K-Poppin’ Off – Episode 1: KAI!

We’re going on a musical journey. In this series, I’ll be exploring the world of K-pop, reviewing artists, bands, and albums as we go! Along the way, I’ll offer my unfiltered opinions – so if I criticize your favorite song, I apologize in advance. Let’s start “K-poppin’ Off!”

 

He’s been described as one of the best dancers in K-pop. He’s starred in several TV shows. He’s the first male muse for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. A member of both EXO and SuperM, he’s famous worldwide for his talents and charm. It felt like I was a little late to the party, but this weekend, it was finally time for me to get to know Kai!

Given that impressive list of accomplishments, there was probably a lot of pressure on Kai, born Kim Jong-in, as a solo artist. But his hard-working fans (the Erigoms, as they’re called) convinced me that he would live up to the hype, and so I decided to give him a try.

To set the mood, I turned off all the lights in my apartment, figuring it would help me focus on the mood of his music. Plus, all the pictures of him I’d seen so far were pretty dark – so a nighttime vibe was necessary.

One of the Erigoms I talked to on Twitter suggested that I start by watching something called “FILM : KAI” on YouTube. Released in November of last year, it’s a six-part teaser for his first release, which I planned on listening to next.

Flipping chaotically between scenes, “FILM : KAI” started out just like a big-budget Hollywood movie trailer. It ended up featuring 30-60 second clips of each song on Kai’s record, and each clip looked like it was pulled straight out of a full-length music video. I believe they call this type of thing a “concept visual” or something, in K-pop lingo, but I’m sure someone on the internet will correct me on that.

Either way, the first song they gave me a taste of was called “Hello Stranger,” and I enjoyed the heavy bass underneath the subtle guitar arpeggios. As it progressed from one song teaser to the next, I sensed a lot of emphasis on Kai’s dancing, which was fascinating to watch.

Having been thoroughly teased with that video, it was time to actually listen to his solo debut.

It’s called “Kai – The 1st Mini Album,” but really, it’s an EP. At 17 minutes total in length, it seemed like everything about this guy so far has been a tease.

Pressing play on the first track, I was greeted by the lead single, “Mmmh,” which is pronounced kind of like you’re humming. It would be tough to introduce that on the radio.

Immediately, I was drawn to the clean, subtle, and classy production quality. The rest of his record would end up having a similar, stylish sound, fitting for South Korea’s first Gucci ambassador. Huge props to the team of producers, including Seattle-based mastermind Cha Cha Malone, for putting every instrument perfectly in its place.

Kai’s voice was smooth, and his backgrounds vocals (he does his own) were rich and heavy. I expected some more dynamic range as the song progressed, but as the third chorus arrived, I didn’t get it. Everything stayed smooth and reserved.

That’s when he surprised me, by diving into a second bridge section to the song. After that came another chorus, and that one delivered the drama I was hoping for, including high notes and multiple vocals overlapping.

So he delivered exactly what I thought the song needed, but late. Once again, Kai was teasing me.

Moving forward through the mini album, I came to “Nothing on Me.” The song structure was pop formula gold, with each instrument disappearing and reappearing as if on a perfectly timed cue. The chorus was dripping with sex appeal, featuring the lyric “I want nothing on me but you.” If Kai released a fully English-language version of this song, it would probably do really well on US pop radio.

Next up: “Amnesia.” Kai breaks out a different voice, almost rapping in the verses. This track is heavily R&B influenced, especially in its melody and percussion choices. Hearing him go from singing in Korean to saying, “I got you, boo,” felt incredibly out of place though.

At this point, I realized I was enjoying it. This was genuinely good music, and even though I couldn’t understand most of his lyrics, I got the feeling that these songs are all about sex. Steamy, passionate, R&B-flavored sex. The type of music that the melodic-guitar virtuosos Polyphia might make, except without the guitars.

Four songs in, Kai showed off a new musical influence with “Reason” and its massive trap beats. It felt like Tyga was about to step out and drop some rhymes about Rollies and Pateks any second.

But that brought up another interesting point. Kai did this all by himself. No background singers, no rap features. If you came for Kai, you got exactly what you asked for, and nothing else.

In “Ride or Die,” I was instantly attracted to the guitar sample and pulsing 1980s-inspired bass. If GTA: Vice City were a song, and set in Seoul instead of Miami, this would be it. The keyboard solo halfway through needed to be longer, in my opinion, but I understood that the focus was on Kai’s voice, which sounded right at home in the middle of the ‘80s.

“Hello Stranger” came last, although ironically it was the first song in his teaser video. It sounded kind of like Jhené Aiko could be singing it, if it were an octave higher. His voice, smooth and sultry as ever, guided me through the song, although I was hoping for a few more vocal fireworks at the end of the record. Instead, a cool piano introduced itself to cap off the sonic experience.

Now that I’d listened to his mini album, it was time to see Kai on-screen in the “Mmmh” music video. It started with him perched atop a building like he’s the playable character in a futuristic Assassin’s Creed game, which won points in my book. But his questionable choice in hats throughout the video made me chuckle, instead of swoon.

By the first bridge of the song, his shirt came unbuttoned, confirming my suspicions that he’s a man of action, if you know what I mean. Alongside a color-correction palette that looked like it came from “The Matrix”, it wasn’t a bad visual, but I would’ve liked a little more plot. I suppose people don’t watch this sort of music video for the plot though.

And now, at last, we got to the juicy stuff: reviewing Kai!

He’s a star. Kai boasts a cool, sleek persona, coupled with natural good looks and an affinity for dancing. His voice is attractive and inviting, with great articulation, and his songwriting team clearly understood his range, because he never felt out of place in his own tunes. He’s got a great track record, millions of fans, attention from major fashion lines, and enough support from his management at SM Entertainment to go solo.

But no artist is perfect, so if I could offer a complaint, it would be this: after six songs, I got the point. Even when Kai stretched his musical boundaries, it wasn’t as much of a stretch as it was more like a yoga pose. I can see why they started him off with a mini album, because a full-length could run the risk of being repetitive and redundant. Sort of like me in that last sentence.

Kai knows what he does well, and he did it for 17 minutes straight on his self-titled debut. But I really wish he let his voice steal the show from time to time, whether with high notes or impressive melodic runs. I’d love to see him challenge his vocal range in future releases, because I’ll bet he can really get up there and sing in his head voice.

Since I’m a radio host, I guess I should note that R&B-fueled music doesn’t do as well typically on the pop charts (with obvious exceptions, like Khalid). So if I were trying to market him to the general public here, I’d make an English version of “Nothing on Me,” using the same lyrical approach as something like Liam Payne’s “Strip That Down.” Then I’d add a famous rapper as a feature, and sit back as the money pours in.

So maybe you’re wondering then, did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I listen again? Already did. I thought it was interesting that when I listened with the lights on, the mood felt different, and I liked “Mmmh” the best that time around.

To wrap this up, let’s add some numbers to this review to make it seem more official:

Persona: 10/10

Vocals: 8/10

Production quality: 11/10

Musical variety: 6/10

Replay value: 9/10

My overall score for Kai: 8.8/10. Absolutely worth the time, and I hope his solo sound continues to evolve and define itself over time. I’ll be listening!

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