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.
"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."
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.
"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.