Ailee - "Magazine"

Ailee is, hands-down, one of the most effortlessly talented acts in K-pop today -- she's proof that pure talent can and will take you places. I admit that this usually makes me slightly more lenient towards her releases because her vocals take precedence over whatever repertoire-related issues her EPs have, but it's not as if her material has been especially horrible either. Ailee's current repertoire could be so much better, especially in terms of her lead singles, but she has had some bullseyes as well like "Shut Up" and "Singing Got Better."

While it's not an especially outstanding EP, it's good to know that "Magazine" does still add its fair share of stand-out songs to Ailee's repertoire. The material on "Magazine" is a growth -- they're both continuations from and subtle variations of what "Invitation" and "A's Doll House" have already established. There's no mistaking this is an Ailee release, but at the same time "Magazine" presents more refined, less in-your-face material.

Even if you listen to the EP not knowing which track the lead single is, "Don't Touch Me" screams Ailee lead single. It has the bubbling verses that require middle and lower vocal ranges, before launching into all-out belting at the chorus. It's really a song that puts the vocals at the center and allows Ailee to show the strength of her vocals -- just how well she can carry an entire package by herself. I've never especially liked Ailee's lead singles, but what I appreciate is that she's not limited to ballads just because of her voice. 

That said, "Don't Touch Me" is also like her previous singles in that its not particularly bad and it has a purpose, but I expect outstanding material for such a stellar voice. Sure Ailee can pull it off effortlessly, but its almost as if she's too comfortable at this rate because structurally its pretty much the same as something like "U&I" or "I Will Show You" -- a challenge on the creative side of her execution will do wonders to her repertoire.

I won't be too quick to dismiss "Magazine" though, because on top of being much, much better than "Don't Touch Me," the other four songs present Ailee and her production team with that challenge I'm looking for. They're creative explorations of Ailee's abilities as a performer, and are genuinely strong songs to boot.

"Crazy" is a laid-back R&B track, and also features Dynamic Duo. It's in the realm of songs like "A Real Man," but with a more pop twist to make it cohesive with an Ailee release. When I say a "pop twist," I mean that the instrumentation still has a strong bass line and other R&B elements, but pop elements like a gutsy, playful electric guitar line and gentle brass sections make an appearance alongside it. There's also greater focus on the melody, obviously because this is Ailee's album, and the melody is where the effortlessness of Ailee's vocals is pushed to the limit. The choruses have such a natural groove because of the execution -- graceful and fluttery execution of a gentle yet technically-strong melody that's on top of a soft but secure bass line. There is a conviction that's only possible with a skillful, talented performer like Ailee. "Crazy" is a ridiculously smooth song that's so, so easy on the ears in all the right ways.

YMC may fall short in terms of lead singles, but they sure do know how to pick a pretty ballad. "Singing Got Better" remains one of my all-time favorite Kpop ballads, and "Ice Flower" is heart-stoppingly gripping at the very least. "Goodbye Now" is half and half -- half of it sounds like a (well-done) drama OST, the other half is that less in-your-face quality I mentioned earlier. There's still belting, yes, but "Goodbye Now" is more about translating more complex technical execution into more complex emotions. The verses are light in the mid-range instead of in a lower, more robust range, and the instruments give off a haunted, reverberating impression -- it's a slow build-up that's very gradual, with nothing really exploding left and right. Ailee's vocals are less focused on screaming than they are working with the actual melody and executing it not as individual notes to scream out, but parts of a whole that's meant to reveal something. The difference between "Ice Flower" and most of "Goodbye Now" is like the difference between a crying scene where the actress is bawling and one where only a single tear is shed. They both have their purposes and they're both effective in conveying certain emotions, but there is a complexity in that single tear because things like restraint, reluctance, etc are added into the mix.

It's hard to pick a favorite track from the EP, but "Sudden Illness" is definitely one of the songs that makes it especially difficult. So much so that I don't know what to say because I'm afraid of not doing it the justice it deserves, but here goes. "Sudden Illness" takes off from what I was talking about just now about how the material on "Magazine" is less about showing off the belting and the extremes of Ailee's vocals than it is about exploring what exactly those extremes are capable of. This is made possible by having majority of the melodies and songs in the middle range. Like I also said earlier, Ailee's lower ranges tend to sound more robust and forceful while her extreme highs are, well, extreme highs. But, as shown by something like "Sudden Illness," her middle range is where all the best qualities of both extremes are combined -- the conviction of her lower range, the effortlessness and grace of the higher range, they're all together in the same melody, in the same note. And boy, all the things you can do with a perfect balance like that just blows me away.

"Sudden Illness" is unassumingly complex. On the surface it sounds like a cheesy, almost inspirational-sounding mid-tempo pop track. But, like Ailee's vocals, there is a powerful grace to it. There's the gutsy electric guitar line at the beginning that's paired with an edgy, playful melody that contrasts long and short rhythmic devices in a single line. The upbeat bridges with drum rolls that may be subtle, but are riveting to say the least. The chorus that effortlessly jumps leaps and bounds, soars even, but also brings you back to earth, transitions to the next verse, without breaking a sweat. In theory "Sudden Illness" is an easy listen, easy on the ears because of the comfortable range its sung in and the subtle arrangement, but when you actually listen to the track the complexities are all brought out by the execution.

Listening to "Sudden Illness" literally made me stop in my tracks and just revel in all the intricate beauty that was going on, and by the end I doubted if the EP could end with a track that matched up, one way or another. I was wrong. "Teardrop" is probably the best way to end -- a melodramatic take on the over-all direction of the EP, and the track that's most dependent on style. For the right reasons this time! "Teardrop" is a conclusion of the graceful Ailee "Magazine" showed, but it's also edgy and leaning more on the R&B/pop side and the arrangement is what drives the track. The choruses are very individualistic with Ailee's sharp execution of a very fluid, dynamic melody against a haunting, single, prominent piano line on top of other instruments that just lay low. On the other hand, the chorus has multi-tracked vocal harmonies against the instruments that were bubbling and creating a sense of urgency at the verses that transitioned into a more imposing, robust sound. "Teardrop" is a lot heavier than the rest of the EP, but it fits into the over-all direction of the material.

"Magazine" is definitely a musical growth for Ailee, but I'm also really glad this is a growth that's, for the most part, grounded on experimentation. Ailee's material has made that shift from just showing off that she can hit this note and that to allowing her to create and express -- to use her technical knowledge in more creative, dynamic ways. This, my friends, is how you grow as a performer.



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