Review: The Weight of Expectation for Amber’s ‘Beautiful’

With f(x) on an uncertain hiatus following an abrupt end to promotions last August, fans of the group have been looking forward to Amber’s solo debut with bated breath. This is not just a solo debut; this very well may be all we get from f(x) in 2015. As such, a huge amount of expectation has been placed on Amber’s shoulders. Fans of f(x) were asking for fireworks. They were expecting something to whet their appetite for the kind of music that f(x) produces. But can Beautiful live up to those expectations?

It shouldn’t have to. Had any of the other four members of f(x) released a solo album in this environment, I don’t believe the expectation would have been this high. But Amber has the iconic presence and the complexity of voice to actually pull off f(x)’s signature style. It’s completely unfair, but most will judge Beatiful based on standards set for f(x). The five-song mini-album should be evaluated as the exploration of a new artist, but it won’t be.

The first thing you’ll notice when you listen to Beautiful is that it is heavily focused on vocals. A lot of casual fans don’t realize that Amber actually has a very strong voice. She was pigeonholed as a rapper early on, and never really broke free from that. “Beautiful,” the opening ballad, is very much a chance for Amber to show us another side. “I couldn’t spread my wings in this world that was like a small birdcage. / With struggling movements, I’ll sing for you, who will come to me some day.”

In a group with many members, having a defined role helps ensure everyone gets time in the spotlight. But it just might be that f(x) has been stunting Amber’s development. Sure, early on, it made sense for Amber to take the role as rapper. Her Korean language skills were not up to par in those days, and rapping in English is a much-desired skill. Combined with her boyish style, it was an obvious fit. But now? Isn’t it time Amber be allowed to break free from that? Neither “Beautiful” nor “Love Run” are going to blow you away. But these ballads will definitely make you take a step back and ask, is this Amber?

The casual fan will be much more familiar with the Amber present in “Shake that Brass.” It’s a fun song with catchy hooks. It’s also the closest we get to an f(x) song on the album. But all of that is to say that Amber does not shine in this song, just like she isn’t given the chance to shine within f(x).

Brass is big right now in Kpop. It’s huge. It provides a bridge between the present and the jazzier sounds of the past. But this is a comical sort of brass. It’s playful in a way that SM typically reserves for Girls’ Generation. Perhaps Taeyeon’s presence tipped the scales in some way? The collaboration certainly does not do Amber any favors. Taeyeon easily steals the show here. And that’s because she is given the only opportunity in the song to actually exercise her vocal range. Maybe there’s a reason we don’t see as many collaborations between female artists. Maybe the roles just aren’t well-defined enough. You’ll probably enjoy this song, we really think you will. But “Shake that Brass” constricts Amber to the same bit-role she plays in f(x). It’s not really her song, is it?

To finish off the mini-album, “Heights” is an odd cross between a ballad and EDM with a very strong Eurodance vibe. While it would easily score in a European club, it’s not a good fit for Kpop. The final song, “I Just Wanna,” is a love song and duet with Eric Nam. But again, Amber feels secondary on her own album. Although their voices harmonize well together, Amber’s is tonally a bit too close to Eric’s. She struggles to stand out.

There was so much expectation for Amber’s solo debut as a result of f(x)’s hiatus. And though every song on Beautiful is good, none of them will blow you away. There is nothing, really, to purchase the album for. The best thing about this album is what it might mean for Amber’s future. Should f(x) return, fingers crossed, Amber’s strong vocal showing in Beautiful might allow her to break out from her role as a rapper. Or maybe she hasn't done enough.

Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.


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