If you haven’t heard of Crush yet, then you are missing out on some of the best Korean RnB of the last decade. The 28-year-old has spent most of his 6-year career at or near the top of the charts, starting with his 2014 debut single “Sometimes”, which brought him to the forefront of Korean RnB where he has stayed ever since. After last year’s full album, From Midnight to Sunrise, plus the single released earlier this year, “Mayday” featuring Red Velvet’s Joy, he is now back with a 5-track EP, With Her, weeks before he is due to enlist in the military in November.

This EP sees Crush return to retro RnB, one of his favourite genres, which he has previously referenced on songs like 2019’s “With You”. On a bed of warm, sleepy instrumentals, he lays down soft, sensual vocals next to those of five different female Korean artists of note: Taeyeon, Lee Hi, Lee Sora, Yoon Mirae, and Bibi. A star-studded lineup that few in the industry are capable of assembling, it’s a testament not only to Crush’s wide-reaching influence but also to his eclectic tastes. Representing Korean pop, RnB, balladry, and hip-hop respectively, Crush pulls these diverse voices together into a cohesive exploration of romantic relationships, from falling in love and sexual attraction to breaking up and finding new love after heartbreak.

He displays a great ear for what makes each artist special, bringing the best out of their very different voices to flesh out his songs with a more feminine touch. The mix of sweet voices over soft instrumentals makes for easy autumn listening. This EP is here not to rock the industry, but to offer some simple comforts as the seasons change. As such, it treads a thin line between relaxing and dull, with some moments leaving the listener in awe and others a little glassy-eyed.

The title track “Let It Go” featuring Taeyeon is one of the latter, despite being a long-awaited follow-up to 2016’s well-received collaboration, “Don’t Forget”. While it’s a perfectly inoffensive ballad with pretty vocals performed by both, it rehashes elements already well-explored on tracks like “Fall” without retaining the vulnerability and strong melodies that made those more memorable. As such, this as well as the final song, “She Says” featuring Bibi, end up being rather forgettable. Even after listening to the record several times, it’s difficult to recall any of the melodies on these two tracks. “She Says” instead makes its mark using racy lyrics sung with breathy vocals, the most safe for work of which are the following:

She said yes, oh no, no
She said yes, oh no, no, no
Make you say yes, oh no, no
Wanna make you say yes, oh no, no, no

These two are the bread to the filling that is the three strongest songs on this sandwich of an EP: “Tip Toe” featuring Lee Hi, “Love Encore” featuring Lee Sora, and “Step by Step” featuring Yoon Mirae. Of these, “Tip Toe” has the most mass appeal, with the catchiest chorus hook on the project. The clever “stop” motif, where all the instruments pause, offers breaths of fresh air to complement the song’s otherwise heady perfume. Lee Hi and Crush also showcase the best chemistry on this album of duets, with Crush offering a raspy rap verse to complement Lee Hi’s velvety tones. Simple yet quirky lyrics describe a meeting between a man and woman on a night out, as they become interested in each other:

Tip-tip toe, tip-tip toe
Quietly, quietly movin’ on
Tip-tip toe without anyone knowing
Tip-tip toe, tip-tip toe
Movin’ on tiptoe
Tip-tip toe stop
So that no one notices

Meanwhile, “Love Encore” is the most offbeat track here, perhaps because it is contributed by Crush’s sister, Nov, an indie musician and singer in her own right. Over a lulling, whimsical instrumental vaguely inspired by bossa nova, Crush and veteran soul / jazz / ballad singer Lee Sora croon a lilting melody, creating a dreamlike soundscape that is reminiscent of 50s musical movies like Singin’ In The Rain. Lee Sora’s vocals are spotlessly clean and masterfully measured; Crush struggles to slow down to match her unhurried pace and leisurely air, but does his best.

This is immediately followed by “Step by Step”, which is played in the same key and creates the smoothest moment of transition between songs on the EP. It instantly brings the energy up and the era back to a more modern urban setting, albeit staying firmly in the 90s. Known better as a veteran female rapper, Crush instead chooses to borrow Yoon Mirae’s husky, soulful vocals, layering them thickly to create a textured acapella chorus, complete with mouth percussion. This natural sonic texture and subtle human touch makes for a more enjoyable listening experience than the more electronic compositions on the album (though Crush produces artfully with a more analogue touch than most), and is the next page in his book of acapella experiments, previously established with songs like “None”.

As time passes, it seems that Crush’s music has ironically only become more retro-inspired; admirably, he is able to truly understand and capture the warm, nostalgic feeling of analogue music in a way that few working pop musicians today are. Unusually, Crush’s own vocals take a backseat on this album, as he humbly offers the spotlight to his featuring artists instead. On his verses, he adapts to fit each artist’s style perfectly, demonstrating more versatility and self-awareness as a singer than is often seen.

As far as autumn EPs go though, it doesn’t outdo 2016’s Wonderlust, which is to date one of his best and most cohesive albums, including full-lengths. Some songs here lack vulnerability and raw emotion; Wonderlust felt intimate and deeply personal from beginning to end. There’s a sense of compromise; he holds back deeper, darker feelings and his love of experimentation in order to fit his feature’s existing style better, both lyrically and musically.

In fact, this could be said of many of his collaborations. Even though he is a master featuring artist, ever in demand and always able to bring tangible value to the songs he features on, his music rarely feels as relatable, real, and full of introspective thought and vivid feeling as when he writes and performs alone, true introverted artist that he is.

But as a fun project, a concept album, With Her succeeds in exploring the modern possibilities of male-female duets and the many charms of female singers in its own way. It offers up a welcome dose of nostalgia, the kind that is always warming and which hits home particularly well in the sentimental autumn months. Perhaps intentionally, then, this EP works best not only as a simple, easy-listening background soundtrack to your chilly autumn days, but also as a safe and riskless note for Crush to end the first chapter of his career on. In two years or so when he returns, we’ll see how the second chapter begins.

(YouTube [1]. Lyrics via Genius. Images via P Nation.)