade rap beats, and soon found himself at the center of the country’s “netlabel” scene, referring to Internet-centric imprints with little regard for genre borders. Kawai has become the Japanese internet-music scene’s first crossover act, signing to Warner Music Japan while also attracting attention from abroad, most notably the chance to appear on the BBC’s Diplo and Friends program. His major-label debut, First Album, captures Kawai’s web-rattled mind well — its songs zip between ideas at a neck-snapping pace, but also make room for styles and artists from the ’80s and ’90s.

The sounds of today and yesteryear come together to form something special.

First Album‘s attention-span-less layout is its most charming quality, as Kawai keeps it engaging by frequently taking sonic turns. He flexes his hip-hop origins by rapping on the syrupy “#eyezonu” and the neon-tinged synth splatter of “Her Favorite.” Elsewhere, he’s making cheer-along pop on “Come On Honey!” and later dipping into slow-burn ballads. That latter stretch is First Album‘s weakest portion — Kawai sounds best when his music is energetic or at least building to something, but slowing it down and letting it trudge grows tedious — but he doesn’t dwell on it long.

One run, meanwhile, highlights Kawai’s twisty production chops, including the samples-snapping-just-in-place rush of “Populuxe” and “Content ID.” The finest display of his hectic work, though, is his collaboration with Mad Decent’s LIZ on “CAND¥¥¥LAND.” That track zips from trap to LIZ’s sweetly sung R&B portion, but the best part comes when Kawai plunges into Para Para, a once-popular-in-Japan descendant of Eurobeat, a surprising move that serves as a hyperactive release of energy.

It’s this mining of the past that ultimately makes First Album a strong showing. Kawai’s major-label position allows him access to bigger names, but the best guests here are artists well past their peak popularity. Rapper PES from the group Rip Slyme — an outfit big when Kawai was a teenager — stops by for the luxurious horn-guided “Poolside,” while singer/comedian Takashi Fujii — last relevant 10 years ago — handles vocals on “Disco No Kamisama,” First Album‘s most radio-ready moment. Kawai’s finest comes when he teams up with Chisato Moritaka — a singer who topped the J-pop charts in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but who faded away from the mainstream — for “Don’t Stop the Music.” He gives her another chance to shine, over a slow-burning, acid-house-inspired track that stands as Kawai’s most triumphant creation to date. And, like the whole of First Album, it shows that the sounds of today and yesteryear can come together to form something special.