CHAI’s latest continues to reevaluate genre boundaries with catchy experimentation and through sly feminist modes.
CHAI is a band guided by an explicit mission statement. Announced immediately on their website and surfacing in much of their publicity, the Japanese J-pop-punk-house-rap rock band are celebrants of kawaii as it’s understood contemporarily, refracting the femme, cute aesthetic through their eclectic genre interests. It informs their stylings and performances too, which CHAI gives a level of consideration usually forgone by most but those in the upper echelons of pop stardom, their shows featuring light choreography and the band members in matching uniform. Indeed, performance and brand are important to the CHAI experience, but not to the actual music’s detriment. If anything, it provides a context that unites the disparate, global influences vying for attention on each of their projects, brought under an umbrella of exuberant femininity.
Building off strong momentum on the Spotify charts at home in Japan and in the UK, CHAI has achieved a fairly smooth crossover into the U.S. music industry, ushered in by the scandalized, now-defunct Burger Records who handled distribution of the group’s most recent EP and first two albums. Luckily, that company’s legal and reputational fallout didn’t seem to touch CHAI, who have moved over to the ever dependable Sub Pop for their third album, WINK. More or less picking up where 2019’s Punk left off, the album keeps to a similar template but continues to diversify and play with an often surprising selection of sonic combinations. The basis for much of this exploration starts with the group’s core dynamic, bringing together punk instrumentation with girl group-type harmonizing to form a bedrock on top of which further ideas are perched.
WINK continues to make use of the dance and electronic influences that emerged on the band’s first album, Pink, while also creating room for hip hop and chip tune production (the latter courtesy of YMCK who feature on “PING PONG!”). “END” serves as the most striking example of the former, a generalized diss track aimed at music industry misogynists and their enablers, with CHAI’s primary vocalist MANA (all the members use stage names) convincingly rapping in Japanese and English over a beat recalling Beastie Boys’ “Ch-Check It Out”. Elsewhere, Chicago artist Ric Wilson, known for his own genre collages, features on woozy electronic R&B track “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” providing a verse that summarizes the song’s body-positive ethos (the lyrics suggest some sort of reckoning between the song’s writer and her moles). Which is, in a sense, CHAI’s ethos in full, and by extension, WINK’s, a belief in the power of self love and fulfillment (opening track “Donuts Mind If I Do”’s romantic melody composed in homage to the title dessert), while championing dance music as the ultimate equalizer. It’s a position elegantly and charmingly implied in the lyrics of “IN PINK,” shouted by the group over Mndsgn’s slinky house beat: “I know you never pick up the pink / But I know you like this beat so much.” The music of CHAI finds aesthetic pleasure in genres and sentiment often sexistly diminished and ignored by the industry, which gives their project an extra edge. With WINK, they continue to posit that “cuteness” can be more than a dismissive descriptor, but in fact an entire mode in which to operate and reevaluate genre.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 1.