South Korean vocalist BoA is a rarity in that she is as big a star in Japan, Asia's largest music market, as she is in her homeland. Often recording multiple versions of her songs in Korean, Japanese, and English, BoA has also won fans in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Singapore. As a teen pop phenomenon who made her debut at age 14 in 1999, BoA has inevitably been compared to Britney Spears. But her easy-on-the-ears dance-pop and American-style R&B, including a regular offering of ballads, means she is more often compared to Japanese pop's biggest stars, Ayumi Hamasaki and Hikaru Utada. Born Kwon Boa on November 5, 1986, BoA's career owes as much to serendipity as talent -- she followed her older brother to an audition at the offices of record label SM Entertainment (Korea's biggest record label and most reliable idol-makers), and while the older brother was overlooked, his 11-year-old sister was taken on. With an eye on nurturing a future pan-Asian star, BoA was quickly enrolled in an international school where she could study Japanese and English. In Korea during 2000, the 14-year-old BoA released her debut album, ID; Peace B, a mix of urban-sounding pop, slickly produced ballads, and upbeat dance tunes. The young singer's newly acquired language skills were soon put to the test when her international label, Avex, launched BoA's career in the United States, getting Janet Jackson remixer Jonathan Peters and songwriter Peter Rafelson (whose credits include Madonna) on board for the English-language release of ID; Peace B in 2001. During the summer of that year, BoA launched her career in Japan with "ID; Peace B," the single that had already been a big hit in her homeland. A single collaboration with Kumi Koda followed before BoA's debut album in Japan, Listen to My Heart, was released early the following year.
BoA's early career was characterized by her busy dance moves and breathy, youthful vocals -- less screeching than Hamasaki's, less histrionic than Utada's. Behind the music were some of the same songwriters who had penned hits for other idols in Japan, such as Hamasaki and Hitomi, both of whom are also on Avex. According to Oricon magazine, BoA became the first solo artist in more than 20 years to score a number one debut single and debut album in Japan, a feat that was all the more remarkable for an artist from outside of Japan. In January 2003, in the wake of a Korean boom in Japan triggered by the co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup between South Korea and Japan and a growing interest in mawkish Korean TV dramas, BoA released what remains her biggest-selling album to date, Valenti. The album featured several ballads that went on to propel the album to the top spot in the charts and helped it shift over a million copies. High-profile collaborations followed with respected Japanese house producer Mondo Grosso, Japanese hip-hop act m-flo, and Howie D of Backstreet Boys (on the Bratz single Show Me What You Got). BoA ended 2003 with a change of direction of sorts, releasing a rock-oriented single titled, unsurprisingly, Rock with You, which also featured some more adventurous production. Although the accompanying album had its fair share of dance-pop, BoA's maturing vocals meant she was more confident taking on a range of material, including songs with a harder R&B sound. The new sound was vindicated when BoA took home two MTV Asia Awards for Most Influential Artist and Favorite Artist Korea in 2004. BoA joined a select group when her fourth Japanese album release, Outgrow, went to number one. Only Namie Amuro, Misia, and Mai Kuraki had reached number one with their first four original albums when BoA did the same in February 2006. Typical for an idol with a high media profile in Japan, BoA's songs have appeared on anime television and film soundtracks. In summer 2006, she supplied the theme song to the Japanese release of the DreamWorks animated feature Over the Hedge, a movie in which she also took a voice actor role in the Japanese release. ~ David Hickey