The commuter train fills with passengers, busy people leading busy lives, whisked north through the suburbs of Illinois. The landscape rolls by, new-growth trees and scrub brush. Prairie grasses cover old and unused tracks. It’s an image of rebirth, renewal. Spring has finally come to Chicago, and Kim Sung Kyu’s 27 is my soundtrack.
So much of the focus in Kpop is on the hit single, the kind of track (yes, singular, track) that makes us get up and dance. Artists build entire albums around the sale of one song, and the rest is filler, ephemeral and fleeting. 27 isn’t full of bangers or club hits, but ballads, and is likely, therefore, to be forgotten by most. But it’s a beautiful album, and it deserves better.
27 is a short, five-song album (not including the instrumental intro). But it was released with two title tracks, “The Answer” and “Kontrol,” both with music videos that dropped simultaneously. Already Kim Sung Kyu reminds us that this isn’t a typical Kpop album, built to sell a single song. His project is bigger than that.
Haven’t heard of Kim Sung Kyu? You probably should have. He’s the leader and main vocalist of Infinite, and 27 is actually his second solo album. One of my fears is that Kim Sung Kyu isn’t getting the recognition he deserves. Is it because he lacks a clever alphabet-soup version of the Infinite brand name? Should he be releasing under Infinite K? Maybe so. Infinite F and Infinite H have both received their share of attention.
27 is produced by Kim Jong Wan of Nell, who seems to have taken on a roll as a mentor for Sung Kyu. And “The Answer” shares more than a passing familiarity with some of Kim Jong Wan’s work (for one, they're both obsessed with gold dots showering down on people). "The Answer" is a beautiful love song about a man’s inability to live without the woman he loves. There’s an intensity of emotion, but it doesn’t come out flat. “The Answer” manages still to celebrate the passion of love. It’s not all doom and gloom.
For listeners used to bangers, “Alive” can feel like filler. And there’s an ounce of truth to that. “Alive” is the much-needed song to slow the tempo between “The Answer” and “Kontrol.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song. Sung Kyu’s voice is layered above piano, and later on a drum beat that really pumps the song forward.
“Kontrol” is the closest thing to a traditional pop single on the album. But although it’s still not something you’d dance to, “Kontrol” has a beautiful rise and fall quality. I can’t stop geeking out over the crescendo after the final verse, when Kim Sung Kyu’s smooth-as-silk voice takes on a more guttural quality. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
“Daydream,” featuring Borderline (Epik High's Tablo & Nell's Kim Jong-wan), introduces auto-tune to 27. That’s not my favorite musical device, by any stretch of the imagination, but the music is otherwise engaging, again with a layering of piano and drum beats. The song builds to a nice high by the end, and Tablo’s rap is perfectly balanced against the electronica that comes in during the rise.
Quit fearing the ballad! If you’ve come this far, you should know by now that 27 is a great album and that Kim Sung Kyu has an incredible amount of talent. But don’t give up on “Reply.” Yes, it’s an acoustic ballad, focused on simplicity. Yes, it’s the slowest song on the album. But it’s also the closing number. “Reply” is meant to end our auditory journey. And it does so with aplomb. Featuring Park Yoon-ha, “Reply” is the song that reminds us of just how far we’ve come since the album began. The train is still rolling, and we’ll never be in quite the same place as where we started.