Review by: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Founder and Editor-in-chief
On May 26, 2014, 15& released their first full-length album, “Sugar.” The album is the female duo’s first full-length LP, having released two singles “I Dream” and “Somebody” previously in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The group is signed under JYP Entertainment and is composed of two members, Park Jimin and Baek Yerin. Park Jimin was signed to JYP after winning Season 1 of the hit SBS show, “K-Pop Star,” where she made headlines for her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Baek Yerin joined JYP Entertainment as a trainee in 2008 after a jaw-dropping audition where she sang “Listen” from the musical Dream Girls, and was thenceforth known within the company as the resident “R&B Genius.” 15&’s first album contains ten tracks including two singles, “Can’t Hide It” and “Sugar.”
Let me begin this review by saying that 15& have two of my favorite voices in K-Pop right now. Baek Yerin and Park Jimin are a stellar combination – both are vocal powerhouses, which can sometimes be risky and have a clashing effect within a group. These two however, balance each other perfectly. The two members have a unique parity that is rare in entertainment, especially within the pop and R&B scene. Within these two genres especially, you will almost always see a frontman or frontwoman leading the group vocally, but 15& have two very talented frontwomen. It’s hard to look and listen to them and say for sure which is better than the other. While their voices have slightly different feels to them, they are equally skilled vocally which is what makes them a truly synergistic duo.
15&’s new album, “Sugar,” was surprisingly impressive considering the rookie status of the duo. The album showcases a sound and maturity beyond the years of the girls themselves, who are both only 16 years old. As a comprehensive piece, “Sugar” truly solidifies the duo’s unique sound through a combination of R&B, funk, hip-hop, and of course, pop. The album is also a testament to the influence of the retro luxury disco and R&B sound that is becoming popular in the West as well with artists like Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake ruling the charts with hits like “Blurred Lines” and “Suit & Tie.”
“Star” starts out with a pretty minimal sound. For the first verse, it’s just the girls singing over a funky guitar riff and simple beat with a few synth accents here and there. The chorus is where the song makes an interesting modulation from a simple R&B/funk song into a lush, confident anthem. The song almost seems like an allusion to Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” and even has a similar ascending melody in the chorus. The message of the song is certainly meant to be as equally inspirational as the melody, and contains lines like “Wherever my music goes, whenever my sound spreads over, things that seemed like miracles, the dreamlike events are clearly happening in front of my eyes, just like the star I first saw in my childhood.” The song showcases both of the girls’ ability to hit the high notes without one overpowering the other. The best part of the song is arguably at the end of the bridge, when the girls take turns on the line that translates to, “Even if I run out of breath, I won’t stop and I’ll shout louder,” and each proceed to nail their respective high note adlibs, as if to actually “shout louder” as they just claimed in the verse.
Upon first listen, I was a little overwhelmed by everything going on in “Sugar.” After listening a few more times though, the song really began to grow on me – while it still seems chaotic on the surface due to the hyperactive hi-hat driving the song, there is also an element of cool amongst the calamity thanks to a quick but smooth bassline that drives the song in coincidence with the hi-hat. What I like about this song is that unlike most popular K-Pop songs today, the instrumentation of this one is actually authentic – this song could be played live with real instruments and without the help of any synthesizers or beat machines. In fact this song is very much like a cross between a James Brown song and a number from the musical Hairspray. “Sugar” is not AT ALL in line with what is considered to be popular right now – it is much jazzier and even more retro than the disco sound that is dominant in pop music right now. The fact that they can pull off a single like this only adds to the musical maturity of Baek Yerin and Park Jimin.
3. Shy Ma Boy
“Shy Ma Boy” is very much a modern take on a ‘60s Motown song. With a piano riff stunningly similar in groove and sound to that of Ray Charles’s 1956 hit “Mary Anne,” and an intro verse strikingly reminiscent of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” this song is an excellent adaptation of the classic sound that brought soul and R&B to the forefront of pop music in the ‘60s. The call-and-answer structure of the melody and lyric pattern between the two girls as they trade off on the verses and chorus is a signature Motown element that further lends to the retro essence of the song. What makes the song more relatable and relevant in today’s music culture is the urban hip-hop beat that backs the track, instead of a traditional pop or swing beat that would normally be considered more appropriate for a record like this.
4. Oh My God
Out of any other song on the album so far, “Oh My God” sounds the most like a K-pop song. It’s definitely a B-side track, but a good one. This song is more about Park Jimin and Baek Yerin’s voices than anything else. There is a lot less going on with the track on “Oh My God” than on the other songs – with a smooth synth piano beneath a time-keeping hi-hat and minimal funk guitar riff, this song really allows the girls’ voices to shine as the main attraction of this song. The song is again a solid B-side track that showcases 15&’s voices well, but gets docked points for the random robot saying “Oh my god” in an awkward, not-quite-British accent in the background every few bars. This song, more directly than the others on the album, makes a very explicit statement to the maturity of the girls in the lyrical content. In part of the chorus, the girls claim: “Stop kidding me, stop telling me off, I know how things work, see, I’m not all that young.” The overall theme of the song lyrics certainly lends itself to the motif of maturity that we’ve seen so far throughout the album.
5. Rain & Cry
“Rain & Cry” sounds like it would fit snugly into Alicia Keys’ repertoire. With a piano part that is almost exactly the same as Keys’ megahit “If I Ain’t Got You,” and a lush string section that swells the song’s choruses into something so big you think your heart might just pop inside your chest, this R&B ballad is right up 15&’s alley. Baek Yerin defends her title as the “R&B Genius” and Park Jimin keeps up on the track and seems right at home with the genre. One of the coolest parts of this track is its remarkable resemblance to an actual rain storm. The rolling timpani drum replicates the sound of thunder and adds to the to the storm’s swell just as much if not more than the strings. Similarly, the slightly off-beat claps on the upbeats of each measure imitate the sound of raindrops falling into a puddle, furthering the song’s theme of falling rain/tears. If I had to criticize something about this song, I would say that I wish that “Rain & Cry” had one of those moments where the strings and other instruments led up to a massive climax where one (or both) of the girls just wailed out a time-stopping, earth-shattering high-note. We all know that they can do it, but it wasn’t written into the song, and it is those sort of goose bump-inducing, spine-chilling moments that turn a great song into a phenomenon. Overall, this is one of the best R&B ballads that we have heard out of a K-pop group in a long, long time, and I hope that 15& will continue to make records like this in the future.
6. Not Today Not Tomorrow
This song could have easily been Cube Entertainment duo Troublemaker’s next single. It might be the overpowering sax leading into all of the verses of “Not Today Not Tomorrow” that resembles Hyuna and Hyunseung’s most recent single, “Now,” but the overall feeling of this song is rather similar to something that Troublemaker would sing. This is another one of the more K-pop sounding songs on the album, and serves as a strong B-side track that I could see 15& promoting as a follow-up track to “Sugar.”
7. Silly Boy
“Silly Boy” is one of 15&’s more conventional tracks from this album. While the other songs are anchored by R&B and funk sounds, this one is pure pop. It’s very cutesy, innocent, and almost sounds like a song that a girl group like Apink could pull off for a follow-up single. The song is plenty catchy and great of a filler track – my only criticism would have to be that generally, 15&’s English is pretty phenomenal as far as K-pop groups go, but you can’t help but notice that on this track that it often sounds like they’re saying “oh my slee boy,” which is a bit off-putting. However, it’s hard to dock them points for that when other groups have committed much worse infractions on the English language than slurring “silly” into “slee.”
“Somebody” is the single that, for me, really solidified 15&’s sound when they released it in 2013. With its unique infusion of R&B, urban, and funk sounds, it is plenty appealing as a pop song, but has undertones of a greater artistic authenticity than your dime-a-dozen pop songs. The song also does a great job of boasting Park Jimin and Baek Yerin’s vocal ability without having to be a slow ballad with a ton of crazy runs. Their harmonic high-note riff going into the bridge is impressive, and Baek Yerin’s extended high note leading into the final chorus is not something that most idols could pull off. The song is a real head-bobber with an easy English chorus of “I want somebody-body, somebody-body, somebody to love yeah,” that more or less begs the listener to sing along. Overall, “Somebody” is a great blend of the sounds from classic pop genres with enough modernity to make it relevant and appealing to audiences today, and going forward it is this combination of retro and modern sounds that really define 15&’s sound and feel as a group.
9. Can’t Hide It
This song is absolutely an attempt to keep up with the recently revived retro R&B and disco sounds that are once again becoming popular in mainstream music in both the East and West. With the insane success of Jungigo and Soyu’s “Some” this past winter, and songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” last summer, “Can’t Hide It” is definitely an attempt to hop on the smooth-listening pop bandwagon, and a successful attempt at that. The smooth, luxury pop sound is something that suits Park Jimin and Baek Yerin’s voices and something that I would expect from 15& anyways, which is why they pull off the song without sounding like they are trying to mimic or recreate a trend. The song is pretty fantastic, but due to the tragic events that occurred in Korea in relation to the Sewol Ferry in April, the song understandably did not receive the normal amount of promotions necessary to popularize it in Korea. “Can’t Hide It,” like “Somebody” and “Rain & Cry” is a song that is right up 15&’s alley – it sounds like them and if anyone else were to sing it, it would sound like someone trying to cover or imitate 15&. They own the sound and that ability to make a song indefinitely yours as an artist that is something that is incredibly valuable in K-Pop today.
10. I Dream
“I Dream” was 15&’s debut single, which they released almost two years ago in 2012. When I heard the song then, I remember being a bit disappointed. I’ve spent much of this review expressing my reverence for the maturity of 15&’s sound, but this song was a little too mature for them, especially at the time. Yes, their voices are incredible and yes they have the talent to absolutely kill it, but Park Jimin and Baek Yerin were only 15 years old when the song came out – they should’ve been singing fun, up-tempo songs, not songs that we would normally see Davichi sing. This being said, “I Dream” fits well into the album as whole as a ballad track that wraps the entire album up into a well-rounded work of art. While I wouldn’t choose it as the girls’ first single, it still stands as a testament to their vocal ability and I can see why they would choose to include it on the album.
In conclusion, what I found most impressive about this album is the way that Park Jimin and Baek Yerin completely own the songs that they sing. In K-pop today, it’s hard to find groups that are unique or irreplaceable – there are plenty of girl groups out there who could sing each others’ songs and you would never know the difference because they all sound the same. What sets this album apart from your typical K-pop girl group is the fact that no one could ever sing it as well as 15&. As if to prove the point, JYP released live videos for every track on the album that isn’t already a single. Having this sort of authentic, organic development of young trainees into artists with a signature sound and the talent to back it up is very rare and worthy of esteem. “Sugar” is just the beginning of what is sure to be a long and monumental career for the girls of 15&.
To learn more about 15&, check out their moonROK artist page to find links to their official website, YouTube, and social media accounts.
Tags: 15& Baek Yerin Park Jimin Review Sugar