“Exodus” at 10: A closer look at Utada Hikaru’s English language crossover album

Ten years ago today saw the Japanese release of Utada Hikaru’s English language album “Exodus.” The following month would see the album’s US and European releases. After massive success in Japan, she set her sites on success in her birth country, the United States. Armed with complete fluency in English and great musical credentials, she took a shot at trying to crossover from the Asian music scene to the Western one, something that is still being attempted today with less than fruitful results overall. To mark this occasion, AXS, entertainment behemoth AEG’s digital marketing site, wrote a retrospective piece on the album 10 years after its release.

AXS writes:

Having conquered the Japanese music scene with massive sales, singer-songwriter Utada Hikaru refocused her sights on the U.S. with the release of Exodus on Sept. 8, 2004. The Japanese-American artist explored themes of emigration, loneliness and sexuality on the 14-track set. Her profound lyricism on those subjects were captivating in the sound scheme of experimental EDM mixed with elements of R&B and J-Pop music. Exodus was an escape into pop music with real emotion behind it.

Utada, a native of New York City, originally made a bid for success in the American music market in 1998 with the release of Precious under the name Cubic U. The record failed to make an impact so she turned to Japanese music instead. Her next album First Love went on to become the best-selling album of all-time in Japan. Future Japanese-language releases followed suit in terms of success. Years older since the Cubic U days, the then 21-year-old Utada found herself ready to try the U.S. again with Exodus. Hit-making producer Timbaland provided some work on the album but Utada handled almost all of the songwriting and production duties.

Exodus was first released in Japan on Sept. 8, 2004 and then in America the following month. To mark the start of a new journey, Utada time-stamped the title track as “Exodus ’04.” Mixing sounds of traditional Japanese music with an electro-R&B edge, she detailed leaving behind the picturesque scenes of her parents’ homeland. “Daddy, don’t be mad that I’m leaving / Please let me worry about me / Mama, don’t you worry about me / This is my story,” she sings. The heartbreak of leaving behind familiarity for something new but unknown came through loud and clear.

As one of the few Asian artists making a break for the American music scene, Utada seemed to challenge the notion of the model minority throughout Exodus. The crippling stereotype assumes, in short, that Asian people are emotionless, faceless beings only set on pleasing and assimilating into the U.S. crowd once they arrive. “Devil Inside,” a dark slice of thrilling electronica, says different. “Everybody wants me to be their angel / Everybody wants something they can cradle,” Utada sings. “Maybe there’s a devil or something like it inside of me.” The Billboard Hot Dance Club Play no. 1 single was a bold statement on the album, adding that there is more to someone than meets the eye or antiquated mindset. She further explored her wild side on sexually-charged bangers like “The Workout” and “Let Me Give You My Love.”

Tougher subjects Utada tackled on Exodus included her dissolving marriage to Kazuaki Kiriya on “You Make Me Want to Be a Man.” She turned her frustrations about gender roles in a relationship into a feminist message, singing, “I really want to tell you something but I can’t / You make me want to be a man.” She definitely got her point across on the battle-born dance track. Effervescent in sound but extremely tragic in lyricism, “Hotel Lobby” is about the life of a woman who needs to sleep around for money. Instead of approaching the usual sunny themes of top 40 music, Utada brought forth the unfortunate reality that some people live day-to-day. “She goes out unprotected / She doesn’t listen to her best friend / It’s only for the money,” she coldly sings. “Hotel Lobby” is one of the album’s more poignant songs.

As a producer, Utada crafted stunningly experimental tracks as well like “Animato” and “Kremlin Dusk.” She warped and bent synthesizers in all different directions with gorgeous results. “Kremlin,” especially, is a fine moment of virtuosity in electronica. The only goofy song on Exodus comes in the form of “Easy Breezy,” a kiss-off jam backed by a ringtone-like beat that seems like it came from an old Nokia phone.

Exodus peaked at no. 5 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart but it remains a cult classic among her American fans. Utada later followed it up with This is the One in 2009. She is currently on a much-needed vacation to experience life, which started in 2010 after the release of a Japanese greatest hits album. Reports started circulatinglast year that Utada could possibly record a new theme for Kingdom Hearts III, a video game still in development. Previously, she soundtracked the last two games with the songs “Simple and Clean/Hikari” and “Sanctuary/Passion.”