Chocolates are an indulgence. They are not a necessity, and we definitely do not need them in our daily lives. Yet, we are always up for a bite of indulgent, smooth, and rich chocolate, chasing after the subtle but immense satisfaction it gives us. Chocolates are a reward, a gift, a treat. And while Changmin‘s Chocolate is far from being edible, it sure is a delight for your ears.

TVXQ‘s Changmin — or MAX, as he’s promoting himself — made his solo Korean debut after 17 years in the industry, dropping a six-track EP that doesn’t let down in energy from start to finish. The idol is known for his high tenor, but Chocolate gave him an avenue to explore his low- and mid-ranges more.

Perhaps the title track is the best example to display his vocal range. “Chocolate” is a dance-pop track that is made captivating by the fluctuating intensity throughout the song. The instrumental transitions between a more minimal sound during the verses, and a built-up sound during pre-choral and choral segment. Changmin brings dimensionality into “Chocolate” by varying his vocals as the instrumental varies.

As the verses rely on a simplistic instrumental centred around reverbing synths and percussions, the singer, too, engages his mid- and low-range vocals to match the softened energy. Conversely, when the pre-chorus builds up to a dramatic instrumental featuring synth-trumpets, staccato drum beats, and heavier percussions, Changmin enters his higher range, upping the energy level, and making the production thrillingly theatrical.

On the first listen, you might not be sold on the title track. After all, a vocally-empty chorus is overused in K-pop, and the chorus might feel like a letdown in energy after the striking pre-chorus. However, it is what makes the song much more repeatable, especially to an older audience (as most of his fans are). Had the song built up from the pre-chorus and stuck to the heightened levels of instrumentals and vocal power throughout the chorus, it might have run the risk of being overproduced. “Chocolate” may not be an ear-worm on your first listen, but it will end up being one after your second or third.

Just as “Chocolate” is a theatrical song, the other tracks on the mini-album that are just as much of an immersive, thematic experience, such as “Piano” and “High Heels”.

Producer of “Mirotic”, “Truth”, and “Chocolate”, Thomas Troelsen also produced “Piano”, a trendy, sensuous alternative pop song. The vocals lie on an instrumental consisting of a hook of staccato piano notes that do not let up throughout the song, except to fade away during the bridge.

When you hit the black keys (piano),
When I go back and forth the pure white keys (piano),
A musical vice blooms (No no no no).
When you play on my piano, I go go go (piano).
(Do it to me Do it to me Do it to me)
I like it when you say don’t stop, like it when you say don’t stop.
(Do it to me Do it to me Do it to me)
I like it don’t stop, I like it don’t stop.

Using the piano as a euphemism, Changmin adjusts his vocal tone to match the sensual accent of the song. He sings the song with a deeper voice, bringing a breathier quality to it at certain times. The title, lyrics, instrumental, and vocals are all in congruence with each other to make the song a riveting listen. With that sort of musical accordance, “Piano” is an alluring experience that draws you in for its entirety.

“High Heels” is another track as such. High heels are used as a metaphor to describe how unreachable the persona’s crush feels to the persona (“High heels, high heels, is it too high for me to reach up to you? High heels, high heels, I can’t reach you”). It is a groovy, jazzy song that starts off with the click-clack of heels, slowly shifting into a nifty bass tune which eventually progresses into smooth guitar notes and drum beats. Changmin’s vocals take on a lighter tone with a slightly more airy quality that makes “High Heels” effortless to listen to. The song ends off with the click-clack of high heels as well, making the title a motif that bleeds through all aspects of the track.

Before the release of Chocolate, it was revealed that Changmin would be collaborating with soloist Chungha for “Lie”. They are both singers with distinct voices with the ability to hit some high notes. Expectations for this track were high, and oh, did this track deliver.

The instrumentation of “Lie” is sparse. From start to end, the track consists of spaced out marimba notes, with the occasional percussions added towards the chorus. Instead, what makes the production of “Lie” complex is the vocal layering of Changmin and Chungha’s vocals. Changmin’s voice is unique, and while he has had a few duets with female singers, Chungha’s voices matches his with a perfect harmony that is difficult to describe. Even when Chungha’s melodic vocals take the reign, Changmin’s harmonisation in the background shows how suited these two voices are.

The highlight of this track is towards the end. When Chungha enters with her verse, the vocal arrangement does not ebb until a few seconds before the end, and the gradual, subtle escalation of the piece is mesmerising to listen to. Combined with the lyrics, “Lie” brings its listeners through a journey. “Lie” is about a couple on the verge of a breakup, and the persona goes from pleading his lover to stay together since they’re both lonely separately, to staying together in the relationship even though they’re both lonely being in it. Even though there is not much going on instrumentally, the lyrics and the vocal harmony easily make “Lie” one of the best tracks on Chocolate.

Chocolate was scheduled as a release on White Day (but was delayed to April), which may be why the songs on the EP take on a romantic tone. “Me, Myself & I”, however, slightly twists the romantic theme the EP has.

An alternative R&B track, “Me, Myself & I” focuses on the aftermath of a breakup, starting off strongly with the buzz of a cellphone that goes unanswered and a melodic “I’m so freaking over you”. Although the song is mostly wistful, there’s a hint of optimism that peeks through the song as the persona learns to be by themselves again. It might have something to do with the the relaxed vibe the tune has: the acoustic guitar strings and subtle electronic drums filter through Changmin’s laid-back vocals.

Even if I’m sad staying sober,
I’m okay, just me, myself, and I.
No more sad nights, there’s no more sadness left.
The stars in the sky, I don’t need a single one.
I don’t got to save you, it’s not my problem.

The album ends off with “No Tomorrow” which, thankfully, is not a ballad. In the various interviews that Changmin has done for Chocolate, he has mentioned that he wanted his music to offer comfort. Therefore, while “No Tomorrow” is the only track that sets apart from a theme of romance, it is a song that consoles and heartens. It’s also one of the two songs with lyrics written by Changmin. (The other being “Chocolate”.)

Oh, as a result of old scars,
I hope you won’t falter on the path to your dreams.
Keep going, slow but burning bright.
Even unfamiliar, faraway places under the sky,
I hope you’ll reach those places.s
In every moment, I hope you have no regrets.
You’re gonna live like no tomorrow.

“No Tomorrow” takes on a cheerful, upbeat instrumentation, boasting a contrast between Changmin’s calmer, subdued vocals in the verses and louder, buoyant vocals in the chorus, giving it an optimistic feel. It sounds like the ending credit of a slice-of-life movie, or the soundtrack of Disney movie; while the instrumentation isn’t exactly my cup of tea, the lyrics are definitely uplifting.

Over the course of his career, Changmin has built his reputation as a vocalist. With countless ballads recorded both by himself and with fellow TVXQ member Yunho, it would not have been surprising if the idol had chosen to record an EP full of ballads. He would have pulled it off impeccably. But that is exactly why Chocolate was a pleasant and very welcomed surprise. Instead of going on a route that was tried and tested, Changmin diverged from expectations, even making his title track a dance pop track. With Chocolate, Changmin explored an aspect of musicality we wanted to hear from him, but didn’t know if would ever get.

Changmin played perhaps the biggest creative role on this album than he has on any other (as did Yunho for his), and it shows. Chocolate is an album that has the faint print of TVXQ’s discography, but it has been made into a cohesive sound that is distinctly Changmin’s. It might be due to the selection of genres picked. They highlight the vocal dynamism and prowess the singer-songwriter shows on this album, tackling anything from short, quick, deep notes to long, leisurely, high notes.

Chocolate is only six tracks long, and with such varied genres, it’s easy for the casual listener to only like a select few songs. However, the gem of the EP lies in the subtle details: the harmony between the lyrics, the vocals, and the instrumentals, the instrumentation itself, and the vocal quality and range that is presented in each and every song. From the beginning of “Chocolate” to the end, the EP keeps the listener enthralled and riveted.

(YouTube. Images via: SM Entertainment, Lyrics via: Color Coded Lyrics.)