20140823_seoulbeats_TaeminThe solo debut of SHINee‘s maknae Taemin has been the talk of the K-pop town for a while, with people both for and against seeing one of K-pop’s best dancers take on a solo release. If nothing else, it’s clear Ace, led by title track “Danger” that Taemin (and SM) see this as a chance to rid Taemin of that “eternal maknae” reputation he’s had since debut.

No place it that clearer than in the intro track “Ace”. “Ace” is a song designed as a soundtrack for the making of babies. Taemin’s crooning, the beat’s nice and slow, the instrumentals are steamy, and the lyrics are straightforward and brash in the style of Marvin Gaye. And while “Ace” tries to be a sex jam, it in no way, shape or form succeeds. “Ace” made this 94-liner want a shower and a lobotomy ASAP. Nothing about it works. Taemin doesn’t have the voice for baby-making music, the beat is lackluster, and the lyrics, my god. Sorry, Changmin, but these are the delusions of a stalker, not mood-setting words a man would tell his soon-to-be-lady. As a whole, “Ace” is just skeevy. The only good thing about it is that “Ace” serves as a reminder for women the world over to carry pepper spray, because guys like this are out there, and tossing your drink in their face is a waste of alcohol.

The other upshot of “Ace” is that the worst of the mini is over, and the remaining five tracks are solid-to-great. Track number two is Taemin’s title track, “Danger”. While the MV is very compelling due to its elaborate set pieces and visual concepts, “Danger” still works when stripped of the flash. It was clearly written for Taemin, as he sounds excellent here. His voice melds well with the audio effects used, sounding almost natural. The only complaint is that “Danger” is a bit cluttered for a non-main singer’s title track. The post-production work doesn’t sound bad, but it conceals the full range of Taemin’s vocal abilities when the title track should be showing them off.

Luckily, the need for song to showcase Taemin’s vocal skills is taken care of by “Experience”. It’s one of the odder songs I’ve heard in . . .ever, but it strangely works. The hook is built around a guitar riff straight out of the old west, with the rest of the musical backbone consisting of a melancholy piano and a fluttery synthesizer. The three disparate musical elements are bound together by Taemin’s voice, playing servant to his vocal master. He sounds crisp and clear, able to work with his range without straining or struggling.

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Following “Experience” is “Pretty Boy”, which features Kai. Now, I may be wrong, but I’m sensing that Taemin may have some unresolved issues with his past as the prettiest boy in K-pop. “Pretty Boy” is basically six years of resentment just getting vomited up in one go. Taemin is abundantly clear here: being ‘pretty’ is a curse when everyone assumes that your personality is dictated by bone structure. He’s not always nice, or sweet, and he’s not soft. He also calls out the strict gender roles and ideas about what’s “manly” and what isn’t. The music is very minimalistic, which just lets the points of the lyrics shine even more. Kai’s appearance isn’t strictly needed, but it creates a good vocal counterpoint to Taemin, spicing up an otherwise vocally bland song. That said, “Pretty Boy” is my personal favorite track on Ace, because sometimes, unpleasant things need to be said, and Taemin says them very well.

“Wicked” is the first track on Ace that doesn’t sound like a song written for Taemin specifically. Instead it sounds more like a SHINee number that was reworked a bit. It has a lot of vocal layering not often heard in solo works due to the difficulty to reproduce live. That said, “Wicked” isn’t bad, not by a long shot. It’s simply jarring to be able to hear exactly where Jonghyun or Onew would come in and have it not happen.

The final track, “Play Me”, is Ace‘s requisite heartbreak ballad. Like “Wicked”, it has a bit of a SHINee sound to it, but it’s nowhere near as noticeable. “Play Me” is the only track that utilises one of Taemin’s more subtle vocal skills: emoting. He may not have the stunning power that Jonghyun does, but “Play Me” showcases his ability to make you feel the pain of a destructive, dysfunctional relationship, both in duration and when it ends. It’s a rather poignant place to end the mini.

If there is one thing Ace had to accomplish, it was justify its own existence. Taemin may have improved quite a bit in the vocal department since “Replay”, but there’s a huge gap between improvement and being capable to work solo. And Ace does just that. It showcases Taemin’s jump from a dancer with a decent voice to a jack-of-all-trades quite nicely. It also has a distinctly Taemin feel. Ace wasn’t slapped together from whatever was lying around the studio. It gives a clear picture of who Taemin is, or rather, who Taemin wants to become. It might not be the one we know, but it shows great personal development on top of his musical growth. Who are we to deny him that?

Overall Score: 4/5

(Images via SM Entertainment, YouTube)