There was a time when Japanese music labels were concerned that Ai Carina Uemura’s music sounded too American due to her R&B style.
“Like, from the beginning of my career. They told me all the time, ‘People aren’t going to understand that type of music,'” she says from the EMI office in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood. “I was like … why? They listen to Janet Jackson, Ashanti. Why can’t we do that type of music?”
It was important to Uemura (who performs under the stage name AI), who split time between Los Angeles and Kagoshima growing up. Her mother, raised in the United States, instilled a love of American music in her. She also prompted Uemura to learn more about the Japanese side of her family after relocating to the western side of the country.
“She tried to learn about the tea ceremony, flower arranging, dances … all these cultural things. Since she was doing it, I had to do the same thing when I was little,” Uemura recalls. “A lot of people asked me, when I was little, ‘Which did I like better: Japan or America?’ And I was like … I like both! I can’t pick either one.”
Nearly two decades after starting her career and wrestling with being “too American,” AI has the chance to celebrate both sides. Her newest album, “Wa To Yo,” features two discs, the first sung primarily in Japanese and heavily featuring instruments such as taiko drums and fue flutes. The second, meanwhile, is completely in English, and embraces Western R&B and hip-hop. Over the course of her career, Uemura has jump-roped between languages and styles, with songs featuring snippets of English and end-credits-ready ballads nudged up against jauntier rap cuts. However, “Wa To Yo” makes the contrast distinct.
“I could make the ‘Wa’ and ‘Yo’ go all the way,” she says. “If I had just mixed them together, it might be weak. I love both (sides), and this is like my dream, to do both.”
“Wa To Yo” arrives at a time when Japan’s music industry feels increasingly inward looking. Sales of Western music are not particularly strong save for a few blockbuster pop stars and soundtracks tied to Vin Diesel-helmed film franchises. Meanwhile, while Western pop music in recent years has been drastically shaped by styles from Africa and the Caribbean, sounds coming across the Pacific have had a harder time. Japanese artists, in particular, tend to still be celebrated for their wacky, crazy and kawaii side.
“I don’t want the American people to think that everyone has that ‘ni ni ni ni ni‘ voice,” Uemura says, pitching her voice up to mouse-like levels in a tone straight out of anime. “There is other stuff, too. You have Johnny’s, schoolgirls and anime girls who look like a baby but have boobs. At the same time, there’s a wild side, too.”
She succeeded. “Wa To Yo” deliberately splits itself in two but — regardless of language or the presence of Okinawan folk singers — the album shows that the R&B style works in all sorts of forms. Differences are present between the two sides — Uemura herself says the “Yo” side is a bit “sexier, and has more love songs” — but the takeaway is how the distance between Wa and Yo isn’t that significant.
The album arrives four years after her last original full-length release, “Moriagaro,” an unusual gap for an artist who previously had new work out nearly every year. “I had a baby,” Uemura says. She focused on becoming pregnant, and for that purpose she says she stopping live performances and TV appearances. “I didn’t want to end up, say, cancelling a whole tour or work,” she says. “I don’t want to be rude. I think my personality … my type … I want it all kind of right. I don’t want to cancel anything.”
Uemura spent a year trying to become pregnant. She says she almost reached the point where she was a month away from giving up and getting back to work. “But then the baby did finally come,” she says.
Uemura chose to not perform while pregnant, though she did do radio appearances and started songwriting for numbers that would appear on “Wa To Yo,” operating as she did before (“When I sing a ballad, I think about her. I think about the baby. That changed.”).
Many of the rest emerged on her first postpregnancy tour last year, supporting a best-of album. “I thought I was going to be OK, right? But my body just wasn’t ready,” she recalls. “Like, all the parts … my bones were messed up.”
Complicating this were the challenges raising a baby brings — sleepless nights and constant crying.
“A lot of my friends have babies and kids, but they don’t complain. So I didn’t know it was going to be that hard,” she says. “I complained! I told radio interviews, I said, ‘She doesn’t go to sleep or I try to go to sleep and she starts crying!’ I say it out loud, I don’t want people to think it’s an easy thing. It isn’t.”
Uemura stresses though that her daughter gives her a new power, and that she’s stronger than before. “I didn’t want people to think that since I’ve become a mom, that I’ve become wack,” she says.
The energy comes through “Wa To Yo’s” strongest moments, such as the skittery “Justice Will Prevail At Last” or the confident “What I Want.” The latter features the young Japanese rapper Jinmenusagi, the only guest appearing on both sides of the album.
“I already had the song ready, and I wanted to feature somebody,” Uemura says. “We were introduced to lots of people, but at the last minute, a friend told me, ‘This dude is so dope.'” He fit the song’s need for someone with laid-back swagger, and she was impressed by his push to write and rap in English despite not knowing the language.
“Wa To Yo” features a few other guests, highlighted by U.S. performer Chris Brown. ” I don’t know what kind of attitude he has, but as an artist, I love him so much,” Uemura says. The two connected through a mutual friend, and Brown’s side initially wanted her to come to the U.S. while he was on tour.
“I felt like … if that’s for sure, for sure,” she says. “But if not, I’m going to stay here and work. I couldn’t just waste my time.” In the end, Brown contributed vocals to “Right Now.”
Part of “Wa To Yo’s” goal is to bring R&B and hip-hop to more general Japanese listeners, but Uemura says the scene has grown immensely since she first started out.
“Back then, people would just go like this,” she says before robotically waving her hands above her head. “But now, there are some people just grooving by themselves. Just clapping, even if they are the only one. It was more like, ‘Oh everyone is doing this, I gotta be doing it too.’ But now, everybody has their own thing.”
She hopes the industry, too, moves more in that direction. “I know there are a lot of artists who want to do what they want to do … but they can’t show off their talent,” she says. “I want to show that you can.”
‘Wa To Yo’: Review
Despite it’s two distinct sides, “Wa To Yo” works well because of how much connects the two discs.
AI wanted to highlight the sounds of Japan and the West, but her smartest move was not doing that by genre, but rather by specific instruments and language. Both parts of her 11th album lean heavily on up-tempo R&B and hip-hop, featuring energetic verses leading up to big hooks.
The “Yo” side leans on synthesizers and sharp beats, while “Wa” features an assortment of Japanese instruments, such as taiko drums and fue flutes.
It never comes across as novelty, with AI melding these traditional sounds with modern R&B flourishes to create strong pop numbers with a distinct character.
The only time the “Wa” disc really slips is when it embraces a staple of J-Pop — the ballad.
Whereas other songs tinker with familiar formats, the slower songs follow a predictable template.
But when AI’s picking up the pace, she delivers a memorable set of R&B-tinged pop numbers in any language.