Is Henry Solo Material? Thoughts on Henry’s “Trap” and Solo Debut
Henry’s solo mini-album, Trap, and MV for the title song dropped last night, and if there’s one thing to be said about both album and music video, it’s that Trap really couldn’t be any more Henry. Sure, Henry probably doesn’t go around wearing loud patterned shorts and temporary chest tattoos all the time, but the sophisticated, mature approach to typical bubblegum pop demonstrated in Trap fits Henry’s musical personality perfectly. Even the title track, “Trap,” wasn’t actually composed by Henry or Noizebank — and yet, how many of us were fooled into thinking that it was?
Despite being yet another single pulled from SM’s seemingly endless stockpile of pop-friendly EDM in Scandinavia, “Trap” fits Henry’s voice, musical style, and image to a T, and it’s a great song to boot. It doesn’t really even matter whether or not Henry had creative control of all of his material; it’s still really satisfying to see a solo endeavor play so strongly to the artist’s personality, talents, and musical preferences.
As aforementioned, Henry’s musical identity has thus far stayed firmly in the bubblegum pop camp, and the music on Trap is no exception. Granted, I’m not the biggest fan of Henry’s bubblegum pop style and I’m probably not the only one who thinks so, but what does matter is that the bubblegum on Trap, though conventional, is nonetheless well-produced and reflective of the hard work and passion that the young producers of Noizebank put into their music.
And that’s what’s keeping me from completely dismissing this album as a six-song compilation of pop fluff geared towards preteen girls between the ages of 12 and 16, although it could easily be accused of being such. In terms of creativity, originality, and musical innovation, the tracks on Trap don’t really say much. The melodies are simple and unsophisticated, the beats are unchallenging and safe, and even the synth add-ins aren’t particularly inspired. As a whole, the songs on Trap don’t make much of an effort to stray from the safety of conventional bubblegum pop — and in that regard, Trap isn’t musically all that exceptional.
One could argue that Henry’s solo debut as both musician and performer should mean that his first solo release should be all about the music. And it is — but that’s not all there is to Trap and Henry’s first step forward as a solo artist. Despite the fact that almost all of the tracks on Trap have a decided commercial-pop sound to it, one has to remember that half the songs on this album were created by a young team of producers who have probably never composed music commercially in their lives, and are truly chasing after music out of passion and not profit.
The idea of someone composing commercial pop fluff out of genuine love for the commercial pop fluff genre is somewhat mind-boggling and paradoxical. But seeing Noizebank invest so much of their energy and passion into producing “commercial” music really ought to call into question the assumption that pop music is created solely with profit in mind. Instead, the possibility that behind those catchy pop songs is a producer or group of producers that actually care deeply about their craft ought to be acknowledged. Amongst the K-pop fandom, there’s this near-universal consensus that Henry is a musician and artist who is deeply passionate about music…and so it’s kind of disorienting to hear an album like Trap that’s as packed with commercial bubblegum pop as it is. Many of us (myself included) probably expected something a little more artsy, a little more raw, and a little less commercial from Henry. But at the end of the day, it’s wrong to assume that a composer who’s really passionate about music would never “sell out” and write pop fluff, and it’s wrong to delegitimize the style of pop music that Henry and Noizebank pursue because it’s too commercial-sounding. And besides, I’d much prefer listening to fun, well-produced, high quality bubblegum pop from a group of producers who genuinely enjoy writing it instead of some indie musician reject who secretly hates the genre and writes it begrudgingly just because it’s profitable.
Call it biased coddling of these four fresh-faced, starry-eyed musicians dipping their toes into the industry for the first time, but there’s something touching about seeing the members of Noizebank — who are very much still students of music and not pros — doing what they love and staying true to their craft in a way that’s almost endearingly naive and pure.
If there’s one K-pop idol that international fans everywhere are cheering on to succeed, it’s probably Henry. Honestly, it’s really hard to fire any strong criticisms at him or his career, especially since, well, his career almost wasn’t. The combination of his immense musical talent, his earnest personality, and the bullshit controversy that almost ended his career before it even started makes Henry one of K-pop’s biggest underdogs. Add to that the fact that he’s a Canadian boy who speaks English and eats tacos and it’s not hard to understand why international fans everywhere are rooting for him.
There’s little room to argue that Henry isn’t mad talented and isn’t deserving of pursuing a solo career. After all, Henry’s skill set and musical interests make very little sense in the context of traditional idoldom, and far more sense in the pursuit of a solo career where he has creative control over his own material. But at the same time, Henry’s solo debut doesn’t come with its (very, very) large share of potential risks. If SM debuted a Super Junior or Shinee member solo instead, they would probably be able to take comfort in the fact that a solo album by Kyuhyun or Jonghyun would not flop, as those idols have already proven themselves as capable solo performers in various respects, are well liked by their respective fandoms, and would stick to the time-proven model for male solo vocalists in K-pop. However, Henry breaks all of these rules — he barely has more than two or three singing lines in Super Junior-M’s songs, he doesn’t have the image the typical dark, handsome balladeer, and there’s still a chunk of his own fandom that hates him. For a company that is famous for staying on the safe side,. SM’s choice to debut Henry is one laden with risk.
But at the same time, it’s not as if SM cashed in all their chips and let Henry run loose in all his rule-breaking glory. The promotional track wasn’t by Noizebank, but by one of SM’s outsourced producers who already has a long list of production credits to his name. In fact, only half of the tracks on the six-track album were from Noizebank. And did I mention that the album only has six songs on it? Granted, most K-pop albums nowadays are more buck than bang, but for a production debut that’s as long overdue as Henry’s, six (or, rather, three) songs is a bit scant.
And then there’s the addition of Kyuhyun and Taemin in the title track. While their roles in “Trap” are minimal and strategically placed, the fact that Kyuhyun and Taemin were added to a track that Henry could have carried on his own is a testament to the kind of padding and insurance needed to ensure that Henry’s solo debut would be as risk-free as possible. But his doesn’t seem to be a result of SM’s lack of faith in Henry as much as it is a reasonable way of addressing and attempting to remedy the many potential holes and weaknesses in Henry’s solo debut.
Henry isn’t a strong soloist, both in the studio and on stage. He’s a perfectly capable singer, but his voice is pretty linear and one-dimensional and really isn’t meant to stand on its own. And as much as “Trap” puts him in his element, Henry doesn’t have the kind of imposing, bold, aggressive stage charisma needed to hold his own on a solo stage. His debut live performance on Music Bank today had him drowning amongst the sea of backup dancers on stage, but the momentary appearances of Taemin and Kyuhyun helped him to push back a little bit. They played their roles as supporters very well and did all the right things that would help Henry shine.
Kyuhyun and Taemin’s star power probably didn’t hurt either, though Taemin and Kyuhyun’s parts in the song were probably too small to keep Taemin and Kyuhyun fans hanging onto the song for the sake of their biases. It helps that “Trap” is a good song, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a few Kyuhyun and Taemin fans still stuck around for Henry after catching a glimpse of their biases. It’s not much, but then again, any more pandering to fans of other groups for the sake of increasing Henry’s profile would look more desperate than resourceful.
And then there’s that one big, big issue that no one really seems to be talking about: Henry is a Chinese-Canadian who, up until now, has promoted almost exclusively as a Mandopop artist in the Chinese speaking market. Now, he’s marketing himself to a Korean audience — primarily with a solo album recorded in Korean, yes, but he’s also transforming himself to blend a little more smoothly into the Korean entertainment scene. Henry began guesting on his own segment on Super Junior’s Kiss the Radio a few months ago, his stint on Masterchef Korea managed to put him somewhere on the Korean variety map, and his tweeting frequency in Korean has shot up. And amid all the buzz surrounding Henry’s debut, there’s been virtually no mention of his Chinese ethnicity or even his participation in Super Junior-M.
Non-Korean idols of East Asian descent are a common sight in K-pop these days, but even despite the fact that Chinese K-pop idols are physically indistinguishable from Korean K-pop idols to the untrained eye, the Chineseness of Chinese idols is brought up at almost every possible opportunity. The reason why it’s addressed in the first place is obvious: in an ethnically homogenous society like that of Korea, idols of a different ethnicity stick out like sore thumbs and become giant elephants in the room if their otherness is not acknowledged in some way, sometimes through good-natured ribbing, other times through blatant marketing schemes zeroed in on the idol’s ethnic background.
With Henry, though, it’s as if we’re all supposed to pretend that the elephant in the room doesn’t even exist. While it’s certainly not as if Henry’s purposefully trying to pass as Korean or anything, he’s not being marketed as the foreigner. And one has to give SM some kudos for that, for breaking the convention of milking non-Korean idols for all their foreign worth, to the point where their identities as celebrities become primarily defined by how foreign they are. Because let’s face it: it’s kinda messed up that Hangeng had to call himself Beijing Fried Rice because there’s no other way for a Korean audience to relate to a Chinese celebrity unless you turn him into a stereotypical Chinese take-out dish, right? Pointing out a non-Korean idol’s ethnicity has become common practice at this point, so SM’s choice to not acknowledge Henry’s Chinese ethnicity can be seen as being — gasp! — kinda progressive.
But then there’s reality. Then there’s the fact that Korean audiences still have a strong perception of what’s conceived as The Other and, even if it’s not being emphasized in any press releases or music show interviews, Henry’s otherness follows him wherever he goes when he’s in Korea. As a non-Korean, he’s seen as a guest rather than a welcomed, productive member of society. The same goes with other non-Korean idols, except their presence becomes more acceptable as they are accompanied by a host of Koreans — capable, savvy Koreans who are there to babysit the token foreigner and ensure that he doesn’t get lost or misbehave. As a solo artist, however, Henry doesn’t have that. And yet he’s still an idol, a performer who can command and influence Korean audiences through the power of his celebrity status. In the eyes of some particularly nationalistic Koreans, Henry’s solo debut as a foreigner with no Koreans at his side to make sure he “plays by the rules” could possibly come across as being invasive, weak, or inappropriate. That’s why Henry’s flanked by two Koreans who play very small roles in the musical execution of his performances, but nonetheless aid in making Henry look a little more acceptable and a little less foreign as he performs on a Korean stage in front of a Korean audience.
This opens up a larger discussion about the rather one-sided cultural exchange between China and Korea — a topic far too large and complex to be covered in an article that is supposed to be about Henry’s solo album. Indeed, the issue of Henry’s ethnicity might seem somewhat tangential when we’re really talking about this precious, derpy little 23-year old kid who probably wants nothing more than a chance to be the kind of musician and artist that he wants to be. When one looks at Henry in that regard, it’s hard not to cheer for him and wish for his success. And yes, Henry’s been fighting for that kind of success for so long, but is this solo debut the culmination of his efforts? He’s out of the SM dungeon, he’s releasing his own music, he’s even playing the piano on stage….and he’s doing it all by himself. Judging from those elements alone, there seems to be little reason to doubt that Henry has at least begun the journey to success on his own terms. But as discussed earlier, Henry’s solo debut didn’t come without a set of preventive measures put in place only because the idea of Henry debuting solo was so risky to begin with. And the fact that he’s chosen to promote in Korea despite being Chinese will be a thin shadow over his career that will only grow darker as he endeavors further into the Korean market.
Nevertheless, this is a happy day for Henry and for the fans who’ve been cheering him on since day one. Trap might not be perfect, Henry’s solo debut might not be perfect, and as far as success is concerned — who really knows? But one thing is for sure: the fact that Henry is able to take this first bold step forward as a solo artist makes for a promising beginning.