24 years on, Hikaru Utada’s ‘First Love’ is both defined and untouched by time

Hikaru Utada’s album remains an inflexion point for international pop and a time capsule of ‘90s R&B

Fabian Hasan Khan
Published : 18 Jan 2023, 12:07 PM
Updated : 18 Jan 2023, 12:07 PM

Jan 18 is the birthday of Japanese-American pop singer, songwriter, and producer Hikaru Utada.

In 1999, on the cusp of Y2K, Hikaru Utada, the American-born child of Enka singer and actress Keiko Fuji and music producer Teruzane Utada, made their Japanese-language debut with First Love. It was an instant success. Selling 2 million units, it skyrocketed to the top of the Oricon album charts and secured Utada’s place as, as The Japanese Times put it, ‘the most influential Japanese artist of the 2000s’.  

Twenty-four years later, the album has sold over 10 million copies, and Utada remains a force in Japanese pop. But what of First Love? Does the album that introduced them to millions still hold up?

Sonically, First Love draws heavily on American R&B artists of the ‘90s, the time and place Utada grew up. In 2004, Utada told The Baltimore Sun that it was their mother, who introduced them to the thriving US hip-hop scene. 

“She would blast The Chronic by Dr Dre in the living room,” they said. “I mean she loved it, this tiny, little Japanese woman just dancing around to Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg”. 

The influence of ‘90s American R&B and hip-hop infuses the entire album, which feels like a sampler of all its different flavours and genres. The groovy, ear-wormy beat of album opener ‘Automatic’ even has a G-funk taste, even if Utada’s clear but dynamic vocal delivery is closer to Mariah Carey and Brandy than Snoop and Dre.  

Lyrically, ‘Automatic’ also lays out the broad variations of love and relationships that play out throughout the rest of First Love. The dance/house track ‘Movin’ on Without You’ sees an empowered woman re-emerging from a failed relationship with hints of Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’, while ‘In My Room’ talks about a teenage love that never came to be in the signature style of Mariah’s ‘90s sound.  

Naturally, the title track serves as the album’s centrepiece, bringing together both its lyrical and musical influences. A heartfelt recollection and expression of gratitude to first love, the song has the big, dramatic production of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, building from a soft opening to a crescendo of strings that showcase Utada’s vocal range and control.

Trip-hop track ‘Amai Wana: Paint It, Black’ swerves to pick up the tempo with an electric guitar and synth opening atop a surplus of drums and bass. More experimental and upbeat than the rest of First Love, it’s an obvious highlight.

But things take a dip in the next two songs. Though released as a single, ‘Time Will Tell’ doesn’t really stand out. It’s straightforward, with a simple piano building to a base of drums and bass, and a slightly saccharine sound that lacks novelty. ‘Never Let Go’ is the lowest point on the record, with the understated production doing little to elevate the standard lyrics about persisting in love and not giving up. 

‘B&C’, about a ‘bandit love’ that runs hot and dangerous, is about as simple in its production, but the bouncy energy is much more fun, arguing that it’s better to take a chance on instant chemistry than to worry about heartbreak. ‘Another Chance’ is good too, with a fresh, city pop-ish vibe to its guitar tone and sparkling synths.     

A small interlude separates the final track, ‘Give Me a Reason’, from the rest of the album. This feels fitting, because the song leans more pop than R&B, with acoustic guitar and strings before the drums and bass kick in. The words find a vulnerable Utada straining to justify why they’re giving their heart away only to conclude “Honestly, I don’t really need a reason. Let’s run, shouting like children.”

Like its namesake, First Love is a young album. It mixes and matches influences shamelessly. It is spirited, silly, and naïve. Sometimes it tries too much and sometimes it doesn’t try enough. But it has a zing of energy and zeal too. And all those contradictory emotions are familiar and relatable. It still resonates, so much so that a 2022 Netflix series drew heavy inspiration from it. 

Utada would mature as a singer and songwriter as time went on, but First Love remains an essential part of that long, illustrious career. And that seems entirely fitting to the album’s title.  

This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective. 

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher