The 25th anniversary release from Shibuya-kei’s foremost hip-hop act, 1212 finds the now middle-aged Scha Dara Parr returning once again to bring their cool, easygoing rap styles to contemporary audiences. The question is, of course, “have they still got it?”
Moreso than any other genre, hip-hop in foreign languages has always been problematic for listeners unfamiliar with the language in question. Being such a lyrically-focused form, and one that has so often come under fire for offensive content, rap in anything but one’s own native tongue is a hard sell; without fluency and a healthy knowledge of slang in the language, there’s always the perfectly valid worry that you might be unknowingly listening to, say, the Japanese-language equivalent of “Bitch Suck Dick.” And, even without paranoia about uncertain subject matter, there’s the repetitious nature of the music – without knowing what’s being said, many songs are reduced to words over a sampled loops and a drum-machine track, and few rappers’ flows are entertaining enough to be engaging when completely divorced of lyrical context. Sure, there are artists like Fu-Schnickens, Das EFX, Antipop Consortium, Busdriver and Doseone with intentionally nonsensical lyrics meant to keep the focus squarely on their dense, versatile flows, but the laid-back rhymes Scha Dara Parr is known for are hardly kin to any of those of any of those aforementioned names. ANI and BOSE rarely ever enter uptempo territory, but, luckily for the listener deprived of the ability to parse their Japanese lyrics, their DJ SHINCO has always had an ear for the kind of beat that keeps you listening, and he hasn’t lost it one bit.
Being an anniversary release (SDP’s big 25), 1212 represents what would have been a comeback if the group had, in fact, ever left. On the uncreatively-titled “Game Boys 2” they revisit one of their biggest hits, 1991’s “Game Boys,” and “Scha Dara Memo” calls back lyrically to their half-million selling 1994 single “Konya wa Boogie Back,” but the explicit references to the group’s past are frankly arbitrary. 1212 is the latest from a group that has spent two and a half decades refusing to change its style in the slightest, but with the way current trends in hip-hop are, it’s hard to fault them for not trying to keep up. They’re still kicking video game samples (“Game Boys 2,” “Warp Tunnel”), muzak funk (“The Best,” “Kanashimi Turn it Up,” “Koi no Penetrate”) and moody synth-pop (“Scha Dara Memo,” “Chuuyou Heibon Punch”), with the only unexpected departure from the usual coming in the form of “M4EVER,” a surprisingly saccharine guitar-driven collaboration with girl group Chatmonchy. “M4EVER” is cute to a fault, with the middle-aged rappers seeming out of place on a song on their own album; the live instrumentation works well, but it’s hard to say the same about Eriko Hashimoto’s twee vocals. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in some outside help for a hook – the aforementioned “Boogie Back” featured a particularly memorable guest spot from Kenji Ozawa of Flipper’s Guitar – but in this case, the lack of experimentation on the rest of the album only made an awkward fit that much more noticeable.
It doesn’t seem especially likely that anything on 1212 will be a fixture on too many future “best-of” retrospectives for the group, but properly appreciating Scha Dara Parr has always been about their albums moreso than the singles. As a front-to-back listening experience, 1212 is far greater than the sum of its parts. Since tracks flow in and out of each other like a DJ mix, it can be hard to even figure out where one song ends and another begins, but this is in no way a bad thing – as far too many obnoxious thinkpieces about the “death of the album” have proven, there’s still a lot to be said for albums that work as a coherent piece of music instead of as singles compilations with filler tracks in between. And they sample the Pac-Man theme on “Warp Tunnel,” so there’s always that.