Apart from strong vocals, which are a given, I was honestly expecting nothing from Jo Kwon’s solo album. I didn’t follow the teasers, I read the track list at a glance, and when two songs leaked it took me a few days before I listened to them -- I just wasn’t interested. But now that the whole thing is out I can’t stop listening to it from the beginning of the first track, all the way to the last.
If you’re only looking at the songs at a glance -- the melodies, the arrangements and the choice of orchestration -- “I’m Da One” as a whole will come off quite cheap, and it actually is very Swedish/German Eurotrash with a melody, but what makes this album different is, again, the execution. I always stress the value of execution for a good reason -- strong material will take you somewhere, but outstanding execution will drive your point home. Of course there are situations where even the best performers can’t save a song, but in most cases, execution will make or break the entire situation. And on “I’m Da One”, the material and execution work together. The result? A pop album that isn’t afraid of being a pop album. This is how you do pop.
And really, that’s all I ask. To be fearless when you make pop music -- because it’s something you should never be ashamed of.
Never judge an album based solely on it’s first track -- that is both true and false. “Awesome Girl” sounds cheap, like a handful of other songs by other people, but in hindsight it also introduces what’s to come. It’s the type of song you have to look at as a whole, and not in little bits and pieces. Once you see the significance of the German synths and cheap instrumentation, it’s actually a pretty good song. Gorgeous melodies, confident vocals, fun pop music -- that’s what this album is, and that’s what “Awesome Girl” shows off. I’d listen to this song again solely for the melody.
I don’t quite understand the purpose of putting the radio edit amidst the album, and the full version at the end. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Radio edits are usually treated like remixes, which bear little significance to the rest of the album apart from giving a new take on a track that’s supposed to flow with all the other songs.
The thing I like the most about Jo Kwon, as proven by “I’m Da One”, is that he can be as ridiculous and hilarious as he wants to, but he always, always, pairs it with grace and conviction. If someone else were to do something like this, complete with the absurd premise of the video and shamelessly cheap choreography, that person would either end up laughing like crazy, or would want to curl up into a ball of embarrassment. But not Jo Kwon. He has his foundation of actual vocal talent and a strong command of the stage, he pairs it with something he knows not a lot of people in K-Pop can pull off, and he just blows all the competition away. It’s brilliant, actually -- because it works.
On the musical side, “I’m Da One” is a cross between a performance-centric song and a genuinely strong pop song. It’s very current, with the very Western production evident, and while the song itself is proficient enough on it’s own, the video gives it another welcome dimension. But let’s backtrack a bit to the Western production. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical about this part of the album, because I was afraid of Jo Kwon being stripped of what makes him. Thankfully, all my worries were thrown out the window because Jo Kwon’s presence is strong enough to not only inject, but cement his personality, and his being a K-Pop act, into the song.
“Lipstick” begins the transition from hook-centric songs and into songs where the entire melody matters. It’s a gorgeous song, with a very important role amongst all the other songs, which is another reason why I adore this album. It wasn’t just thrown together, it was built from the ground up, with a foundation, supports, and transitions which are all equally important in keeping the structure together. “Lipstick” is right between stunning and fun -- the stunning courtesy of the melody and chord progressions, and the fun courtesy of the hook and the arrangement, in particular the synths.
“Who’s Loving You Now” is the epitome of stunning -- this is where the album completely turns into a masterpiece. This, my friends, is how you pull off stunning. It’s a slow build-up, complete with probably the most stunning computerized drum rolls I’ve ever heard, and my beloved string section taking center stage during one of the most important transitions. The best part of the arrangement is that the build-ups don’t just shove everything in your face and expect you to die, they linger, and leave room for both your imagination, and what’s to come. Lace a sweeping melody with all these strong, long notes that Jo Kwon just churns out like they’re nothing, and you have one of the year’s most beautiful songs (a strong contender for #1, actually :D). It doesn’t need a elaborate word to describe it -- it’s simple in it’s beauty, but that’s what makes it even better. In a sea of such forceful songs, this is the breath of fresh air done right.
In case you haven’t already caught onto it, “Something ‘Bout You” is here to remind you that one, Jo Kwon can sing, and two, he has attitude. It’s a song where the melody and arrangement share the emphasis -- the melody is gritty and ever so funky, and the instruments, the tambourine, the electric guitar, and even the synths, add to the spunk of the song. Put everything together and it sounds like a slightly less classy U2 or Coldplay (but more U2 than Coldplay), or maybe even something The Wanted would do -- and they are, again, European.
If “Who’s Loving You Now” is simple in its beauty, “Heaven”, is beautifully intense. But it’s not the intense that will work your brain to shreds, it’s the intense that’s so effortless, you end up shredding your brain yourself because you have no idea how it turned out that way. The focus of the song is really on the melody and the vocals, but it’s not like the instruments just sit there and fade away -- they very gently carry the melody, almost like just guiding it. Miso’s voice is stunning, and something I cannot imagine the song without, really. It reminds me of a less whiny Belinda (the Spanish singer who was in The Cheetah Girls 2, and who released an earlier version of “Love Appeal”, my favorite Hello Venus track so far), with more depth. The grit in her voice is a perfect contrast to Jo Kwon’s very smooth vocals, reminiscent of the gorgeous Lena Park and Kim Bum Soo combination.
“Just A Kiss” was leaked a few days back, along with the radio edit of “Animal”, and honestly I was put off by the fact that it’s in English. But listening to it now along with all the other tracks -- it makes sense. The drum line gives the song attitude and is one of the main elements that sets it apart from distinctly Korean ballads, along with the minor chords, and actually even Jo Kwon’s voice. He’s not a deep-voiced belter like Junsu JYJ, he’s a pop voice. It’s a distinctly British pop ballad, complete with the music video shot along a beach at night with a sea of candles or something, and very far from the Korean ballad formula. It’s refreshing in it’s being a ballad, and not dead weight. Probably the best way to end an album, actually.
I miss this kind of music. I miss the kind of music that’s just so effortlessly beautiful that I can listen to this while waiting at a bank and not care that I’m smiling like a madwoman. I miss the kind of music that I can write about without being conscious of what I say, and how I say it. This is the pop that taught me to value pop as music, and I never thought I’d live to see K-Pop blow me away with it, in the most K-Pop way possible.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best album of the year so far, the closest thing to perfection K-pop has managed to put out. A warning to everyone else planning to make a comeback this year -- it will be very hard to top this. Yes, even my beloved HoMin and JYJ. Because let’s face it, SM can’t help it with his ballads, and JYJ production is pretty bad quality compared to this.
The Best: “Who’s Loving You Now” and “Heaven”
The Better: “Awesome Girl”, “I’m Da One”, “Lipstick”
The Worst: N/A
The Rating: 5/5