20160227_seoulbeats_taemin_press_it3After giving us a taste of what he could do when given the space to shine with ACE, Taemin gifted fans his first full-length solo album. I’ll admit to being less than impressed with his mini. And if the medley teaser were what I based my impressions of his first full-length, I probably would’ve found myself completely disappointed. Musically, that teaser did the album no favors. However, basing one’s entire opinion of an album on a few ten to fifteen second clips is not only foolhardy, it’s a good way to miss out on something special. Press It is without question truly special.

The lead singles from the album, “Drip Drop” and “Press Your Number,” both highlight the more sensual side of Shinee’s youngest. Both open with a slinking bit of R&B, then morph into mature dance tracks. Seems SM’s tour through the House of Jack isn’t quite finished, as they explore the halls of New Jack Swing and Deep House.

The sensuality inherent in the throaty beats of House translate perfectly to the lyrical landscape of the first two singles. “Drip Drop” is an apt metaphor for a man trapped in a sea of his lover’s raging emotions. Fully submerged, Taemin is consumed in the spell of his love interest’s flirtations: “A Big Ocean is in front of my eyes. A motion that eats me alive. I can’t get away.”

With the Bruno Mars-penned and composed “Press Your Number,” we get a peek into Taemin’s vocal flavor. Our protagonist has woken up and is in the mood to play (“After waking up alone on a dark night, like a habit, I’m thinking of you and I’m feeling freaky”). The need is more deeply rooted in his flesh. Taemin yearns with thoughts of his lover’s touch, so much so he continues to call her, hoping to get another taste of her sweetness:

I’m thinking of you, deeply embedded in me
Then kiss your lips—Dangerously spreading
My sharpened heart has made this
The end of this long night is filled with you in the end

With the lead singles whetting the appetite, we now begin the exploration of Taemin’s actual artistry. With “Soldier” he truly expresses the breadth of his vocal range, a culmination of years of practice and training that’s seen him develop a tone comparable to bandmate Jonghyun. Granted Taemin’s voice isn’t as powerful all around, his notes overall having a feather-light finish, less diaphragm and more air, there are moments when his voice actually reaches heights unheard of in his first few years as a singer. “Soldier” is the first in a string of songs that allow listeners to revel in some surprising vocal largeness.

“Already” is a truly heartbreaking ballad, both tender and emotive. The vocal representation of a thunderstorm in all its highs and lows: starting softly as a splash on the window and morphing into a deluge that drenches the heart, makes the soul bend as so many flowers under the onslaught of the storm’s persistence. If there were lingering doubts about Taemin’s ability, those were quickly allayed. Though his vocal is more delicate than it is absolutely powerful, there’s a raw ache and earnest yearn in the slant of his voice, his performance not only solid, it’s damn near perfection.

The absolute heartache in the lyrics could only be the work of Jonghyun — it shows in the raw emotion of the words. He’s known for expressing the extremes of love and heartache, and “Already” is no exception, painting the desperation in someone’s need for another after they’ve separated:

The day I became alone
Words I spat out behind your back
Don’t forget about us
So we can reminisce at any time
That’s what I said
That’s what I said but
It’s easier to let you go
That’s how I feel now, already

“Mystery Lover” is just as dramatic as its name suggests, opening with the tinkling notes of Baroque from a music box, then adding the throaty thump of a drum machine and fingersnaps. The song enlists the breathy tenor Taemin is known for to add suspense. It’s a beautifully rendered piece of music that provides the perfect musical landscape for a story of a man waiting in tense anticipation for the realization of his fantasies.

However, moments of the song and Taemin’s performance suggest the track was composed with a larger, more experienced vocal in mind. Taemin does acquit himself well enough on the song’s softer edges, creating some beautiful moments of drama. But when pressed for more, it seems to either be too much or not enough, the telltale signs of his still developing voice creeping in when he tries for his practiced ad-libs. He adds more syllables as he grasps at those runs, instead of letting the notes smooth out as he finishes a line. He also adds more air and squeezes higher notes into his head voice instead of giving them more foundation in his diaphragm, all signs of someone still developing as a vocalist.

20160227_seoulbeats_taemin_press_itThe last few songs seem to indicate either Taemin ran out of steam at the end of a few recording sessions, or the entire production just ran out of time. Though there was much talk over the possible content of track “Sexuality,” in the end it’s quite ho-hum. The Michael Jackson-inspired song (á la Blood is on the Dance Floor) makes use of the classic “opposites attract” trope: two souls who shouldn’t come together and are swept up in the sensual pull, the energy that naturally thrums between two people.

Taemin’s well-known adoration of Michael Jackson is obvious in his delivery, making use of the growl pervading much of HIStory-era Michael’s music. But whatever work this song was supposed to do in terms of heightening sexual tension was already done with the lead singles, and the track just falls flat.

One of my favorite artists of the last two years, G.Soul, penned and composed track “Until Today” for Taemin. And you can tell it’s a G.Soul creation. Unfortunately in this case, that’s not a great thing. Taemin didn’t quite make the song his own. The pacing and feeling seem tailor-made especially for G.Soul — a song that fits his soul and his ability to bring a bit of church to his songs and maturity with his vocal shading (his incredible control of melisma and the dips and sways of emotion).

What Taemin brought to the song was purely superficial — he nailed the notes, he sang the song as it was supposed to be sung. However, I don’t believe he sang it the way it was intended. All the notes were where they were supposed to be, but I didn’t believe his heartache. When he sings “Just until today like this, Baby, I’ll drink without saying anything all day, until today, Baby, just until today,” I know he’s not singing from experience, rather he’s singing what was put in front of him; much like someone who’s just left their teen years behind, singing this song for an audition: good, did everything right technically, but you could tell this wasn’t his song.

Then Press It ends on a whimper with a typical OST-style ballad in “Hypnosis.” Though Shinee is one of those groups equally synonymous with “ballad” as they are “dance,” for an album that started so strong in its first half to end on such a weak note really pains me. It’s an easy ending, a final song that’s pretty but forgettable as soon as it ends.

20160227_seoulbeats_taemin_press_it4Press It is most certainly a big step in Taemin’s artistic progression. There are glimmers of the vocalist he could become and more hints into the direction he wants to take with his music: a mixture of very palpable and sensory R&B and dance tracks meant to highlight the the lean cut of his dancer’s body and the fluidity of a lot of his movement. That being said, honestly this album was three songs too long. The variety, vocal strength, emotion, and excitement of the first half of Press It just sort of fizzles away with the last three songs.

There’s so much more room for Taemin to improve. He’s pushed his voice to its edge, leaned over and found there’s more to explore. There’s definitely something tangible here, a peek at what we can expect from him in the future when his style comes more into focus. This is certainly a better starting point for me than ACE, a broader look at the man and his musical path. While I was sort of let down at the end, there’s some magic on Press It, and I happily await his next project to see what more he can surprise us with.

Album Rating: 3.75/5

(Images via SM Entertainment, Color Coded Lyriccs, YouTube)