Rapper and producer Brandon Katou (aka OMSB) is an artist that, while humble, exhibits a sense of pride in his work atypical of Japanese artists. In recent interviews he’s done for his new album, he’s compared himself to big-name acts like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, remarking that his work is up to par with theirs.
“It’s not that I think I can do the same things they do,” Katou clarifies for me. “But I believe that I’m making stuff that they can’t either, and it’s equally strong in its own way.”
His second solo album, “Think Good,” is a diverse affair. Mainly featuring his own productions, the tracks on the album are at times dark, strange and experimental; at times aggressive and riotous; at other times mellow, calm and reflective. But the one constant is that his beats will make your head nod.
His rap style is also varied and vibrant, and the lyrical themes range from the karate battle rhymes on “Kuroobi (Black Belt Remix)” to the inspirational manifesto of becoming a better version of himself on the title track.
“I always think about the flow of the album as a whole,” Katou says. “If you had an album full of just straight-up bomb tracks, you’re probably going to get tired from listening. You gotta know how to slow down the pace at times. To me, balance is the key for a great album.”
Katou is one of the founding members of the popular hip-hop group Simi Lab, a stylistically diverse crew of MCs, beatmakers and DJs based in Kanagawa Prefecture. After its critically praised debut, “Page 1: Anatomy of Insane,” was released in 2011, Katou ventured out with a solo effort titled “Mr. ‘All Bad’ Jordan,” in the following year. He describes his mental state as tumultuous during the recording process.
“After I got enough beats for the album, and I started recording some tracks, I found out that QN released a diss track aimed at me,” Katou says, referring to one of the other founding members of Simi Lab who has since left the group. “That really messed up my head. I felt like everyone was out to get me. I was like, ‘F—k everybody. I’mma show them!’ That’s the mentality I had when I was making my first album.”
That anger and frustration led to the dark album that was his solo debut.
“Whenever I met people,” he recalls. “They would be like, ‘I thought you’d be scarier in person,’ or ‘I figured you to be an angry guy,’ and I’d be like, ‘That’s not all that I am.’ So I really wanted to show a different side of myself on my second album.”
As the title suggests, “Think Good” has an overall positive message.
“I wanted people who listen to this album to walk away feeling good or inspired. Or if not, at least have fun listening to it. So, I decided I wasn’t going to be writing about negative things too much this time around.”
But that’s not to say the album doesn’t touch on serious topics. Born to a Japanese mother and African-American father in New Jersey, his dark complexion makes him stand out in a country like Japan. He has lived here since the age of 3, and his father has been out of his life since their parents split when he was 5, so he feels he never got the chance to become fluent in English. Self-identity is an issue Katou has struggled with all his life, which is a topic he often raps about.
“That’s something that I really lose grip on sometimes,” he confesses after I ask him if he sees himself as Japanese. “I live in Japan, speaking Japanese, doing every cultural thing that Japanese people do. But when people see me, they see me as a black guy. After a few minutes of conversation, they realize I’m just as Japanese as they are, despite the way I look. That’s something I’ll have to deal with all my life, as long as I live here.”
One of the most gripping songs on “Think Good” is a track called “Orange Way,” in which Katou really exposes his inner struggle. In the first verse, he describes an encounter with a half-black kid that reminds him of himself as a youth: “Enjoy being yourself / Know that other people are not you,” he raps in Japanese. In the second verse he candidly speaks his mind on how some Japanese women who have a penchant for sleeping with black men need to be more careful in the decisions they make in their love life.
“I have seen some irresponsible black men in Japan, impregnating women then leaving them to go back to their country,” he says. “Some women pride themselves in being a strong single mother, but I also feel like it’s their careless decisions that’s made their kids’ lives a difficult one.”
Living in the States is something he ponders as a possibility in the future, though not because of his heritage.
“I feel like (the scene in Japan) is still very small,” he says. “There are people that go, ‘I only listen to this style or that style of hip-hop,’ and they can be closed-minded. If you really love hip-hop, why not listen to different kinds?”
Katou feels a lack of originality furthers the closed nature of the domestic scene, though it’s something his music — with its mixture of disparate sounds and divergent styles — succeeds in not falling victim to.
“This isn’t exclusive to the Japanese scene or anything, but too many people are content with making cookie-cutter songs that sound just like the ones that came before,” he continues. “It’s up to the artists to explore different sounds and let the listeners know, ‘Hey, there’s so much more to this music.’ ”
“Think Good” is in stores now. OMSB’s “Think Good” Release Party takes place July 20 at Daikanyama Unit in Tokyo (5:30 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance). For more info, visit www.summit2011.net/omsb.