15& - "Sugar"

15& is one of my favorites among newer K-Pop acts -- I watched the first season of Kpop Star which Jimin won, and I think Yerin is extremely talented in her own right. The balance between Jimin's smooth, striking accuracy and Yerin's soulful, rich vocals is an absolute pleasure to hear. I'd even go so far as to say that 15& is one of the best decisions JYP has made in the last few years, they (hopefully along with GOT7) give me hope for JYP as an agency. I loved last year's "Somebody" (I really loved it) and I think the more recent "티가 나나봐" showed off their vocal capabilities in all the right ways, so obviously I was excited to hear what JYP had in store for 15&'s new LP.

I wasn't disappointed, thankfully -- I find "Sugar" really, really, really interesting and I also think it's yet another fresh take on the JYP sound, which is always welcome. 15& are one of the best and most appropriately-packaged groups in K-Pop today so it's always a relief to hear their sound grow and not change for the worse. While I was surprised to find out that Kpop Star 2's Andrew Choi was one of the composers (along with Shim Eunji and Deez), I can't say it was completely unexpected -- there is an element of trend and a stronger, more natural understanding of Western musical conventions on the song that most probably came from him.

Obviously as a strong believer of theory being the means of achieving practice, "Sugar" is a goldmine of theory being used in all the right ways. And further, as someone who's partial to rhythm (my dad's a jazz drummer so believe me, I've heard some wild things done with rhythm alone) the fact that "Sugar" is so playful with its rhythms brings out the music theory geek in me.

I won't get too technical, but the playfulness of the rhythm throughout the song directly translates into an equally playful sound. Last year's "Somebody" depended solely on things on the surface to achieve a playfulness throughout -- mischievous instruments, sharp production and interesting sounds. But "Sugar" takes JYPE's influences to a whole other level by going straight to the composition and using the tempo, accents and even syncopation.

The accents on "Sugar" shift quite literally. I'm not going to touch the actual rhythm, but just which instrument controls when because there's already a lot to say. The first verse places more emphasis on the bass line while the percussion lays low with some drum rolls, handclaps and light cymbals whereas the bass drum comes in at the bridge to create a sense of urgency. That transition alone changes the sound of the song -- from a verse that's light but gutsy and a little funky courtesy the bass line, you get a bridge that sounds fuller and more chaotic, like a dance floor that got filled. If this was being played live you'd feel the verse melodically through your ears and the bridge physically through the vibrations. It's an ingenious contrast that makes the song playful from the get-go.

Now the chorus is much more "regular" in that while there's a bit of syncopation going on in that first verse (notice how it sounds a bit weird at first and takes some time to warm up to), it's gone by the first chorus. In standard 15& fashion, the playfulness comes mainly from the melody laced with all the odds and ends like trumpets and sharp handclaps. It's great though because the emphasis on melody puts the spotlight on Jimin and Yerin and lets them show off the extent of their vocal abilities. In that sense, "Sugar" is half-half in that half of the song carries 15& through the interesting structure and but the other half is 15& carrying the song. For an act that hasn't been around for long but which is known to be more than vocally capable, this is the perfect compromise. I never thought I'd say this but SME, take notes!

The one thing that irks me though is that while I love the contrast between relaxed verses, urgent bridges and the all-out parties that are the choruses, the song as a whole could have been so much tighter. The individual elements are all there and in theory they'll definitely make for the playful, musically-outstanding song "Sugar" should be but what looks good on paper -- in this case closely related but still separate pieces of paper -- will only look equally good in practice if executed properly. This is both a composition and production slip -- the transitions could've and should've been snappier, emphasized more. I just spent two paragraphs talking about the contrast and I barely scraped the surface so we know it exists, but because they weren't emphasized as much there are points in the song that sound lazy instead of laid-back. The problem with the transition between the bridge and chorus is that the melody of the chorus (which is the focal point) starts with a lower note so there is no emphasis on it and the explosion is delayed by a quarter note. There is such a thing as too smooth a transition. "Sugar" has graceful transitions when it should've gotten forceful, gutsy ones. The only part that does it well is the transition between the rap part and the last chorus because the end of the rap portion and the start of the chorus overlap, giving just enough dimension to hold us over until the belting starts.

All things considered though, I'm definitely putting "Sugar" on repeat for the next few days at least. It could be better, but it also has strengths that are hard to overlook. It very faintly reminds me of Pharell's "Happy" during of the more laid-back sections, but I appreciate "Sugar" because it still has the K-Pop intensity and so it didn't become a bad Pharell knock-off (a technically strong song that translates into practice as well as "Happy" is very, very easy to screw up) -- "Sugar" is its own song with its own peculiarities, strengths and character. And of course, Jimin and Yerin sound like the phenomenal vocalists they are.



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