Side B: One Lucky Guy Named Kim Hyun-joong
Welcome back to another Seoulbeats Side B! This time, we’re covering Kim Hyun-joong, who is set to make quite the sultry comeback with a new Korean mini album, Round 3, his first Korean release in nearly two years. Round 3 is also his third mini-album, which is no surprise given the unimaginative title. On the other hand, his last mini-album, Lucky Guy, has a title which unintentionally happens to be an apt descriptor for the on-extended-hiatus-SS501 leader, because he really is quite a lucky guy for all the success he’s experienced flying solo.
Kim Hyun-joong is not the traditional soloist in the slightest. In fact, the only real strength he has to provide as a soloist is stage presence and general likability. Unlike most “pure” soloists in K-pop, Kim Hyun-joong is frankly not the most lauded singer. Soloists face a lot more scrutiny as singers than 95% of idol groups, which is pretty natural given the obvious need for soloists to be able to carry songs on their own.
Surprisingly enough, even with limited vocal power and range, Kim Hyun-joong manages to succeed as a solo singer, and I’m not even talking about it in the context of releasing a solo album or two in conjunction with group activities. I’m saying that he’s a good soloist, period—no asterisks or other stipulations. Indeed, that makes him quite a lucky man to become a popular Korean soloist with his less than average singing abilities; however, I don’t think that his rapid success is all attributable to luck, looks, and some Boys Over Flowers residual fame (though they most certainly played a part). In fact, Kim Hyun-joong’s repertoire is a great lesson on how singing to one’s strengths can make all the difference in the world.
While most soloists try to promote their “uniqueness” via their voice or their particular brand of pop music, Kim Hyun-joong, in many ways, takes us back to the basics. He sings unaltered pop music, and as a result, most of his songs are easy to groove to and instantly likable. The simplicity becomes a trait of wide appeal rather than a detractor because Kim Hyun-joong’s entire brand revolves around broad appeal. But what makes Kim Hyun-joong stand out the most is how he doesn’t push beyond his abilities to impress. Great pop music doesn’t need bells and whistles, just sincerity—and Kim Hyun-joong has plenty of it.
My favorite song from Kim Hyun-joong is a wonderful pop-rock number called “Your Story” from his first Japanese album, Unlimited. I’m really glad that he’s heavily promoting the pop-rock style in Japan; not just because I love pop-rock, but because of his vocal affinity for the genre. Hyun-joong’s vocals are plain and clean, perfect for bringing great instrumentals to the forefront and providing a smooth counter-balance to the harsher texture of the band. Generic construction aside, I love everything about “Your Story,” all the way to the flow of the lyrics. It’s simple, but it’s also a great song.
I might as well mention every Japanese original Side B on Unlimited, because they are all top-notch Kim Hyun-joong songs. “Save Today” is not nearly as good as “Your Story,” but this song also has the effortless pop-rock sound that works impeccably for Kim Hyun-joong’s mellow voice. It’s a tad on the repetitious and bland end, though I think Kim Hyun-joong can get away with it just because the song really fits his overall style.
“君だけを消せなくて” carries a lot of the same charm that “Your Story” has, but with a rock-ballad vibe. It’s a wonderfully smooth song, as well as one of the few songs in which I can really appreciate Kim Hyun-joong’s natural timbre.
“I’m Yours” (also from Unlimited) is a wonderfully made pop song, for it balances an addictive melody with modern finishes without ever letting the song fully explode. Hyun-joong’s vocals are weak enough that it would be so easy for the guitar, drums, and synth to run over him and the entire song — yet it doesn’t. In fact, the song embraces restraint so well that “I’m Yours” can easily be played in a loop without rapidly getting that grating quality from listening to the same song too much.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to ignore the Korean discography, because there are several gems scattered in there as well. While Kim Hyun-joong is relatively one dimensional in Japan, in Korea, his music certainly has more variation in genre. If you could condense the quote-unquote idol boyband music into solos (“Kiss Kiss” anyone?), you would get something pretty close to what Kim Hyun-joong offers musically, albeit a tad less bipolar in concept than the standard boyband offering.
“Please” is one of those classic pop songs that work to Kim Hyun-joong’s benefit. The song is carried by a great melody (and piano line) as opposed to the voice singing it. I bet nearly any singer in K-pop with a decent voice could sing the song and still sound great. “Please” has universal appeal and approachability, and it’s exactly that which makes it so great as a pop song.
“Smile” is also a gorgeous song, and probably the most unique offering from Hyun-joong. The song really has so much awesome going for it in terms of intriguing elements. The flute, the guitar, the vocals all meld together fantastically, creating an intense immersion that’s really better heard than said. Following all the little cadences in the song makes for a fantastic listening experience.
The first time I heard “The Reason Why I Live,” I honestly thought I clicked on the wrong video, because Hyun-joong actually sounded alive and passionate while singing a ballad. I don’t say that as subliminal shot at Kim Hyun-joong’s singing abilities, It’s really a comment on musical delivery across the idol-sphere. Many idols are privy to singing ballads with zero emotion behind them, because you don’t see them give any nuance to the words or care about how they sing each note. No, they don’t act like they’re reading out of a phone book, but whatever they do convey is a feigned emotion with no regards to the beauty of the song itself. (Singing with “fervor” the entire time does no one good.) Kim Hyun-joong avoids this trap pretty well in this song, so color me impressed.
That’s it for this week’s Side B, and I hope that this gave you a chance to re-examine Kim Hyun-joong’s music from the oft forgotten side of things. For a guy who has so much going for him in other avenues, it’s neat to see that he has some fantastic songs when he could easily get away with the highly mediocre on popularity alone.
Maybe that means that we’re actually the lucky ones.