20160529_seoulbeats_jonghyun_she_isI wasn’t quite sure how Jonghyun was going to top his solo debut, last year’s BASE. But lo and behold, in the thick of summer, he drops his first full-length album and surprises me yet again. However, instead of primary colors and giggly romps on the beach as his album artwork suggests, he’s taking a different approach to combating the heat — switching off the AC, cooling us down with a bit of ice trailed along the skin.

As soon as the album starts Jonghyun goes in for the kill. Lead single and title track “She Is” is a brash song that’s all dips and curves. With help from both Philtre and Crush, the song is a bright piece of R&B. Instead of smoky and full of temptation, it’s flirtatious and playful. With Crush’s signature cadence at the bridge, Jonghyun makes the song his own, despite the watermark of his collaborators.

While lyrically it’s what you’d expect from a spritely piece of R&B, “She Is” was obviously penned with a wink and a smirk. Our protagonist gets a thrill as his love interest leads him on, and the couple plays their game of cat and mouse where everyone can see: “I like how you look like you don’t know anything. (Cool) I like how you act coy (Relationship) I like it like that.”

Track “White T-Shirt” is equally playful, Jonghyun expressing just what it is that catches his eye as his lover walks by. Enough with the poetry about her pretty smile, this track is about how our leading lady fits in her clothes, the way her body lures our protagonist in and never lets him be.

Your casual style makes you look even more special
Your silhouette provokes my imagination
Your slightly messy hair
Your body stands out even more

Then there’s a noticeable shift in tone and intent with “Orbit.” Gone are the fluffy bits of flirtatiousness; Jonghyun’s trying his hand at the grown ’n’ sexy. Lyrically, the conceit is clever — Jonghyun’s in his own world, and the woman at his side is his moon. He even proclaims, “There are too many stars revolving around you. But they’re all fake, man-made artificial satellites. I swear by the moon, it’s only you for me. It’s only you.” The composition adds a bit of neo-jazz to the cut and lean of the music. And, hello, chord change in the second verse! For being just another love song, there’s a rich complexity to both the lyrical content and musical body.

And then… “Moon” happens. We’ve moved beyond just a casual perusal of your body. Jonghyun’s gone right for the buttons on your blouse. He comes closer, biting his bottom lip, then leans in and whispers how much he wants “to take you to the moon.” He’s laid all shyness to rest, opting instead to take action and bring his love interest to the edges of the universe and back.

I’m loosely holding you (holding you)
Excited to know what dream it is (excited)
The thousands of moons
The river above the sky
I made it all

While many may see the lyrics as “stranger danger” (a quick quip about not resisting because in the end she’ll be kissing his cheek), this is a grown-up conversation between lovers as they explore the limits of their physical need and push it further: “Get rid of all your useless thoughts. Don’t act like you’re timid, when you’re alone. Tell me what you fantasized.”

The space imagery adds thematic depth to the middle of this album—just as he sees the stars and planets in his lover, he wants to make her reach her highest heights.

“Aurora” begins on a sigh and rests in that vocal softness for its duration, as if Jonghyun is trying to ease his lover into opening up and seeing her fantasies become a reality: “You used to only dream but now you’ll see all the things you only guessed and imagined. They’ll be so close you can touch them. Then pinch my cheek to check if it’s a dream.” He makes exceptional use of range, sitting in the falsetto, even his voice seeming to explode into stars. The track is sweaty and thick like a long night with a lover. It’s got that sort of honey-drip stickiness that makes fangirls swoon and shy virgins clutch their pearls.

Though Jonghyun’s musical palette mostly swings on the side of smoother R&B and sprinkles of neo-soul, it’s not exactly surprising that he’d choose to put a bass-heavy beat-driven dance track on his album. Perhaps more than anything, it’s surprising where it lands. Instead of preceding the milky languor of the previous tracks, “Dress Up” lands between two rough-and-tumble ballads. A typical club banger, it adds another dimension to the album. While it does disrupt the rhythm, it seems intentional, a break between rounds.

20160529_seoulbeats_jonghyun_she_is4Which, of course, leads to “Cocktail.” Because, literally, what in the hell! It’s a deceiving track, starting just as one would expect a ballad: soft piano with a simple OST-style composition. Then it takes a hard left, catching you off guard like a warm body pressed against your back. Jonghyun’s really going for it, ain’t he? Forget tiptoeing around the subject. He goes straight for the panty drawer.

The man certainly knows his way around a metaphor, this time enlisting the image of his favorite mixed drink to describe how his lady leaves him intoxicated, unable to think straight, and wanting more with every sip: “I’m taking a sip of you right now. (I can’t stop) one sip, (Without wings) I’m flying. What’s in my hand isn’t a glass.”

“RED” takes melodic cues from track “Drama (MONO)” from last year’s BASE. However, the purpose has shifted dramatically (no pun intended). After having his fill of his lover’s heady elixir, he decides to take himself a drive. Again, the wordplay here is masterful, the imagery of taking a car ride being at once literal (“I need you baby. Kiss me now (Red light). When the red light turns on (red light)”) and representing the need for deep touch:

You’re like a street light
A soft light that wraps around me on top of the highway
(Drop, drop, drops on you)
If you’re sitting on my right side
I can’t concentrate

Can’t stop with the brakes
This has always been a little dangerous

It’s fitting he ends the album with “Suit Up.” After giving us a dose of R&B with a harder cut, asking the question, he slows the pace, making use of a drippy pulsating beat to demand you get ready for what he has in store for you. There’s very little left to the imagination here. From the music to the vocal performance (Jonghyun even hitting his highest soaring notes at the song’s climax), it’s lovemaking, plain and simple. He takes a break from the metaphorical, being direct to ensure there’s no confusion as to his intent for his lover. There’s no more to hide between them. He’s ready to lay everything bare:

Oh Suit Up
Tightly tied Bow tie
Shining cuffs, put it all away
Don’t need them here
Oh Dress Up (softly)
The white veil that covers you
The soft lace, take it off
Don’t need to hide anymore

She Is most definitely defines a hard shift in Jonghyun’s musical color. He seems to take cues from another piece of music that delves into the full breadth of an artist’s sensuality — Janet Jackson’s janet. album: all red and blue colors, mood music to make you quiver like a finger stroking the skin. No, forget feather-light tickles. She Is is like candle wax dripped drop by painstaking drop down the length of your torso. And while not as sexually explicit as Ms. Jackson’s classic, it certainly holds nothing back — as much as an idol has license to do in Korea.

Just as Janet’s tentative progression into her sexuality (“Someday is Tonight” from Rhythm Nation: 1814), Jonghyun gave us glimmers of his sensual side with track “Hallelujah.” He then took time to construct mature tracks that highlight his growth as an artist and as a man. This could’ve easily turned into an idol trying too hard to prove something. However, what could’ve become a sloppy grope at a frat party ends up being candlelight and champagne, red silk sheets and tender caresses.

20160529_seoulbeats_jonghyun_she_is3I love this side of Jonghyun. He’s got an understated sensuality, some performances with Taemin notwithstanding. I’m not particularly thick within Shawol fandom, but I’ve never thought of Jonghyun as a sexual being, at least not in the most obvious ways: all ripped shirts and glistening abs (again, we’re just gonna disregard a certain performance he did with Taemin, and maybe the “Crazy” MV). With She Is, Jonghyun has proven he’s got sensuality in spades where it counts: in his lyrics and his choice in music.

Rating: 4.5/5

(SM Entertainment, YouTube, pop!gasa)