Review: Jonghyun Goes Back to Retro Basics with ‘BASE’

By Hannah Waitt
moonROK Founder and Editor-in-chief

 

When I saw the teaser image showing that Jonghyun’s album would be featuring collaborations with other artists, it seemed obvious to me that all of them would probably be from SM Entertainment. I was expecting maybe a ballad with Taeyeon, or something a little more upbeat with one of the EXO members; perhaps a light duet with one of the Red Velvet girls, or maybe Key or Minho for a rap feature. I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to see that not a single featuring artist would be an SM label mate. Not that there’s anything wrong with the abovementioned artists, but it is so refreshing to see that major labels are beginning to let their artists to reach outside of the company’s own roster in order to create something new and exciting. To hear and read about all of the new and exciting “somethings” that Jonghyun created both with these collaborations and on his own, check out our track-by-track review of his debut solo album, “BASE,” below.

 

1) Déjà-Boo feat. Zion.T

“Déjà-Boo” has an immediate appeal to it that hopelessly suckers you into the song before the beat even drops. Opening with just Jonghyun’s vocals and that signature sparkling Zion.T electric piano, the song subtly swells into a funky chorus that you can’t not bop your head to. With the same sort of feel as Primary and Zion.T’s “See Through” or “Meet,” the song sounds absolutely nothing like anything you would expect from a SHINee member. Instead, “Déjà-Boo” follows the trend of the retro swing/funk movement that Zion.T and his label mates over at Amoeba Culture helped to popularize in South Korea and in K-pop as a whole. The song definitely opens up the album with a different side to Jonghyun; rather than intense high notes and elaborate vocal runs, Jonghyun delivers smooth, soulful R&B.

 

2) Crazy (Guilty Pleasure) feat. Iron

Jonghyun’s title song is nothing like I thought it would be. When Taemin became the first SHINee member to go for a solo debut, his single “Danger” was – for lack of a better adjective – incredibly SHINee-esque. It sounded and looked like something that the entire group could easily perform as the single for their next album. Meanwhile, Jonghyun took me by complete surprise with the retro-pop/R&B tune that is “Crazy (Guilty Pleasure).” With a beat that borders on hip-hop and swing, the song has an easy-going groove to it that stands in stark contrast to the intensly driven dance beats that SHINee usually performs to. At this point in the album, it has become clear that Jonghyun intends to set himself apart from SHINee. Having written and composed all of the songs on the album, Jonghyun makes it clear that he has very different influences and tastes than the group as a whole, which I think is fantastic.

 

3) Hallelujah

“Hallelujah” is exactly the kind of track I was expecting to hear on this album. While the first two songs were somewhat modest from a vocal perspective, this R&B ballad shows off Jonghyun’s impressive singing ability. The song adds a more legato flavor to what has up to this point has been a staccato album; where the other tracks punch, “Hallelujah” reverberates. Beautifully written, the song most notably features a sweeping piano line and a full choir that both add depth and color to what would otherwise be a basic R&B ballad. While listening to “Hallelujah,” I couldn’t help but think that this song would sound even more beautiful if it were just Jonghyun and the piano, so here’s to hoping that that happens as a live arrangement some day.

 

4) Love Belt feat. Younha

Reminiscent of a Jeff Bernat or Jooyoung song, Jonghyun fluidly slips back into retro swing/R&B mode with “Love Belt.” In fact, “fluid” is probably the best adjective to describe this song. With twinkling electric piano chords, a glossy bass line, and a crooning electric guitar accompanying the two singers, listening to the song feels kind of the same way it feels when you stick your hand out of the car window on the highway and let it rise and fall with the airflow. We all know how powerful Jonghyun’s voice is, but on this track he does a great job softening his style to match Younha’s soft, silky vocals. In fact, Jonghyun almost steps back as the lead on this song and lets Younha carry the melody while he accompanies with the harmony below her. The result is the melding of Younha and Jonghyun’s voices to form a thick velvety sound that you just want to soak in like a hot bath.

 

5) NEON

With plenty of synth zaps, this song definitely sounds like neon. While the song continues the retro swing/R&B theme of the album, I find “NEON” to be a bit too spastic for my taste. The gaps between the instrumental punches on the track — especially during the chorus — feel like the sound is being suddenly sucked back out of your ears. And when the instruments do punch, it sounds like every instrument at one time plus synthesizers and beats all stacked on top of each other, resulting in an overwhelming and somewhat unstable sound. While listening to the song it consistently feels like I’m waiting for something that never comes; anticipating a beat or a bass line that never drops. I think that the melody is fantastic and insanely catchy, but the underlying track is as inconsistent and erratic as a flickering neon sign. While some might find this lack of an anchor innovative and creative, it leaves me personally feeling a bit unsettled and strained.

 

6) MONO-Drama

“MONO-Drama” is a solid song, but it’s also very similar to “Hallelujah.” It’s hard to find too much to say about “MONO-Drama” because it is simply a basic R&B ballad and something that you would more or less expect Jonghyun to sing. He can’t really go wrong with the song because his voice is so strong, but I didn’t necessarily find this to be a stand-out track on the album, especially when compared to the beautiful and more unique arrangement of “Hallelujah.” All in all every track can’t be a knock-out, and “MONO-Drama” is a good filler that keeps the album’s sound consistent while not being a particularly outstanding piece.

 

7) Beautiful Tonight (Bonus Track)

“Beautiful Tonight” is fantastic track to end on because it’s a hybrid of every other track on the album. It has the bouncy funk feel of “Déjà-Boo,” “Crazy,” and “NEON” but more ballad style vocals like those used in “Hallelujah” and “MONO-Drama.” Top it off with the fluid instrumental arrangement of “Love Belt,” and “Beautiful Tonight” becomes a Frankenstein-like track that borrows from motifs and sounds of the rest of the album to give life to this groovy closer.

 

8) Fortune Cookie (Hidden Track)

“Fortune Cookie” is a hidden track that can only be downloaded if you buy a physical copy of the album, and it is sexy as all get out. The song starts with Jonghyun whispering and moaning to the listener before it moves into a rhythmic groove accented by Jonghyun’s falsetto adlibs and scatting. The song is laiden with innuendo, as Jonghyun repeatedly asks to read what’s in your “fortune cookie,” emphasizing that something is hidden in your “snack.” The music video also takes place entirely in a bedroom which only further enforces the song’s message. This is some of the most direct sexual innuendo I have ever seen out of an SM artist, indicating that maybe Jonghyun really did set out to push the envelope with this album. Whether or not he’s trying to rebel against the conservative idol system though, this song is definitely a jam.

 

Through “BASE,” Jonghyun establishes himself as an independently thinking artist with his own flavor, style, and vision outside of his group. Where SHINee’s songs are decadent and elaborate, Jonghyun’s solo album is minimalist and basic. Where SHINee emphasizes the pizazz of the performance, Jonghyun emphasizes the basics of the music. Despite his vocal capability, we see him reign it in on “BASE,” exhibiting a level of maturity and finesse that I admittedly did not expect.

While the album is not necessarily ground-breaking musically, it certainly is a step in the right direction, not just for Jonghyun, but for all artists signed to any major Korean entertainment company. Not only did he write and compose all of the songs on the album, but he also stepped out of bounds to feature artists not on his label. While collaborating with outside artists is becoming more common, this is one of the first times that we have seen an SM Entertainment artist and project of this magnitude forgo collaborations with other SM artists in favor of lesser known indie artists. “BASE” is not just another SM artist mini-album, it is an assertion of artistic independence, and for this specific reason (and of course, many more), I can’t help but be impressed with “BASE.”

All visual and audio media courtesy of SM Entertainment
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