2015 has officially begun for Kpop fans. It’s been a tense week, wading through all the teasers and previews. But even amid great releases from Mad Clown and Hello Venus, I’ve been holding my breath for Jonghyun’s solo debut with the EP, Base. This is the second solo debut of a Shinee member in just five months, and they’ve even got a rhyme thing going on. Taemin released Ace in August of 2014, and I’m predicting Minho will be next with Face. After that, maybe Onew and Key can fight over whether they want the lovelorn Chase album, or the hard-hitting Mace. But all of this is pure speculation (and a little bit of prayer).
[Update: In his #hashtag interview for 1theK, Jonghyun was asked about the relationship between his and Taemin's albums, to which he responded that "SHINee are always one," intentionally leaving the rest to interpretation.]
Hype for Jonghyun’s Base has been high, partially thanks to the holiday drought and partially thanks to a few well-timed pre-releases. "Déjà-Boo” was released by DJ Jonghyun himself on MBC’s “Blue Night” on January 7, and it immediately jumped to number 1 on real-time music charts. The audio for “Love Belt” came out the next day, along with the official music video for “Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)” and a special showcase stage hosted by Girls’ Generation’s Sooyoung. Phew. If you’re not begging for the album after all that, you might need to see a doctor. But with all that hype, how does the album stack up? Let’s find out.
It seems appropriate to begin this review with "Déjà-Boo,” the first track on the EP, and the first to be released to the public. This jazzy number, featuring Zion.T, sets the tone for the entire album. It’s slick, it’s cool, and most of all it’s fun. "Déjà-Boo” reflects the recent trend in Kpop to touch base with some of the retro styles and themes of American music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The hooks are clear and memorable, and the la-la-la section may even remind you of an a-capella cousin of Rain’s “La song,” every bit as catchy.
It’s appropriate to take a quick timeout here to mention that Jonghyun wrote the lyrics for "Déjà-Boo,” and for every song on this album. He also wrote the majority of the accompanying music. Haters who complain about the manufactured nature of Kpop would do well to check this album out. But I digress.
"Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)” continues in the same jazzy vein as "Déjà-Boo,” but with a heightened focus on vocals. Although there’s something mesmerizing about the metronomic chit-cha-t-chit of the drum stick hitting the cymbal, there’s also a sense in which the music is almost superfluous, the song thriving despite periods without a true bass line. Jonghyun provides all forward momentum with his exceptionally clear voice.
The accompanying video has been overshadowed so far by a certain scene in the music video in which a certain someone has removed his shirt. And kudos to Jonghyun. Respect. But it’s unfair to allow that one scene to define what is actually a very solid music video. We need to give credit for that, because a video about guilty pleasures could have easily gone very wrong. Thankfully, SM did not focus on female sexuality in this video, and instead gave Jonghyun center-stage throughout. True, there’s not much semblance of a storyline, but not every music video needs that. What we need is to witness Jonghyun’s charisma, and that is what we get. This was a classic performance for a classy song.
After the excitement of "Déjà-Boo” and "Crazy (Guilty Pleasure),” "Hallelujah" slows us right down. But calling this a simple ballad would be to undervalue the song. The emotions are grand, and the music echoic. “Hallelujah” is larger than a ballad, it’s a raw expression that resists easy categorization. Ditto that for “Love Belt.” This was a surprising find for me, but Jonghyun and Younha’s voices mesh perfectly. If I had to define “Love Belt,” I’d say it’s a whisper song that, if you’ll pardon the cliche, oozes with sexuality. But there’s also a softness to the song. There’s pain and sweetness beneath all that sex. There’s complexity.
"Neon" brings Base back up to speed with a more traditional Kpop song. You might still hear the ghost of some of the jazz elements from before, but “Neon” recalls a much more recent pop tradition. It even breaks into a harder dance segment that seems to be driven by controlled feedback. This one is fun, but it won’t blow you away. Likewise, "MONO-Drama" took me a few listens to get into. On first listen, this is your classic mid-range song, halfway between a ballad and a banger. In truth, I had to plug in a set of headphones before I could appreciate the subtle electronic harmonies during the chorus that finally made me appreciate this as something more.
Lastly, "It's Late (Beautiful Tonight)" is the bonus track for all digital downloads of the album. If you want "Fortune Cookie," you’ll need to buy a physical copy. I expect bonus tracks to be just that: a bonus. But “It’s Late (Beautiful Tonight)” and “Fortune Cookie” feel much more necessary than that. They are infused with just the right amount of funk. In truth, they succeed in returning the listener to the album’s start, creating a full circle. The bonus tracks solidify Base into something that could be called Jonghyun’s very unique style. It’s a style that Kpop needs, and that all fans will appreciate.
Jonghyun has done us all a favor by starting 2015 off right, by living up to the hype that he generated. Base is very bling-bling. The album is full of complexity without any of the songs feeling over-produced or inaccessible. This is pure entertainment. For me, the grade for this album is an obvious and an easy: