It is a testament to the power of SM Entertainment’s branding that upon hearing of Baekhyun’s solo debut, my immediate thought was somewhere along the lines of “Jesus Christ, not another ballad album”. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good ballad as much as the next person, but in this industry filled with talented – yet mostly undifferentiated – singers, one can’t help but feel that once you’ve heard one ballad, you’ve heard them all. And while in previous years the gauntlet of ballad albums released by idols in their solo work might have been done by entertainment companies in part to tackle some unfair public perceptions – most of which boils down to “idol singers are bad” – I think we’ve gotten past that particular hurdle a long time ago. A ballad album now is about as welcome as Kevin Spacey at a casting call for Call Me By Your Name.
So when the track list was released, a sigh of relief spread like the holy spirit amongst the Exo-L: boasting features from the likes of Cha Cha Malone, Beenzino, and Colde, it became apparent that City Lights was heading away from ballads and hurtling towards glorious R&B. Eight years into his career, Baekhyun has long since proven his considerable vocal talent, and while he probably could release an album with an impressive ballad and an adequate album of B-sides to go with it, I was more excited to see Baekhyun branch out and flourish with R&B. With an amazing voice, features people die for, and an amazing production team, I couldn’t see any way how Baekhyun’s City Lights could turn out anything but excellent.
Then again, we live to be contradicted. While it wasn’t bad, per se, City Lights falls short of our high expectations, and comes off as merely adequate on the whole. It’s a shame, because with a few tweaks here and there, this mini-album could have been exceptional.
Take the title track, “UN Village” as an example. It starts off great, with distorted wails serving as unconventional if interesting percussive elements, before the instrumental slides in nicely with a muted, jazzy atmosphere that I can picture being played in a 24-hour diner after 2 A.M, empty save for a cleaning lady mopping the floors and one lonely patron on his third cup of coffee as he looks outside. The verses are unobtrusive, ebbing at times, as Baekhyun describes avoiding his fans, and bringing his date to somewhere more private — the titular UN Village — with a playful lilt. I love the message of the song, as well as how descriptive its lyrics are, with the details peppered here and there being especially great. How the first verse set ups the story and the mood of the track is an art within itself.
Navigation to Dokseodang Children’s Park
Press start and step on the gas
To the place that only I knew, but now
Everyone will try to come up here
Anywhere everywhere anywhere
I can see everything
Girl we need to be romantic
It’s time for that
However, while the chorus did grow on me, it definitely lacks a punch. It flows easily into one ear and just as easily exits the other. On some convoluted level, perhaps the stripped back instrumental on the chorus was supposed to signify Baekhyun entering the relative peace of the UN Village. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much better the song would be had the background pizzicato been mixed considerably louder, delivering the ‘pop’ the song desperately needs to go from good to great.
Fortunately, “Stay Up” does better in that regard. Produced by frequent Jay Park collaborator Cha Cha Malone and featuring Beenzino fresh off his stint in the army, the song continues the city motif floated by its predecessor. The date mentioned in “UN Village” continues as the night comes, with Baekhyun singing about how he wants to get jiggy with her, consequences be damned. I do appreciate all the imagery he conjures of them being on the run in a getaway car, avoiding the spotlight, even if the chorus is chock-full of overused phrases used in most ‘sexy’ songs (if I have to hear yet another song with the words ‘I’ll fill you to the brim with me’ I’m deleting it).
The production is spacey and muted, with an ambient chorale backing up Baekhyun as he belts out the chorus. Even though I don’t think it’s up to Malone’s usual standards, at the very least he utilizes Baekhyun’s voice well. Amazingly, Beenzino somehow manages to deliver his verse in a way that is both rapid and drawling at the same time, with each word threatening to stumble over the subsequent one. Intentionally or not, it only adds to the idea of intoxication, bad decisions as well as the indulging of their baser instincts. Overall, a great track.
Drive it like a stolen car
Don’t mind if I get hurt today with you
Don’t worry, no one knows
Climb the black van
No fodder for the paparazzi
If you can get over the fact that Baekhyun is singing about a whole lot of nothing, “Betcha” is in the running to be the best track of the album. If I hadn’t known which track track Cha Cha Malone had produced beforehand, I would have assumed he had a hand behind “Betcha”, but no: it’s produced by The Stereotypes and Kenzie. On one hand, it’s easily the catchiest song on City Lights, with an instrumental that sounds like it was a scrapped first take on Crush’s “Oasis”: the bouncy synths, the sunny blips, and when the overused stock chants start being used on the chorus’s foreground, you realize there’s no way the similarities were unintentional. As is the usual with Kenzie’s songwriting, “Betcha” effortlessly sticks in your mind. On the other hand, that’s not a difficult thing to do when you throw petty limitations like readability out of the window. Even though it’s undoubtedly catchy, the melody comes off half-hearted, and the lyrics are asinine, even with Baekhyun’s vocal flourishes near the end.
It gets worse with “Ice Queen”. With a melody weaker than yesterday’s tea, and an instrumental that’s as woozy and ebbing as the wave pool in a water park, Baekhyun is drowning, and doesn’t make any move to stop it until it nears the end, when he briefly resurfaces for a few vocal runs in a desperate bid to stay in our minds. It fails. It’s aggressively unmemorable, and only the feverish, wonderfully descriptive lyrics prevent this song from being a complete travesty.
Half seen, half grasped in the smoke
It slips away, fades away
Day or night, into your heart
I Fall in love I fall in love…
Fortunately, City Lights has the good sense to finish well with “Diamond”, easily the best track of the lot. Composed by Colde, this song has Baekhyun firmly in his element: playful, groovy, taking to singing in the pocket like a fish to water. His flow is ever-changing, the adlibs here and there serve to liven up the track some more, the percussive elements shift to suit the delivery of his lyrics, the punchiness of the synths during the bridge are poppy and fresh, and the layering of his vocals in the later choruses is just smashing, fantastic stuff. Even with a chorus that’s not as dynamic as I would have liked, the difference between “Diamond” and the other tracks with weak choruses is that on “Diamond”, Baekhyun is able to successfully use such plainness as a canvas for his own vocal interpretation. It’s excellent stuff.
The biggest compliment I can pay to Baekhyun’s City Lights is that in the ever-growing R&B soundscape created by his contemporaries – Colde, jiwoo, Rad Museum, and maybe even Jay Park – the mini-album settles well like a Bokeh photo held up against the Seoul skyline at night. The problem is, it doesn’t do enough, and it’s just not good enough to stand out amongst his contemporaries. Barring some stellar moments, like “Diamond”, City Lights is merely boilerplate and adequate at its core. It certainly tries with each track, but the flaws are evident throughout, with the weak choruses and occasional over-production (“Psycho” and “Ice Queen”).
One gets the sense that SM Entertainment is just shooting in the dark finding a way to utilize Baekhyun’s vocal potential in an R&B setting, and has yet to find what makes him click. I hope he comes back soon with a renewed effort while he still has the public’s attention, because unlike the man himself, City Lights is nothing special, and in retrospect, maybe even a ballad album would have been better.
Boring, but better.