J-Music Exchange/Rate — Shade by iri (Album Review)

All Day, All Day~  All Night, All Night~

Well now, would you look at that? (xD) That’s right, we’re back with yet another round of J-Music Exchange/Rate; the tandem album review series between myself and my good friend and fellow Japanese music fan Al, where we trade each other some of our favorite albums from our own respective libraries for the other to listen to and subsequently talk about in our respective blogs.

We both previously mentioned in the last Exchange/Rate we had (which by all means do go and read if you haven’t yet) that we were looking to make this series of ours a bit of a regular thing that we can do on a monthly basis. One of the main appeals of this project for me when Al first approached me with it was the prospect of just getting to listen to albums that I’ve yet to try myself, so I was actually very much excited to do more of these moving forward. Along with that, more often than not I catch myself listening to the same rotation of albums for weeks, even months at a time (lol), so the idea of then having to listen to an album with the purpose of reviewing it thereafter is a welcome change of pace for me personally.

I brought up too last time that we wanted to go about picking which albums we wanted the other to review based on a theme (where the last one that we did was “J-Pop” as suggested by Al), and as it was my turn to give one, I thought we should go ahead and give each other albums that in our opinion was a good display of vocals. The reasoning primarily being that I didn’t want to keep us to just genres as I only listen to handful of genres myself, but also because vocals are the first thing that I (and I presume a lot of people) home in on when I hear a song for a first time.

I actually found it immensely interesting that both Al and I ended up choosing artists with relatively low vocal registers for this, as I picked out milet‘s debut album “eyes” for him to review beside his choice of iri‘s “Shade”.

ーー

iri is a Kanagawa-based J-Pop/R&B singer-songwriter who made waves after having won an audition event sponsored and held in 2014 by fashion magazine NYLON JAPAN and Sony Music respectively, before then making her official debut in 2016 with the release of her first album in 2016, and is now currently an artist signed under the “Sony Music Artists Inc.” recording label. iri is best known arguably for her notably low vocal register which, coupled with her preferred singing style, makes for a unqiue blend of a more soulful Japanese Hip-Hop sound.  

Shade
*Spotify link to the full album

Tracklist:

01 Shade
02 Only One
03 Wonderland
04 Common
05 Cake
06 Flashlight
07 飛行
08 Sway
09 Peak
10 Keep on Trying
11 Mirror

A l : “In a music culture like Japan’s, finding a good hip hop-inspired artist on the surface may be hard to come by, given its usual representation of catchy theme songs from anime and high-pitched pop music. But if you really dig deep, you can definitely discover some great artists that focus on the genres of hip-hop, R&B, and even rap. Up-and-coming musician iri is, in my opinion, one of them. After having success with her previous releases like the “Watashi” single and her second album Juice, the Kanagawa-based artist came out with Shade in 2019, further showcasing her flow, lyricism, and soulful voice. While “Wonderland” is clearly the most popular track on her album (as well as in her entire discography), other songs like “Cake” and its upbeat atmosphere, the sensual-sounding “HIKOU”, and “Mirror” which ends the album in an excellent fashion, all do a great job at displaying her loose vocals and abilities to produce mellow beats. All in all, iri has been considered to be ‘fresh air’ in the current Japanese music scene and Shade is a fantastic example of that impression.”

 

<Songs of Interest>

01 Shade
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to everyone at this point that I am once again picking out the opening track as the first song I talk about for this album. I do make it a point to stress the notion behind me doing so in most if not all the Exchange/Rate’s we’ve had so far, but to reiterate, the idea is that to me personally the album opener is just so important to the overall listening experience as it quite literally starts everything off for whoever chooses to pick up this album and to give it a listen. That being said, it does also help my case that “Shade” is also the title track of the album, so I’m all but obligated to highlight it for this review.

Of course, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t have chosen to talk about it if it wasn’t the opening track nor if it wasn’t the title track for the album. “Shade” on its own does quite an amazing job, at least in my opinion, at introducing to the listener what sort of artist iri actually is and what she brings to the table. What sticks out right away is what is now her signature low and husky vocal stylings, which I find she utilizes to great effect as she rides the beat with it to almost no effort. I would also like to give a passing mention on the use of her flow and how smoothly she’s able to just slip and slide her way through the song from start to finish because of it.

02 Only One
While “Shade” for the most part was able to shine a light on iri’s most defining characteristic as a singer (as previously mentioned, her deep swooping vocals), “Only One” on the other hand sees iri hitting some pretty respectable high notes, as if to counteract that very statement. On the whole, the song does help in sort of rounding out the listener’s perception of iri’s overall vocal range, and I can’t help but think that this was a stylistic decision on her producer’s part to have this song be the follow-up to “Shade” to not only show this particular contrast, but to also kinda show people that there’s more to iri than just her rapping and R&B hooks.

Perhaps what’s even more impressive is that she actually does still stick to her flow-y R&B style whilst simultaneously going high and low in the verses seemingly on a whim. I mean, there’s always going to be some form of production at play, with stuff like having multiple vocal tracks in particular being a commonality amongst the usual tools of the trade, but I think the takeaway from this song should be that it’s her voice that we’re hearing. Regardless of whether she can sing this in one take, the fact of the matter is that she can sing, period. Whether or not iri herself intended for that point to be emphasized here is beyond me, but either way, this was a nice flex (xD)

03 Wonderland
If you asked me to name the absolute standout track out of the entire album, I can say without a shred of doubt that it’s “Wonderland”. It’s the best song off of “Shade”, one-hundred percent. I mean, there’s a reason why this song has nearly twelve times the amount of views as that of “Only One” on YouTube. Granted, views aren’t necesarilly indicative of how good a song is, but it does speak to the likeability of one I would imagine. However, even saying this song is only just likeable is to me honestly quite the understatement, and really undersells how good this song really is. At the very least, and if it wasn’t obvious enough, “Wonderland” is my favorite song from this here album.

That’s not without good reason, as this song does have quite a lot of good things going for it. For starters, fhe hook is nothing short of amazing. Like, I can almost guarantee that it will get stuck in your head after hearing it just once. The musicality and the instrumentation is superb compared to most of the tracks in the album, with the subtle bass line in particular hitting some good spots in the verses. iri’s flow shines even brighter than it did in “Shade”, where she again is able to just ride the beat seamlessly, except this time she’s sliding to a straight-up bop of a track. All in all, “Wonderland” is an undeniable, bonafide hit.

09 Peak
There’s something to be said about how the next track I chose to feature is a good five tracks away from the last one, but that speaks to my overall thoughts on the album itself so I’ll save that for later. “Peak” is where I kinda show my own personal biases for a bit with regard to what sort of sounds I typlically end up liking, as it makes it on here simply on the merit of having a predominant clap beat (and, well, I do like me some claps every now and then not gonna lie xD). I mean, of course, it goes without saying that there’s more to this song than just that, but admittedly that’s what caught my attention the most during my first playthrough of the album.

After running the whole thing back a couple more times, I think what “Peak” made me realize more than anything was how tonally different it was compared to the rest of the tracks on the album. The claps aside, the song actually has an interesting guitar section (specifically some smokey hot licks) that seems a little out of place at first, more so considering that you won’t hear anything remotely close to that in any other song off of “Shade”. Conversely, however, I did come to find that each song was more or less unique in its own way, at least in terms of their sound. This in turn made me look at the album overall as iri playing around a bit and seeing what sound works for her.

<What I think of Shade>

I think it’s a bit pertinent for me to bring up how I first came across iri through 163 braces’s fairly popular cover of “Wonderland”, that somehow or another made its way into people’s recommendations list of things to watch on YouTube for a brief period of time. I’m sure there were algorithims at play with regard to the actual video itself and the popularity surrounding it, but at the same time I do like to believe that that also goes to show how good of a song “Wonderland” is that it has people who aren’t even natively Japanese do a cover of it (163 braces is Taiwanese), as it shows iri being somewhat of a global presence with her music if only for that one particular track. A track that I didn’t really know beforehand which album of iri’s it was part of until I was given the opportunity to review “Shade” here by Al, funnily enough.

Thus, I felt I had been dealt an interesting proposition, albeit one that I couldn’t fully grasp the nature of until after having played through the album in its entirety a good number of times. I came into “Shade” with a heavy bias towards one particular song that quite curiously finds itself very near the top of the batting order here being just the third track out of eleven, and while I didn’t see any problem with that placement as much as I would’ve thought, I did eventually come to realize what it was exactly that was nagging at me. On a whim I tried listening to the album once over, except this time time I purposelly skipped over “Wonderland”, and that’s when the query I’d been searching for finally presented itself. Ultimately, the question this album needed to answer for me was how good would it be if “Wonderland” wasn’t part of it.

What I realized right away when I listened to “Shade” without “Wonderland” was that, more than anything, the album was very top heavy. You’ll notice that my songs of interest here ended up being the first three tracks of the album, and I honestly do believe that these are the ones that stand out the most. Not to say that the other songs aren’t as good, and  I suppose a better way of putting it is that these songs in particular are in my opinion the most distinct sounding, as I found that the middle chunk of songs in the album just sort of fade into the background after a while. That in itself isn’t inherently a bad trait to have by any means (it might even be a positive for others), but it does make me think about whether or not I would have enjoyed the album as much if not for the aforementioned set of songs.

<My Rating>

4.5 out of 5,

and

9 out of 10

Thankfully, we really don’t have to deal with these hypotheticals (lol), and “Shade” is just that much better of an album (I believe at least) in large part to a handful of songs being part of it. That said, I do actually think that “Shade” can stand on its own with just the rest of its tracks;  “Common” is a straight banger, and both “Hikou” and “Keep on trying” are a nice blues-y change of pace. A very smooth and classy album all in all, and one that just goes and flows once you start playing it.

 

 

3 thoughts on “J-Music Exchange/Rate — Shade by iri (Album Review)

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