Ai's big American dreams

Times Staff Writer

"So today I was thinking: 'Should I speak Japanese, or English tonight?' " Universal Japan recording artist Ai said from the El Rey Theatre stage recently. The near-sellout crowd, mostly Japanese expatriates and Asian Americans living in Los Angeles, screamed replies, some in English, some in Japanese. "I'll just speak music," she said with a laugh, before launching into an up-tempo R&B; jam -- in Japanese with an English chorus.

And so it goes for Ai Carina Uemura, a biracial, bilingual rising R&B; star in Japan, whose El Rey show was her formal U.S. debut. The singer was actually born in L.A., graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (along with classmate Josh Groban) and played her most important local show to date just 12 miles away at the El Rey, in what at first looks like a classic case of local girl makes good.

Yet the road from her alma mater to the El Rey stage actually stretched about 12,000 miles: She first became a bona fide Japanese pop star in the land of her ancestors.

And now, she's bringing the music of her native land to Japan in a way most J-pop acts can't -- with an American-bred affinity for soul and R&B; music.

"Ai and Crystal Kay are the best singers in Japan today," says Sherman Oaks-based J-pop producer Joey Carbone.

Uemura has been described by some as the Japanese answer to Beyonce for her sultry vocals and hip-hop attitude. More "fierce" than cute, Uemura evokes comparisons to Beyonce and Alicia Keys on tracks like "Butterfly" -- where she effortlessly switches between Japanese and English.

The 26-year-old singer is navigating a career with feet in two worlds: in one, trying to please traditional J-pop fans with ballads; in the other, hoping to court American urban-music fans.

J-pop is typified these days by artists such as Namie Amuro, singers with reed-thin voices and a predilection for pop songs that sound forever stuck in the 1990s.

In contrast, Uemura's music sounds fresher -- a track such as "Move" off her latest release, "Don't Stop A.I.," wouldn't sound out of place on local hip-hop station Power 106 (KPWR-FM 105.9). Atlantic Records' rising urban artist Trey Songz even flew in from Virginia to take the stage with Uemura at the end of her El Rey show in a surprise appearance.

But Uemura, for now, is focused on the land of the rising sun, where she is a fast-rising diva with authentic American-sounding R&B; tracks that advertisers are keen to license (her songs appear in ads for Japan Air Lines and Pepsi in Japan). Her L.A. gig was a warm-up for her impending multicity Japanese tour that opens Sunday and includes a stop at Tokyo's famed Budokan theater.

Back in L.A., however, Uemura was more than happy to face down a rapt audience of around 800. "This is really special for me," she said from the small El Rey stage, where she all but owned the female-heavy crowd, most of whom were hungry for a taste of Nippon via R&B; ballads such as her 2005 smash "Story." The ballad sold 300,000 copies as a single in Japan and has been downloaded over 3.5 million times, according to her label.

"Don't Stop A.I.," released Dec. 5, mostly shies away from ballads and hints at the hip-hop-centric sound Uemura fell in love with when she lived in Los Angeles.

"Given Ai's English skills and American background, she stands a better chance than most Japanese artists of breaking overseas," says Billboard's Asia bureau chief Steve McClure.

But will American record labels, or fans, listen to rap in a language other than English?

While her Japanese contemporaries might insert a few English phrases into their songs, it can ring false to increasingly sophisticated Japanese music consumers.

"When the singer who isn't native sings any English lyrics, we feel as if it weren't true," says 31-year-old R&B; fan Teru Okamoto via e-mail from Tokyo. "But in her case, she can speak English and Japanese fluently and also has good sense of R&B.;"

This is Uemura's edge in Japan; and now possibly in the U.S. in a reverse-twist -- where all things Japanese are increasingly appealing to YouTube savvy tweens raised on anime and PlayStation.

But breaking into the American market will be anything but easy; breaking Japan was difficult enough.

For now, Uemura seems content to satiate her Japanese audience while slowly building an American fan base. "If it wasn't for L.A.," she says, "I would have been a different person."

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