It seems that no K-pop album these days is complete without a pre-release. For some recent examples, look to Exo-SC, Kang Daniel, Chungha, and of course, Black Pink. The newest addition to the Summer 2020 pre-release club is Taemin with the prologue single “2 Kids”, off his upcoming two-part album Never Gonna Dance Again. As a standalone song, “2 Kids” is vaguely disappointing. However, as a pre-release meant to raise anticipation for what is to come, it excels.

The MV for “2 Kids” is simplistic but undeniably aesthetic. It was filmed in Paris last February, when SuperM was touring, light years ago in a totally different universe where live concerts were a thing. Taemin flings himself across picturesque neighborhoods, haunted by memories of a youthful love destroyed by immaturity:  

Wishing you would hold me but I pushed you,
Saying the words “I’m sorry” was Uhm
2 kids too young and dumb
If I endured everything, would it be different?
You and I

The punk styling and imagery of a tormented figure stumbling down European streets call to mind G-Dragon’s iconic “Crooked” MV. But while that video was full of urgency and untamed energy, “2 Kids” has a much more resigned and wistful tone. This is reflected in the soft lighting throughout, even when Taemin is so overcome with regrets that he is literally throwing himself onto people, the ground, stationary cars, anything. As immediate as his sorrow is, there is a sense that what’s done is done, and now all that is left is to pick up the pieces and try to dig some meaning out of the ruins. In certain moments he succeeds, like when he sings:

A breakup that couldn’t get any worse
But I think it was beautiful in the beginning
All the scars and traces you left on me
They were love, and still are now

Other times, Taemin just dances through the pain. The choreographic sequences in “2 Kids” are, perhaps not surprisingly, astonishing. Taemin is a remarkable dancer: expressive, inventive, and with that special quality of performing so naturally; it feels like he’s thinking of the moves as he’s executing them. The flowing modern-dance style of “2 Kids” showcases these attributes marvelously, and it is exhilarating to behold.

Despite the heartfelt lyrics and stunning dancing, there is something about the MV that doesn’t quite hit home. It seems to lack momentum, and it certainly lacks originality. With the exception of an interesting up-angle shot of Taemin lying on the street as strangers trudge past, the visuals in “2 Kids” are nothing special.

There is an intriguing potential point in how, throughout the video, pedestrians nonchalantly go about their daily activities as Taemin loses his mind inches away from them. After all, one person’s worst day is a hundred other people’s normal Monday. However, the MV fails to pursue this, instead content to simply glide along on Taemin’s charisma and dancing prowess.

The result is that “2 Kids” is good, but not great. And definitely not show-stopping. If this were an official comeback, it would be a let-down. The dynamic perfomer who gave us “Move” and “Want” can undoubtedly do better. But “2 Kids” as a pre-release is a pretty excellent one. It reminds us why Taemin is so remarkable; it highlights his god-level dancing skills. It utilizes his unique, almost old-fashioned vocal tone to great effect, whether it is softly shining in the song’s stripped-down verses, or amplified by synth effects in its chorus. Most importantly, it teases viewers and listeners with the possibility of something new just around the corner.

It would not be unfair to characterize much of Taemin’s discography as insanely dramatic. His MVs have historically never met a smoke machine or a simmering smolder shot they don’t like. There is more versatility in his B-sides, and some of them feel like natural precursors to “2 Kids”, with their bittersweet sentimentality. Still, it is a first for Taemin to place a thoughtful and realism-based track like “2 Kids” at center stage. By doing so, he may be signaling a shift in lyrical focus and artistic tone in his upcoming work.

In some ways, it would make a lot of sense for Taemin to come out with something introspective at this point in his career. Never Gonna Dance Again, which is a bold title for a release from a dancing king, will presumably be his last solo effort before mandatory military enlistment claims him.

Since his debut at age fourteen in Shinee, Taemin has walked an extraordinary path. He is the beloved maknae of one of the second generation’s most popular boy groups, a somewhat unlikely solo sensation, and a member of one of K-pop’s most daring recent experiments. That’s a lot to process as he prepares to take his first extended professional break in more than a dozen years. It would be cool, and fitting, to see some of that processing show up in Never Gonna Dance Again.

Whatever Taemin chooses to bring to the table, “2 Kids” does a near-perfect job making us anticipate it. Good enough to get fans excited, not too good that it risks outshining the incoming official comeback, this is a pre-release that has its priorities straight. “2 Kids” is an appetizer that makes you hungry for the main course. That means for better or worse, it won’t ultimately be judged by its own merits. Instead, whether “2 Kids” is remembered fondly will depend on how fulfilling, or disappointing, the culmination of the narrative it teases proves to be.

(YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via SM Entertainment)