Ken Hirai

BIG IN JAPAN
Ken Hirai

Ken Hirai, current king of Japanese R&B, has been around longer than you think. The Osaka native began his music career back in 1993 when he signed with Sony Music following an audition in Yokohama the previous year while he was a student. His debut single "Precious Junk" and album were recorded the following year and released in 1995. The first single, used as the theme to a TV drama, immediately garnered Hirai attention and his second single, "Video Jam," also used for a drama, further capitalized on his unique sound. Hirai’ debut album, un-balanced, went on sale the same year and was followed by a second, Stare At, in December of the following year.

Taking things more slowly, Hirai used the next four years to consolidate his style and take time out – he only released one single each in 1997 and ’98 and didn’t produce any new music during 1999. Fans had to wait until 2000 for a third album from Hirai, The Changing Same, and it was the first single "Rakuen" (paradise) that established him as a major player in the domestic charts and overseas. Capitalizing on a strong fan base in Asia, Hirai appeared at the MTV Music Summit in Taiwan in August 2000. Voted Best New Japanese Act in a pop poll organized by the RTHK radio station in Hong Kong, Hirai recently flew to HK to pick up the award.

Hirai’s dedication to his craft is evident in the way he strives for authenticity. He even went so far as to appear at amateur night at the Apollo Theater in New York – the classic test of amateur talent in the R&B world. Fortunately Hirai, the first performer from Japan, was well received by the Manhattan audience. In an interview with Time, he explained, "When I first listened to soul music, I found something that put me in the mood for dancing. I got this feeling that this was the music I had been searching for."

Hirai’s soulful voice, piercing falsettos and unconventional looks may have earned him adoring fans, but as a teenager he had quite a complex about his appearance. "I really wanted to change my face. I wanted a flat, very typical Japanese or Asian face," he recently told Time. Although he is pure Japanese, his decidedly Caucasian profile and curly hair set him apart and suit his choice of music style.

Currently riding high on the success of his latest hit, "Kiss of Life," Hiari is set to embark on a national tour bearing the same name as his third album, Gaining Through Losing. Maybe his choice of title comes from the hiatus he took – Hirai certainly seems to have gained much from temporarily losing his place in the spotlight.

Matt Wilce

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