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A pink Sony MiniDisc player sat alongside a MiniDisc copy of Ayumi Hamasaki’s album, ‘Next Level’. On the top left is a strip of yellow masking tape with the word ‘Rewind’ on it.

I did not like Ayumi Hamasaki’s Next Level when I first reviewed it back in 2008. And to this day, I still don’t think it’s a particularly good album. But it’s an interesting album to look back on, because you can trace how it became what it did. And how it created the slope that Ayu would slide down for the next decade.

Do you remember that moment in Avengers: Endgame; that big fight at the end, when everything is going to shit? And Tony Stark looks at Doctor Strange like ‘We are gettin’ our asses kicked. What the fuck we s’posed to do?’. Then Doctor Strange is like ‘Bitch. This moment right here? This is the ONE chance I told you about. You better get up.’ Next Level was this moment for Ayu. Except she didn’t get up, snatch the infinity gauntlet and do what she was supposed to do. But we’ll get to that.

So, let’s rewind and revisit Ayumi Hamasaki’s 2008 album, Next Level.

A promo shot of Ayumi Hamasaki for Next Level. Featuring her wearing a two piece latex outfit, made up of a blue skirt and a pink corset top, with bright yellow gloves.

Released in March of 2009, Next Level is very much a product of its time. But let’s jump back a year or two.

2008 was quite the year in pop. This is relevant to the discussion of Next Level, because what was happening in pop during this period played a part in Next Level becoming what it became, and the shift in Ayu’s image which would occur from this moment on.

Ayumi Hamasaki has never been an artist who hopped on trends as quickly and as predictably as the likes of Koda Kumi. Ayu had her own lane — and for the most part — she stayed in it, which served her well…up until it didn’t. But there were definitely moments when the pop zeitgeist would influence Ayu’s music and style. We started to see this happen a little with her album Rainbow, in 2002. And then each album which came after featured something pulled from whatever was popular in the U.S. at that time — which was a common thing across all of J-pop in the early 2000s. And alongside this, Ayumi Hamasaki had a thing for Americana anyway, so there was also that. But Next Level felt like the first album where Ayu shifting and bending to popular trends felt super clear, because it happened with her image and sound simultaneously. Ayu stans did not like the Lady Gaga comparisons back when Next Level released. But whether they like it or not, Lady Gaga most certainly played a part in the loose theme of the album and the black latex for two of its music videos. And this is not any sort of slight on Ayumi Hamasaki. Many pop stars got caught up in the Gaga effect. It’s actually crazy just how much Lady Gaga defined pop in 2008 and 2009 and how many women in pop we saw react to it.

2007 was the year of blip-pop, thanks largely to Britney Spears’ Blackout — bringing this darker, playful and even more sexually charged era of pop with an R&B sensibility, which also folded in new wave. This stage could not have been better set for Lady Gaga in 2008, who embodied all of these things. People like to talk shit about Britney and say that she’s manufactured and what-not. But Blackout really steered the next few years of pop, and helped create a wave that Lady Gaga — amongst many others — rode. And even in Next Level there is a HINT of Blackout.


Back to the Gaga of it all. And this will all come back to Ayumi Hamasaki and Next Level. Honest.

Lady Gaga released her debut album in 2008. And by 2009, the bitch was everywhere. And very quickly, it felt like she had always been here, because of how familiar everything about her was. The EP, deluxe edition of The Fame, repackage of The Fame — whatever the fuck you wanna call it — was a behemoth of a hit. It truly felt like Lady Gaga had just taken up every bit of air there was in pop and then set a new precedent for it. Sure, she was doing all of the stuff that Madonna (and also, Grace Jones) had done in the late 80s and early 90s. But it had been a while since a pop act had so explicitly done what Madonna or Grace had done, in a similar way to how they did it — reminding everybody that pop could and should be provocative, and that there’s nothing wrong with it being weird. Pop can be bright colours and pastels, but it can also be black latex, rock ‘n’ roll and Club Kids — which speaks a lot to what pop is now, how broad it has become and what it has evolved into.

2008 – 2009 was a really weird time in pop though. Gaga’s brand of pop was the ‘it’ thing in music at a time when there was no real trend in a business which relies and thrives on trends. Lady Gaga had a sound. But her success wasn’t just because of her sound. It was because of her brand. And in 2008 and 2009, every type of song was going to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — so everybody had their finger in the air wondering what the next big sound was going to be. And then you had EDM which was bubbling right beneath the surface and everybody could sense it. So record labels were like ‘Are we doing bacon dresses and RedOne productions? Or are we doing zzzzt-titty-wow-oontz-onntz-clap-clap songs with some DJ who wears a helmet?’. The obstacle here was that not everybody could just do what Gaga was doing. But nobody was willing to take the risk with EDM either. Also, much like doing Gaga, doing EDM was not something that everybody could just…do. Kelly Clarkson could not just start singing about disco sticks and doing superhero landings by the side of a swimming pool in a wet bodysuit. (And it’s a good thing that she didn’t, because in 2009, her single “My Life Would Suck Without You” went to number 1). And Beyoncé was not at a point in her career where she was willing to take the risk of releasing an album produced by Civil Rights activist David ‘I Have a Dream’ Guetta. So 2008 – 2009 was this strange period in pop where everybody was just…trying to figure out where they fit in, unaware that the actual trend was…to not fit in. And because of this, Lady Gaga shone that much brighter. Because at a time when everybody was trying to figure their shit out, she already had it figured out. She had a clear brand, narrative and story. And this tentative, trend-less period wasn’t just occurring in the U.S. either. We were seeing markets all around the world caught in this state of ‘This Gaga woman is popular. EDM is coming. But, what do we do?’. But Ayu had already received her confirmation e-mail from her online purchase of Pleasers. She knew what she was gonna do.

A screenshot of Ayumi Hamasaki in her music video of “Sparkle”. Featuring her wearing a red latex catsuit.

I wouldn’t categorise Next Level as an electronic / EDM album. And I wouldn’t say that Ayu was trying to be Lady Gaga — who Ayu already shared a fair amount in common with. But these influences are all still very present on Next Level. But unfortunately for Ayu, the result wasn’t just a bad album, but one which felt like it had an idea what it wanted to be, but did not commit to that idea. But an album not committing to an idea, resulting in something which sounds like two or three different album ideas clusterfucked together was ‘a thing’ with Ayu by this point. Miss(understood) and Secret wound being EXACTLY this. This tradition of albums not having a clear theme and not feeling like a body of work is a common thing in Japanese music, which is often due to — but not limited to — how the Japanese music business prioritises singles, which are recorded and released with no album in mind and often to the brief of a tie-in. And what happens as a result of this, is that when album tracks are eventually recorded, they have a different flavour and vibe to the singles. This was evident with Next Level. It seemed like Ayu recorded her singles, which were very much her regular fare. But as she got to the later singles and started to record the album; Lady Gaga was huge, electro pop is hittin’ and the oontz is creeping into songs. Ayu probably felt inspired and wanted to be on the crest of a trend, which is why Yuta Nakano and CMJK had to dip into their electronic whizz-blip sound packs and shoehorn that vibe onto Next Level as a theme via “Bridge to the Sky”, “Disco-munication” and “Rollin’”. Which is also why she chose to release music videos with a sexual energy that we hadn’t really seen in this way from Ayu before.

But by this point in her career, Ayu had already locked herself into her sound. So she was never going to release a whole EDM or electro pop album. Although she very easily could have at this point and had a huge hit. In 2008, Ayu could still wipe the floor with a bitch when it came to first week sales, and she didn’t know any chart position lower than 2.

Next Level would have been a far more interesting album had Ayu really leaned into the Gaga and electro of it all. Ayu was already known for her fashion, her wigs, her makeup and her extra as hell live shows — this woman had a whole-ass Pirates of the Caribbean ride on a stage — so she had those boxes pre-checked. And it’s not like Ayu had never dabbled with electronic dance music before. She had been releasing dance remix albums since the start of her career. Next Level was the ideal album for Ayu to fold her Ayu-mi-xes into her main sound and make a studio album out of that. It would have been the jolt that her music really needed at this point in her career, even if it wasn’t what people expected of her — which is all the more reason she should have done it. But the thing which became clear to me about Ayu over the years, is that she cherry picks what she likes and wears these things like equippable badges in a video game. But that’s all they are to her. There’s never a curiosity to dig deeper, to embody these things, to fold them into her brand in a meaningful way which makes sense. It’s just ‘Oh, that’s cute’ and then we’re done with it. There is never any commitment to anything. There’s no [turns and looks into the camera] evolution.

As for the Avengers: Endgame of it all? Next Level was the beginning of the end of ‘Ayu’s reign’. Ayu’s 2007 album Guilty ended Ayu’s streak of number 1 albums. But despite Next Level charting at number 1, it sold less than Guilty. And despite Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus being a far better album than Next Level, it sold even less. And Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus was the start of even the fans saying ‘Ayu is just doing the same thing over and over again’.

A screenshot of Ayumi Hamasaki in her music video of “Rule”. Featuring her wearing a black bodysuit and shiny vinyl trousers.

Next Level was the album where Ayu needed to steer things in a different direction. Not only had Ayu been releasing music for a decade at this point, but she was also witnessing this shift where pop was changing. Women were at the heart of it, as they almost always are. And as a result, the expectations of a woman in pop were also changing. Whilst this change wasn’t happening in Japanese music in the exact same way, it was still happening — Ayu herself played a huge part in it happening. So it’s not hard to imagine Ayu feeling somewhat invigorated by seeing this shift happen in pop globally, at a time when popular U.S. acts were still promoting and touring in Japan, and Japanese pop music was also catching more and more attention internationally.

Ayu presented a new image for “Rule” and “Sparkle” — but unfortunately, this newness was not extended to either of the songs, which were just her same ol’, same ol’. And whilst Ayu tried to push some element of newness into the Next Level album cuts, there was no commitment to any of it. The latex, the Pleasers, the blips and bloops on a few songs on the album — equipped badges. Ayu could have held so much more power in her own creativity and artistry had she really gone all the way with Next Level, the same way she had earlier in her career. The writing had been on the wall for a while that Ayu’s music and her perception of her career needed to shift in some way. And Next Level in 2009 was the most ideal time for her to have done it.

But whether Ayu would have pulled this off successfully, is another question. Because even on the Next Level songs where Ayu tried something new, the execution was off because there was no care or commitment. It was just a case of ‘Let’s just throw Ayu on this different sounding song’. Equippable badges. The creative compass of Ayu and her team has been off for years, and Ayu refuses to change up her team or set a new precedent for them. And the proof that this could have done wonders for her if she did it right? Namie Amuro. She did all of the things that Ayumi Hamasaki should have done at this point in her career. And as a result, by 2009, Namie was more popular than Ayu was and outselling her — something I don’t think anybody saw coming. But instead, Ayu did what now unfortunately defines her. Played it too safe. Didn’t push the boundaries of her sound. Refused to surround herself with a team of people who want to push things forward. Chose to just ‘do things the way we’ve always done it’ to her own creative detriment. The writing truly was on the wall for us too. Because if Ayu wasn’t going to take a risk in 2009 with Next Level, at a time when pop wasn’t punishing risk and so much was changing, then she was never going to.

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Revisiting Ayumi Hamasaki’s ‘Next Level’