It’s rare to be familiar with a performer for the better part of a decade and still not know what to expect from their musical output. But that was exactly the case with Kai and his debut solo offering KAI – The 1st Mini Album

The six track record arrived on November 30, almost five months after it was initially announced. Led by the single “Mmmh”, the cohesive and deliciously satisfying R&B album marks a significant moment in the singer’s career. 

From the jump, the package of this album was always going to be a diversion from reality. Initial concept photos showed Kai donning everything from a neon green mullet to a bedazzled cowboy outfit. Then came a ‘mood sampler’ that offered vignettes more highly produced than many feature films. They were smacks in the face, telling us to pay attention as we may be about to get more than we expected. 

Anticipation was always going to be high for a solo debut as major-league as this, because Kai isn’t just any old rookie. Racking up eight years as the main dancer, sub rapper and sub vocalist in Exo, as well as a year in the “Avengers of K-pop” supergroup SuperM, Kai (real name Kim Jongin) is one of the most seasoned professionals in the game. But what makes him such a fascinating performer is that, even after all that time and exposure, none of us were entirely sure what was going to come from him as a solo artist.

Kai has always been one of the most enigmatic performers in K-pop with his dancing and stage presence earning him the nickname “idol of idols.” But I would argue further that he’s also the best at embodying whatever character his songs require – be it the seductive power of songs like Exo’s “Love Shot” and “Tempo,” or the action hero intensity of SuperM’s “One (Monster & Infinity).” He is, of course, Kai the person — someone fans have grown up with over many years and connected to in a multitude of different ways. However, he is also very much Kai the character — an outfit he is able to put on as quickly as he’s able to take it off.

The notion of duality is common in K-pop, but no one represents it in quite the way that Kai does. His performances definitely never seem false or disingenuous, but they do feel considered in the way that any elite performer would when taking on a role. In a press conference before the release of KAI – The First Mini Album, Kai said about the record “it’s kind of like myself, ‘Kim Jongin,’ is expressing himself through these different sides of ‘Kai”. That aspect of this solo offering is particularly exciting, because we get to see what happens when that gap between Kai and Kim Jongin closes in. By shedding the safety net of other performers around him, the inevitable vulnerability of standing alone as an individual allows us to better understand the kind of artist he’s been all along. 

The smooth and sultry lead single “Mmmh” opens up this album, and with it comes a MV that literally teleports us around various dystopian future landscapes. There’s nothing humble or intimate about this entry into Kai as a solo artist. Perhaps that escape from reality is what many of us need this year. The single and video told us some things we already knew — that Kai is a great dancer, a fashion icon and, yes, the owner of a pretty incredible set of abs; but it also resolved some things that weren’t as guaranteed – namely that he has more than enough talent and presence to hold his own as a solo artist. 

Whilst Kai’s voice has a distinctive honey-like tone to it, it’s never been considered his greatest strength as a performer. Songs like “Amnesia” and “Hello Stranger” allow that smooth timbre to have its moment in a way we haven’t seen before. Each song on the record seamlessly blends into each other, creating more of an overall vibe than six distinctive tracks. Layered synths and trap-flecked R&B beats thread themselves through each song, meaning often realise you’ve listened to the entire album top to bottom before registering you’ve even really started. Sonically, it feels like we’re having our hand held as we’re taken on a mini-tour of the foundations of what will make up Kai as a solo artist, and its greatest flaw is that it’s simply too short.

It’s no doubt that in the hands of lesser songs, the limitations in the power of Kai’s vocals could have been a stumbling block, but the second track on the album “Nothing on Me” shows the gratifying result that can come from working with a voice instead of against it. The addictive vocal layering, mixed with the trademark dreamy synths and trap beats is particularly vibrant in this song and, following on from the great intro into the ‘era of Kai’ that “Mmmh” offers at the start, it’s “Nothing on Me” that lets us know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into (especially with its spiritual sister on the record, “Reason”).

The stand out moment on the album comes from the penultimate song “Ride or Die”. The 80’s synth throughline of the record reaches its apex here, complemented by scintillating guitar and airy vocals that make you feel like you’re about to float away. In a year saturated with retro releases, it offers something ‘of the moment’ that’s also completely unique.  

Like absolutely everything this year, this release has been touched by a global pandemic. Covid has changed almost every facet of how we enjoy our lives, including how we consume the art people make for us. Many artists this year have come down to eye-level with fans by lifting the veil to say ‘hey, we’re in this with you too’. That, of course, can offer comfort to people needing a sense of closeness and familiarity in times where the warmth of life has been zapped away. KAI – The First Mini Album is not that kind of record, but there’s something equally as comforting about the lofty heights that it takes us to. 

(YouTube. Images via SM Entertainment.)

Lucy Ford is a freelance writer, interviewer and unadulterated fangirl through and through. Any basic math skills have been replaced in her brain by niche pop culture facts no one cares about. You can find her on Twitter!