Taemin (SHINee) - "Ace"

I still remember the first time I swooned over Taemin's vocals -- while most K-Pop fans were still preoccupied with Jonghyun or Key, a clip of Taemin singing a few lines of "Only One For Me" back in 2009 convinced me that he was more than just the dance prodigy he was initially pushed as. I don't think his voice is stellar or that he's one of the top K-pop voices, but he is proficient at what he does and is an outstanding example of someone who understands that he's in the music industry. Because of his well-roundedness as a performer, I wasn't really surprised when SM announced his solo release.

But one question that I've always had about Taemin is whether or not he's proficient enough to carry an entire release on his own. Do his vocals have the dimension and technical range needed to keep an EP from falling flat? A closer look at "Ace" can answer that question, seeing as this is his debut solo release.

What grabbed me at first was the over-all production of the EP because aside from being to the usual SM standard of clean-cut production quality, the specifics also do wonders for Taemin. Let's be honest and establish that Taemin's vocals are very thin -- he has a smooth voice and he has learned how to use it, but there is only so much it can do at the moment. Compared to other SM "power vocalists" he falls flat. The assumption for a vocal quality such as this is that it needs to be covered up and hidden behind layers upon layers of instrumental accompaniment, double-tracking, and whatever studio trick imaginable. Overproduction is the usual "solution," but I'm glad that SM took another route.

"Ace" is well-produced, but not over-produced -- it's not six songs worth of instrumental and vocal overload -- you hear what you have to hear, and the instrumental definitely does not overpower the vocals. In fact it does quite the opposite. "Ace" is quite sparse for an SM release so Taemin's vocals are actually emphasized, which in theory is ideal because the fact that you can hear his voice means you'll be able to hear his capabilities as a singer. This is even more outstanding considering the intense, heavy nature of the material -- dance tracks left and right, a heavy rap track with EXO's Kai, it's easy to overload those kinds of songs in an effort to compensate for the thin vocals.

But this production direction isn't without repercussions -- by emphasizing Taemin it also exposes both his strengths and shortcomings. You hear the smoothness of his timbre, but you also hear the seeming lack of dimension and flatness to his vocal performance. You hear his technique, but you also hear how his voice strains in higher ranges. Some songs take advantage of those flaws, like how "Danger" uses his straining as a stylistic element, which is ingenious and ideal -- but these are one-off "solutions" to specific songs and do not address the album as a whole. That said though, the strong production does not apply only to the quality of the package, but to the artistic decisions that have contributed immensely to the success of "Ace."

"Ace" starts off the EP with that (comparatively) sparse production I mentioned, and it reminds me of a less intense, weaker version of "Symptoms." This is fitting for Taemin because the focus is more on the style of the material -- a recurring theme throughout the entire EP, and a musical direction that is ideal for him. The melody has enough dynamics and jumps through enough hoops that all Taemin has to do is sing it -- it's less about the quality of his vocals and more about the fact that it's his vocals singing. The instrumental lays low as far as arrangement, and serves to follow the melody and ground it when it starts running around with melodic "curls" and multiple vocal lines (including those by DBSK's Changmin). Because of all this, "Ace" is a song you really have to concentrate on to appreciate, not something you can put in the background and expect to do all the work.

The Michael Jackson comparisons with regards to "Danger" have been abundant ever since the video came out, and it's understandable that people think that way -- that "dance pop," quality, the "groove" and the playful seriousness to "Danger" is undeniable. But I'm not going to talk more about the MJ comparisons because I think they only apply to the style -- MJ's music is on a completely different level. And of course, I want to focus on Taemin. When I saw the video last week I didn't really like "Danger," but in the context of "Ace" I understand it and I understand what's being done. It's one of those SM slow burns, and most of them turn out to be long-time favorites of mine. (I didn't like SNSD's "Genie" the first time I heard it, but now I consider it one of the most outstanding K-Pop releases I've ever heard.) I mentioned earlier that an ingenious production decision made was how "Danger" makes use of Taemin's higher range by juxtaposing it against the predominantly low, bubbling quality of the melody. This creates the dimension in Taemin's vocals that is seemingly lacking in most of the album -- "Danger" is rightfully the lead single because it shows an entire range of dynamics in the performance and can sustain listener's attention spans. I don't usually favor lead singles over album tracks when it comes to SM releases, but "Danger" is a song I could loop over the over again.

I love the James Bond-esque elements in "Experience," the strong guitar line, the rumbling drums and occasional brass section, the strong yet graceful piano line, and aside from the proficient execution it's also getting more and more popular these days. (recall HA:TFELT's "Bond") If "Ace" was dependent on the melody to steer the direction of the song, with "Experience" it's the arrangement. The melody and vocals are there to bring everything together, but the peculiarities of the arrangement are what keeps you interested. The dance break/bridge sounds out of place, but in theory it's necessary to create friction on a more obvious level -- I would've liked something less predictably strange to be put instead.

"Pretty Boy" takes the presence of rap from Kai and runs with that element. It's a strong track, and it's good that the chorus pushes Taemin's vocals. Even if his vocals thin in the process, the smooth, thin, almost squeaky quality of the melodic performance balances the deep, vigorous verses and rap verses. It's refreshing to hear a juxtaposition like this, especially after songs like "Experience" and "Ace" that are more about the details than about the spectacle. "Pretty Boy" is the kind of song I imagine would make its way into an SMTOWN setlist (if it hasn't already) --  it's a crowd-pleaser because of the music itself and also because of the collaborative nature of the production.

Like "Ace," "Wicked" reminds me of a SHINee track -- it captured the stylishly playful sound that SHINee have been doing rather well recently. But because Taemin is less imposing a character in terms of vocals, on "Wicked" you're focused the most on style. It's a fun song, it's light-hearted in all the right places and has an effortless sense of dynamics -- everything's running around hence the playfulness, but it's also technically proficient and it knows how to keep that playfulness from turning into chaos. The transitions are tight, there's a sense of grace to the melody that's emphasized by smooth vocals and also countered by a snappy, strong instrumental arrangement. "Wicked" is probably my favorite track on the EP, more than "Danger."

"Play Me" gravitates towards the "chill" side of the EP, and despite the seemingly flat melody carries Taemin's vocals well. The nature of the melody does use Taemin's higher range, but it couples that with double-tracking and a rich, bubbling instrumental -- the juxtaposition of smooth, high vocals against the grounded instrumental both complements and creates contrast in the song. It's not an ear-catching song like "Danger" or "Pretty Boy," but it's a pleasant listen and a well-thought through package.

Most of the EP is really an exploration of style with Taemin as more of a performer than an active creator -- you have tracks that are very SHINee, you have tracks you wouldn't expect from him, and you have a strong lead single that's marketable, artistically strong, and that is able to create dimensions in Taemin's vocals. While the production quality emphasizes Taemin, I think it's right that the stylistic strength of "Ace" serves as an equalizer and tones down vocal qualities that still need work. Four tracks in and I found myself wondering what else the vocals could bring to the table, what other hoops could be jumped through -- if it weren't for the interesting production features and stylistic decisions, that would've been the start of the decline of the EP.

So to answer my question at the beginning, I don't think Taemin's performance succeeded 100% with pulling together and presenting "Ace" -- I think he still has a long way to go before he becomes a performer who is flexible and multi-dimensional. But it's obvious that SM has succeeded at getting Taemin's abilities off the ground at the very least, and he's definitely going in the right direction. This is an EP I would listen to again, maybe in smaller doses and not as a whole, but it's also a release that makes me hope for further improvement by the time the next one comes out.

4/5


2 comments:

  1. Hi :) I am very interested on what you have to say about his song called "Play Me". It's the last song in the album. It seems you forgot to write about it.

    I love reading your blog; particularly, your posts about SHINee. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Taemin has a nice and smooth voice. His timbre is pleasant to listen to and I think it was a good choice to have him go solo from SHINee. However, I think SM failed to brand him as a solo artist. This mini album still sounds like something off SHINee's discography.

    For sure, he has improved a lot since his debut. However, one thing I always feel that Taemin lacks is stage charisma. He performs for himself and stays in his own lil bubble. He doesn't absorb the energy from the audience and play off it... if you now what I mean.

    No matter what, Taemin is precious. He will forever be the kpop maknae and hold a special place in my heart :)

    ReplyDelete

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