When reflecting on Taemin’s impressive career trajectory, it’s easy to focus on how much he has changed. Comparing the boldly sensual Taemin of today to the sweetly earnest Shinee maknae of 2008 provides a startling contrast. But when it comes specifically to Taemin’s solo career, he has been astonishingly consistent.
From his first mini album, 2014’s Ace, Taemin has pulled fans in with theatrical title tracks that provide ideal platforms to showcase his incredible dance and performing skills. He has filled his releases out with b-sides that more or less fall into three distinct categories: languidly sultry songs that often have a touch of mystery, sentimental ballads, and intense beat-driven dance tracks. Lyrically, Taemin tends to focus on straightforward but passionate emotional experiences. This is the Taemin formula.
That’s not to say that Taemin has been artistically stagnant. Particularly in his performances, he has constantly refined his craft, especially experimenting with choreography and fashion. Additionally, there has been one very notable shift during his solo career, which is his exhilarating embrace of androgyny. There was always a hint of androgyny to Taemin’s styling, but his breakthrough release “Move” marks the moment that Taemin took control of his artistic gender expression in revolutionary ways. Ever since, he’s been charting a career course that is completely unbothered by the supposed rules of gender. His art has flourished and become brilliantly unique because of this.
All of this reflection feels appropriate right now because Taemin is due to enlist in the military on May 31. The next 18 months will mark the longest time that K-pop has been Taemin-less since before the third generation was even an idea. K-pop is going to be a much less interesting place, at least temporarily. But then Taemin will be back, and the question on everyone’s mind is will he take this hiatus as an opportunity to execute a major artistic pivot? That query likely won’t be truly answered until 2023, but the best hints available are contained in his final pre-enlistment release Advice.
In many ways, Advice is as Taemin-like as a Taemin mini album can be. Same-named title track “Advice” is a dramatic showstopper. The four additional songs can fairly easily be sorted into his usual b-side categories. But on closer inspection, Advice is full of subtle twists that do indeed point to a slow but sure artistic shift. This case is made even more convincing because the unexpected elements that show up have also appeared in past Taemin releases going as far back as 2019’s Want, but most prominently in his 2020 album duo Never Gonna Dance Again Act 1 and Act 2. In fact, Advice feels like an epilogue to the Never Gonna Dance Again series, so clear and pleasing are the ties between all three releases.
One obvious connection is the presence of duets, which is not something that Taemin has previously released a lot of. But in both acts of Never Gonna Dance Again, and in Advice, there are duets. Part of this newfound interest in vocal collaboration may come from Taemin’s increased vocal confidence over the years. However, because of the repeated presence of duets through three consecutive releases, it also feels like a deliberate attempt by Taemin to introduce a new type of song to his repertoire.
Advice’s “If I Could Tell You” is by a big margin the most successful duet Taemin has done so far. Pairing Taemin with vocal heavyweight Taeyeon isn’t the most intuitive idea, but the brilliant structure of the song and both singers’ skillful delivery create something absolutely lovely.
“If I Could Tell You” has a fairly simple yet pleasing production that lets Taemin and Taeyeon’s voices take center stage. What makes the song so magical is the decision, starting with the first chorus, to have Taemin jump into a falsetto where he stays for the rest of the song. This puts Taemin and Taeyeon in the same key. As their back and forth increases, their voices start melding into each other. This is beautiful musically, and it is also poignant thanks to the track’s lyrical content:
If I could tell you, a bit more naturally
If I could tell you, I want to tell you
But my heart keeps going ahead of me
As Taemin and Taeyeon sing about being lovers that want to express their feelings but are too afraid, their voices intertwine so that they are sometimes indistinguishable, emphasizing the shared nature of their silent emotions, still secret from the other. Besides being a strong testament to Taemin’s potential as a duet partner, “If I Could Tell You” also demonstrates an aching emotional delicacy that is quite different from his typical melodramatic approach. Taemin’s potential musical evolution is certainly something to be on the look out for, but so is his possible lyrical maturation.
Title track “Advice” doesn’t connect as clearly to Never Gonna Dance Again’s content, but it does share the lyrical uniqueness of “If I Could Tell You”. But first, it would be remiss to not acknowledge that while “Advice” has a musical style that is expected of a Taemin track, it is an exceptionally good one. The song opens and closes with an addictive piano riff that encloses an absolute adrenaline rush of a song. Despite being heavily electronic, “Advice” manages to feel raw, which is a tough and intriguing balance to achieve. When Taemin’s always spectacular performance is added to the equation, “Advice” reaches an even higher level of excellence. It’s hard to think of a better title track for Taemin to temporarily bow out on.
Of course, no one part of a song exists in a vacuum. They all intertwine with and influence each other. So, perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that the striking lyrics of “Advice” may be behind some of the song’s explosive musical energy. What stands out so much about these lyrics is that unlike any previous Taemin title track, they have nothing to do with the conventional pop subject matters of love or lust. “Advice” is a biting tell-off song directed at all the haters. That’s a pretty big lyrical pivot, but an exciting one. Not to mention, the message of “Advice” sounds pretty convincing coming from a man who has been in the intensely judgmental public eye since he was 14 years old:
Show your imagination in a sharper way
I destroy the torso that you were chasing after
You already know it too, one advice, I’ll shoot the one advice
The more you try to trap me, I’ll go off the rails, so take a good look
If you want to see the end, push my buttons
It’s for you, one advice, best take my own advice
The two songs on Advice that don’t necessarily subvert any expectations are “Light” and “Strings”. Of the two, “Light” is the weaker. The track falls somewhere in between Taemin’s sultry slow jam and dance track b-side blueprints. There is an interesting mismatch between the song’s yearning lyrics and its confident sonic quality. However, this contrast isn’t played up as much as it would need to be to create something memorable. A similar concept, but better executed, can be found in Never Gonna Dance Again Act 1’s “Waiting For”.
“Strings” is a slow and sensual b-side that could also fit easily into pretty much any Taemin album. That said, “Strings” nonetheless succeeds because it commits to its simplicity. “Strings” allows Taemin’s brilliantly restrained vocals to simmer over minimal instrumentation and a basic bass beat, making for a relatively calm yet impactful listen.
Returning to the more adventurous aspects of Advice, the clearest piece of evidence that the mini album is an epilogue to the Never Gonna Dance Again series is the album’s final track, “Sad Kids”. The song is a direct follow up to Never Gonna Dance Again Act 1’s poignant pre-release “2 Kids”.
“2 Kids” is the most prominent example of Taemin’s gradual growth in terms of emotional complexity, especially in his ballads. To be a bit harsh, many of Taemin’s early ballads were pedantic. There wasn’t anything about them that felt specific to Taemin, therefore depriving them of the vulnerability needed to attain emotional resonance. Recently though, Taemin has started tapping into a type of redemptive sadness that he is able to convey in an engagingly uninhibited way. “Sad Kids” continues that journey:
We’re just sad kids getting lost, I can’t put it away
The painful feeling that grew each day, starts to spread
I miss you more, miss you more
Just sad kids getting lost
Do you feel the same way?
Besides lyrically communicating a potent mix of regret and hope, Taemin is beginning to master a specific musical mode for his new ballad style. It combines melancholy melodies, light and airy production, and Taemin’s soaring vocals into a sonic mix that perfectly matches the emotional meaning he is working to impart. In that respect, “Sad Kids” doesn’t quite reach the musical heights of “2 Kids”, but it is still a very good addition to Taemin’s burgeoning happy yet sad ballad catalog.
It is also a perfect way to close out Advice and send Taemin off to the military. When Taemin’s voice opens up into huge vocal runs at the end of “Sad Kids”, it provokes appropriate feelings of sorrow, gratitude, and excitement. There’s no denying the sadness for K-pop fans of being deprived of his brilliance for a while, just as it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s not grateful for the way that Taemin has and will continue to enliven the art and expand the boundaries of his industry. And Advice proves, as if proof were needed, that Taemin’s next chapter is something to be very excited about.
Advice is full of tantalizing clues to Taemin’s ongoing evolution, including seeds that could one day spring into a full blown artistic revolution. It is also a testament to the strength and durability of the identity Taemin has worked so hard to build. Therefore, Advice strikes a fantastic balance between celebrating signature Taemin and opening the door to an exciting new phase of his career.
Advice is a gift that will help hold fans over during Taemin’s hiatus. And then, not so far in the future, Taemin will be back to take us all on another artistic adventure.
(Naver, YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via SM Entertainment)