Video game fans may know Hikaru Utada as the voice gracing each memorable theme from Square Enix and Disney’s popular collaborative series Kingdom Hearts. Skrillex fans have equally become aware of her angelic power via “Face My Fears,” the latest theme in that series featuring Hikaru’s iconic vocals with production by Skrillex and co-writing from Poo Bear.
There’s so much more to know about Utada, though. Japanese audiences have loved her deeply since her 1999 debut album First Love. She’s gone on to be one of the country’s most revered pop stars, blending R&B, dance-pop and rock into a signature sound that became a successful formula for other J-pop artists to follow. Today, we share a few highlights from her life to shed light on the bilingual J-pop queen.
She’s Japanese music royalty
Utada was raised in a house of musical influence. Her mother was Keiko Fuji, a beloved singer in the traditional Japanese style of enka. Her deep, rich vocal was beautiful over popular ballads throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. Utada’s father is a Japanese record producer named Teruzane Utada, with lyric and songwriting credits through the late ’80s and mid ’90s. He currently serves as his daughter’s manager.
She was born American
Utada was born in New York City in 1983, an only child to both her parents. Her father’s career kept the family moving back and forth between Japan and the US, exposing Utada to an interesting mix of both cultures and musical styles. She even briefly attended college at Columbia University before dropping out to focus on her family and already-successful career. She began writing her own songs at the age of 10, and as an early teen, recorded and released songs with her mother under the moniker U3, many of which featured songwriting credits from her father. At 15, she wrote, recorded and released Precious, and English-language album under the name Cubic U. It failed to make commercial waves.
She found success at 16
She remained undaunted by her English failure and continued to work on her style. At 16, she released a Japanese-language album under her birth name. That album was 1998’s First Love, and it was an instant smash. It’s fresh mix of American R&B style and Japanese contextualization was new and exciting for a national audience that was just as unaccustomed to self-made pop stars. She stuck out in a sea of highly-controlled “idols.” She wrote her own lyrics, and her in-control attitude was a big part of her image. Her debut single “Automatic/time will tell” sold over two million copies, while First Love remains the highest-selling album in Japan’s history. Her follow up LP Distance sold more than 3,000,000 copies in its first week to become the fastest-selling album in the country. It spawned her biggest hits including “Addicted to You”, “Wait & See (Risk)” and “Can You Keep a Secret?”
She’s got serious hip-hop ties
Skrillex isn’t her first American collaborator. In fact, her trans-continental style makes her a perfect companion for American R&B and hip-hop artists. In 2004, she featured on Timbaland‘s track “By Your Side” next to Kiley Dean as part of the official album for that year’s Olympic Games in Athens. In 2009, she appeared on Ne-Yo’s best of compilation on the track “Do You.” It’s an English-language duet that plays perfectly into both artist’s styles. She’s also been sampled by French Montana twice, once on 2010’s “Sanctuary” and again on its 2016 sequel “Sanctuary Pt. II.”
She’s Japan’s “most influential artist of the decade”
In 2009, Japan Times named Hikaru Utada the country’s most influential artist of the naughties. She was revered as “the most important individual to emerge on the Japanese pop scene since Tetsuya Komuro discovered Eurobeat in the 1980s,” citing how First Love changed the face of Japanese pop and annointing her subsequent 2000 tour “the biggest Japanese music event of the year.” She brought R&B to a whole country, and her mix of international sounds and self-made style can still be heard in the J-pop music of today. Her work with Kingdom Hearts is a huge part of her international influence, but it’s only a small part of her full story, one that continues to unfold before our eyes.