Hello! Project fans of a certain age (old) will remember a time when the ultimate dream of H!P-group idols was to one day debut as a solo artist. To be sure, this was always more true of Morning Musume than other groups, but Berryz Koubou and C-ute were both hatched at a point in time when solo idols were still a thing, and H!P’s most popular idols were given single releases and even full albums as soloists. The original H!P kids grew up in a system that saw Yuko Nakazawa, Maki Goto, Natsumi Abe and Kaori Ida launch solo careers with varying degrees of success. Even tin-eared Koharu Kusumi got a bite at the solo-idol apple, which had to provide an AYFKM!? moment for a lot truly talented H!P girls who were never afforded the same opportunity.
About halfway through the lives of Berryz and C-ute, though, something terrible happened: the solo idol died in Japanese pop, and has yet to see its Easter Sunday. This makes Up-Front Create’s decision to give Former C-ute and Buono! stand-out Airi Suzuki a proper run as a soloist bolder than it ought to seem based on her talent and popularity within the H!P fandom. Make no mistake, Suzuki is more deserving of a solo career than any H!P soloist not named Aya Matsuura. Her strong, clear and versatile voice has been a model of remarkable consistency, while her naturally easy-going and good-natured personality paired with her natural beauty placed her near the top of “most popular H!P idol” lists for nearly a decade. In any other era of J-pop, a Suzuki solo career would be obvious, but we live in an era where 24-year old idols are considered past their sell-by date regardless of their talents, and are sent to the entertainment glue-factories of the variety show circuit. If you’re really popular, you might even get to co-host the show! Either way, time to go, Nana! We need to make room for the hot new 12 year-old who can’t sing or dance, but has a great proficiency in being new and very young.
Like fellow Kid Miyabi Natsuyaki and her trio PINK CRES, UFC decided to forego physical singles with Suzuki, and issued a full album straight away. And when I say “full album” I’m not kidding: Do Me A Favor sports 15 new tracks, and not one of them is a remake from any of Suzuki’s Hello! Project groups. This is not to say that none of the new material hearkens back to those groups, because some of it does – and some to the detriment of the album, IMO – but overall, this is a really, really good long-player that positions her well for the future. It’s a fantastic debut for Airi.
With any Up-Front release, there is the looming specter of small budgets and cut-corners leading to good songs being sabotaged, but as with PINK CRES’s crescendo, those fears are allayed. They did right by Airi, and Do Me A Favor provides her with a professionally written, arranged and produced set of songs for her to showcase her talent. And boy howdy does she showcase her talent. At 24, Suzuki is right in her pop-singer prime, and it shows. She really does sound better than ever, and while part of that is simply natural progression, I think the freedom of not having to share musical space with four other singers pushed her to another level. If, like me, you loved the more mature C-ute sound of their last few singles, you’re in luck, as that mostly continues on this album.
The digital-only single, “DISTANCE” kicks things off nicely, delivering a hard-driving, melodic dance number that’s a bit moodier than most C-ute songs, and is a direction I can see her moving if she ever settles on a more focused sound. This is followed by “Mikansei Girl”, which is such a dead ringer for the Shiina Ringo sound that I was positive she had composed it. Eh, she didn’t, but who cares, this is top-notch theft, and Airi kills on it. From there we get a solid funky K-pop-ish R&B track, “Good Night”, which Airi pulls off with such apparent ease and aplomb that you can readily see her focusing on this in the future, as well.
By now, the pattern is established, and this style-jumping continues throughout the entirety of the album, which highlights its only real flaw: Do Me A Favor is about as focused as a six-week old puppy on a football field full of six-week old puppies. In an effort to highlight her past as well as point toward her future, Suzuki has delivered a disjointed Whitman’s Sampler of an album, albeit of very good songs, but it’s distracting at times despite the strong material. I’ve asked myself if I would trade all of the rockers to make a more cohesive dance/R&B album, or vice versa, and I haven’t come up with an answer, as there is precious little chaff present.
“STORY”, her collaboration with SCANDAL, and “Candy Box” would fit seamlessly on any Buono! album, which would be great if this were a Buono! album and it was 2010, but it’s not what I want from an Airi Suzuki solo album in 2018. Likewise, “Kimi no Suki na Hito” is just so H!P in its construction and production that it veers too far into nostalgia for my tastes. It’s a nice track, but she’s not a kid in H!P anymore, and I’m more interested in the grown-up Airi Suzuki now. On the other hand, they’re all really good tracks, so I’m inclined to give Airi a debut-album mulligan, and just enjoy it for what it is, which is pretty damned good in any event.
What makes it so damned good is Airi’s voice, and we’re treated to some moments that highlight just how far Suzuki has progressed as a singer. The “Oh, oh, oh” leading into the first chorus of “Moments” is straight goose-bump fertilizer, displaying a soul and subtlety I’ve not heard from Airi before. In fact, she seems to have become a more passionate singer overall, which was possibly the only knock on her previous to this release. The always reliable, but at times robotic Airi has grown into five-tool player capable of subtle restraint, soaring power and everything in between depending on the requirement of the moment. She never sounds out of place on an album that runs the gamut from J-idol fluff to de rigueur idol-rock to harder dance/R&B to indie-rock to mature mid-tempo and ballad pop, and her voice never becomes tiresome during the journey. It’s an impressive feat, and while she’s not in Matsuura’s league, she’s tearing it up at the Triple-A affiliate.
The closer, “Start Again”, pairs nicely with the opener “DISTANCE” to create musical bookends and a sense of, if not cohesion, at least proper closure to an excursion through Suzuki’s musical life to this point. I hope her fans enjoy this as much as I do, because this is the best solo offering from a former H!P-group idol ever by far. I also hope that Suzuki can expand her reach to the point of planting a seed of interest for solo idols to a more general Japanese audience. (Are we still calling Airi an “idol” or nah?) It’s doubtful that we will see the likes of an idol singer this good for another generation unless the idol production companies are given a reason to search them out and develop them by the music consuming public. The pendulum is overdue for a swing away from groups of raw children and back toward gifted soloists and talented, more developed idols in Jpop, so do me a favor and check out Airi Suzuki’s excellent debut album.