Hailing from Nagoya, Japan, CHAI experiments with pop like no group has done before. The quartet features four high school classmates brought together by their love for singing and music. Although they started by covering songs from popular Japanese musicians, they have now expanded well beyond the traditional elements of J–Pop.
Their debut album PINK combines pop and rock through the heavy use of guitar and drums, and the follow–up PUNK expands on the group’s unique disco–punk sound. Both albums were widely acclaimed for stretching the boundaries of J–Pop, indie pop, and rock.
On their third album WINK, CHAI experiments with a more electronic sound, using smooth and rich auditory elements and taking inspiration from Mac Miller and BROCKHAMPTON to highlight the group’s experiences with the latest year.
The opening track “Donuts Mind if I Do” is the perfect introduction to the group's new laid–back, groovy sound. Synthesizers and lots of reverb still make the sound distinctly CHAI’s, but the bass in the background shifts the mood to become calmer. This new type of production—glossy, soothing, yet still definitively bubbly—brings out a different side of CHAI, one that has spent time understanding itself in the midst of the pandemic.
Complementing the nostalgic qualities of the song, the music video features CHAI eating donuts outside in a mountainous park, seemingly oblivious to the troubles of the outside world and experiencing pure bliss. This is a sharp contrast to the other music videos from the group that have mostly been filmed in urban areas, which shows the group’s newfound appreciation for nature.
Besides setting the tone for the rest of WINK, “Donuts Mind if I Do” also introduces the group’s fixation with gastronomy. Almost half of the tracks on WINK are related to food in some way, and given the group’s name is a word for tea in many languages, food plays an important role in how they view different parts of their lives. On “Karaage,” which is both a method of deep frying and fried chicken, CHAI compares eating karaage to love, claiming that a lover needs to “eat before I cool down.” During those “5 minutes of love” when the Karaage is still hot and fresh, CHAI begs for reciprocity as they crave affection from their partner. Throughout the pandemic, even tiny amounts of social interaction became precious moments; CHAI expresses this new emphasis on contact through the metaphor of food.
CHAI uses food not only to represent relationships with others but also as a reminder to maintain self–love during challenging times. “It’s Vitamin C” bridges these two themes together. Enshrouded by staccato beats and dissonant piano chords, CHAI discusses the simplicity and importance of vitamin C. As they question “what’s good for the body,” they talk about foods they love such as “yummy kiwi fruit” and “yummy orange juice.” These foods then serve as a “positive change,” representing self–love even if they “make mistakes” or “get a little bit crazy.” More importantly, this decision to pursue self–care is one that they strive to make for themselves, not forced upon them by someone else. As their voices fade out with drums, they sing “I’ll choose my life for me / You’ll choose your life for you,” giving them the power to steer their own course.
This control of one’s own perspective is most evident on “Maybe Chocolate Chip,” where the focus is on Yuuki, one of the members of CHAI, and the moles on her face. Instead of viewing them as ugly or imperfections, she sees them as “chocolate chips” and thinks “bitter coffee makes it even sexier.” The self–love anthem continues with a feature from Chicago–based rapper Ric Wilson, who supports Yuuki’s belief that “your moles are what deem you special” and “they can’t define you with beauty myths.” Similar to “Donuts Mind if I Do,” “Maybe Chocolate Chip” is characterized by a bright synth that exudes the sweetness of optimism and brings attention to the positive aspects of her moles.
While the pandemic has definitely influenced the topics on WINK, the group also discusses other events of the year. “ACTION” was written partly as CHAI’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, mentioning that the song was dedicated to “the year of action.” Witnessing unity at a time of despair, the group was compelled to write a song encouraging others to join in and “be the change that you want to see.” In this track, CHAI repeatedly spells out the word “ACTION"—stressing the need to be proactive. The beauty of the song lies in its production, where mellow electronic sounds meshed with slight distortions of the group’s voice emphasize the inspiring message they hope to evoke.
2020 undeniably had an impact on both CHAI and the listeners, and WINK encapsulates the effects the year has had on our lives. CHAI stays true to themselves and continues their upbeat and spirited sound, opting to focus on the self rather than the chaos of the world around them. A wink is both a lighthearted and expressive gesture. Accordingly, CHAI's latest album retains that same whimsical quality, all the while exploring introspective and analytical themes.