For decades, the entertainment agency Johnny & Associates has been the kingmaker of Japanese boy bands. When one of its key acts, Arashi, announced it would go on hiatus at the end of 2020, speculation buzzed: Who would take the mantle as Japan’s newest pop powerhouse?
For many, the heirs apparent are obvious: a five piece known as King & Prince. Since its debut in 2018, the act has been at the forefront of a new generation of Johnny’s talents, one that is acclimating to a digital world that the company had previously eschewed.
In May and June of this year, King & Prince launched their own YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts, a striking departure from the agency’s restrictive attitude toward social media and a move that was embraced by the group’s members: Sho Hirano, Yuta Jinguji, Yuta Kishi, Ren Nagase and Kaito Takahashi. While the posts are curated to promote the group’s songs, appearances and performances, there is an aspect of “behind the scenes” access that feels candid, personal and totally novel for a Japanese fan. In an effort to reach non-Japanese fans, many of the captions on the group’s Instagram are written in English as well as Japanese.
“The biggest merit of social media is the ability to show our personal sides,” Hirano tells The Japan Times via email. “We are very happy for people to get to know us through watching our performances and concerts, but I would also love to introduce our individual characters.”
Jinguji adds that while there is still work to be done in reaching a broader audience, he was surprised at how quickly the accounts racked up followers.
“After all, we’re doing something we’ve never done before,” he says, “but now that we have platforms to reach the world, I want to use them to introduce us to anyone who may be interested in what we’re doing.”
In the spirit of being more outward-looking, King & Prince released the trap-inspired “Magic Touch” this spring. Jinguji notes the “American-ness” of the track, while Nagase says that the group wants to expand its repertoire to reflect the styles of non-Japanese artists they admire (their dream collaborators include Travis Scott, Pharrell Williams, Bruno Mars and Tom Misch). Hirano adds that “Magic Touch” resulted in requests to work with artists from various genres, affirming to them that taking on the challenge was the right thing to do.
The performance aspect was also a major draw.
“We chose this song based on our desire to show the dance styles we really enjoy doing and want to continue to cultivate,” Takahashi says, with Hirano adding, “I’ve wanted to try hip-hop for a long time and show what we’ve accomplished when it comes to dancing.”
Although there was a learning curve to mastering the choreography, Jinguji says he “really enjoyed learning the nuances and moves that maybe don’t come quite as naturally to Japanese performers.”
“Magic Touch” also came with another challenge: all-English lyrics.
“I had to learn the song by sheer repetition, putting it on repeat until it naturally flowed,” Kishi says. Luckily, weekly English lessons have helped the group become more comfortable with what they’re saying. “The goal for us is not to sing in English just for the sake of it,” Jinguji explains. “We really want to be representatives of what Japan has to offer to the world.”
In addition to pushing their boundaries with “Magic Touch,” the members ventured to Los Angeles in 2019 to work with the Grammy-winning producer Babyface on the English-language track “Namae Oshiete” — a Japanese title, admittedly, that translates as “Tell Me Your Name.” It was a completely different recording process from what King & Prince are used to.
“I never imagined that we would spend that much time recording,” Jinguji says. “When we record in Japan, each member records his solo and chorus sections only. But recording this song required us to do the chorus and verses first, and record additional arrangements that Babyface came up with on the spot. He would stand in front of the microphone, show us what to do and then we just had to repeat it! I was also surprised that there were no guide vocals. But all in all, it was a mind-opening experience.”
“It was a lot of hard work,” Hirano adds. “Ideas kept changing on the spot and the song transformed multiple times by the final recording session from the demo we initially received. At times, it was hard to keep up, but I had a lot of fun.”
Despite King & Prince’s foray into more Western styles, the group is not abandoning its idol roots any time soon. This is evident on third album “Re:Sense,” which was released in July.
“The album contains songs with all-English lyrics as well as so-called idol songs to reflect not only our origins but also the different directions we want to push ourselves in as artists,” Takahashi says.
“The title of the album is a combination of the words ‘real’ and ‘sense,’” Nagase points out. “The former refers to the all-important aspect of being someone our fans feel like they can be close to and get to know, with ‘sense’ relating to the skills and knowledge, especially in regard to our singing and dancing, which we hope to show through various collaborations.”
“It’s all about a sense of balance,” Hirano adds. “I want our music to engage a wide range of people rather than stick to any single style or genre.”
Takahashi, however, chimes in with a different opinion: “I am not so concerned with ‘striking a balance’ since that implies it’s just ‘A or B.’ We’re only in our fourth year since our debut, so, for me, I want to keep broadening our horizons and make myself flexible enough to suit any type of style or song.”
While one of King & Prince’s main goals is to go on tour overseas, the group retains a sense of its roots and is keenly aware of the legacy established by Johnny & Associates.
“I just want to be able to preserve what our mentors before us have created. It’s something I really want to give my all to, as the essence of this company is something precious and special,” Kishi says.
“Everything we learned since our early days has been gearing up for this,” Jinguji says. “The pandemic makes this especially true, but, in fact, when we debuted we were told that, ‘Everything from here on out is the hard part.’ Because no matter the constraints, the most important thing is to be a source of fun and happiness for our fans. To embody this spirit and way of thinking — which everyone in our family of artists shares — is how we want to contribute to a legacy that is worth preserving.”
Spoken like true royals.
King & Prince’s third album, “Re:Sense,” is available now. For more information, visit http://sp.universal-music.co.jp/king-and-prince/sp/en.
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