Released: March 25, 2009
Ms. Ayu releases albums like nothing. To her, it’s a walk in the park and she don’t give a damn what y’all think. But looking back at her discography; although majority of her records have had some sort of solidification within the J-pop scene—as far as her innovation in style and songwriting process goes—her albums has always been, in a fair statement… ordinary. It’s always catchy and over-the-top, but always bounces back as ordinary J-pop tunes. The singles are great, and usually the remixes are on point, but when she serves a full-length studio album, it’s just… simple pimple. But if anything, her 2009 collection Next Level sure channelled a new Ayu like no other.
The outstanding element to Next Level is that she finally dabs into some new sounds and genres, ridding away that typical J-pop sound… that has literally been on all nine of her previous studio albums. But the key word for this album? Electro. The mid-late 2000’s served a pretty big shift in electronic-driven music, so it seems like a comfortable step in the right direction for Ms. Ayu. “Energize” and “Sparkle” are the two major electronic-rock numbers here, both swerving over with sass, attitude and all over-the-top fierceness (work it gurl). For me, “Sparkle” is the reigning supreme, but both offer a different take of rock music, so it’s definitely a recommendation to check them both out. But the biggest shaBANG is the F-ing insane electro cut “Rollin'”, which is by far the most impressive track on the album. It’s clean yet funky, different yet suitable for Ayu-chan, AAANNNDDD… it’s just so F-ing good! Wait, good is a bit of an understatement… FIERCE is the word.
Apart from that, Next Level also picks up from where her album Guilty left off with, which is a selection of tracks that don over-the-top rock and gritty instrumentation, such as the impressive punk-ish number “Identity”—with it’s dope-as-hell R&B breakdown—the trippy electronic R&B-influenced “Love ‘n’ Hate”, and the sickening hard rock jam “Rule”, which is quite insane. All three of these tracks hold a similar sound that manages to intertwine quite smoothly, but unfortuantely, the interludes are placed in completely erratic areas that make you say “Like, gurl, what the hell?” Here’s the thing; I LIVE for these interludes, especially with the ethereal shimmer of “Bridge to the Sky”, or the half-oriental half-heavy metal “Pieces of Seven”, but a shift down the track list would have been better. Why is “Load of the Shugyo” before the heavy-oriental number “Green” when CLEARLY it should have been after it to close the electronic gap? Ehhhh, I don’t know either.
But what I can guarantee is that Next Level is also home to a selection of mid-tempo numbers that are executed in your quintessential Ayu-certified quality. “Days” is a brilliant yet gentle number that showcases Ayu’s vocals nicely, but at times, it could be seen as a recycled process from past pop ballads. The traditional piano-drive number “Curtain Call” is another pretty song that even prompt a large choir to show that gospel realness that we need in our souls (Praise it, hallelujah gurl!) But again, it’s nothing extremely special and doesn’t finish the record in it’s prime. But the one mid-tempo number, the absolutely gorgeous title track, is by far the best track on this record. I’ve listed it on my best Ayumi tracks for validation boyz and gurls, but “Next Level” is nothing but utter brillance; it’s a sophisticated J-pop ballad that shimmers a glittery and atmospheric sound that is like no other song she’s recorded, and quite frankly, it’s one of her best numbers. But the thing I like about this song is it’s lyrical content; it’s a lot more uptempo and feel-good, a transition that Ayu herself hasn’t expressed in a positive manner. But I tell you what, it’s a F-ing killer… A BANGING KILLER! No comparison.
There have been many Ayumi Hamasaki albums throughout the years, but there have been a rare selection that have become classic essentials that blend her artistry as a vocalist, songwriter and performer. And when this was released in 2009, she broke that mould. If anything, Next Level is a perfect collection of everything Ayu; sassy, emotional, glamorous, breezy, and exciting. Even though some interludes are scattered in different places, I can’t label them as flaws because, they too, are refreshing moments. So, as far as I can say, Next Level is one of my absolute favourite Ayu-chan albums (yup, you heard me y’all… now it’s best buddies with Loveppears, I Am…, and Memorial Address). An awesome record not to forget or miss!
Track list (Bold means best tracks)
- Bridge to the sky
- NEXT LEVEL ~Liam’s favourite~
- rollin’ ~Liam’s favourite~
- Load of the SHUGYO
- LOVE ‘n’ HATE
- Pieces of SEVEN
- Curtain call