Between Shinee’s long-awaited comeback earlier this year with Don’t Call Me, a fixed cast member position on the variety show Amazing Saturday, and now a new mini album, 2021 has been a year of comebacks for Key. 

After releasing his first full-length album, Face, in 2018 prior to leaving for military service, Key is back again with his first mini album — Bad Love a sort of reintroduction to the idol himself. A stark departure from the mostly laid-back, unassuming sounds of Face, Bad Love is a mix of drama, eccentricity, retro 80s beats and synths, and space age extragalactic accents. In short, it’s Key at his most “Key”.

Bad Love”, the titular track on the EP, is the most representative of Key’s success in delivering a timeless song that also basks in its own nostalgia and teeters on the brink of so-far unexplored musical territory within K-pop in general. Right off the bat, the track succeeds by enabling its futuristic sounds and 80s groove and synths to stand out on their own, while also melding into one another seamlessly. As the track lands on its fluttery pre-chorus, in which Key sings:

I’m thinking ‘bout your love now

Filled the glass with lies

Since it was ecstatic

I paid for my sins

It’s better to completely forget

Than to hate you,

he keeps his listeners on their toes with his own powerful vocals as the song descends into a lighter melody, almost like a breath of fresh air. 

Throughout the entire track, Key’s vocals never let up, between forceful belts, echoey ad-libs, and breathy chants a la the style of a muse of his own Lady Gaga. But Key doesn’t stop there. In the following track, “Yellow Tape”, then later “Helium”, Key takes his eccentricities, plus the album’s overall concept, one step further. 

“Yellow Tape” is a clear continuation of what “Bad Love” starts, riding its retro-futuristic synth waves all the way through, plus a few extra elements to give the track a unique, satisfying touch. In the first few seconds of the song, wailing police sirens set the tone, later replaced by intergalactic sirens and blips to solidify Bad Love’s kitschy, space age melodrama. Key’s repetition of the phrase “Breath in, breathe out” amidst the melody of the chorus, in which he sings “You take my breath away/You take my breath away/I can’t breathe”, adds to the track’s theatrics and momentum even more, ensuring that listeners are hooked upon first listen. 

“Helium”, perhaps Bad Love’s stand-out B-side, includes many of the same aforementioned eccentricities, balancing several elements, including fluctuating vocal stylings, to make the track almost literally mimic the motions and feeling of a swelling helium balloon. To start, Key’s sugary falsetto sits neatly atop a booming bass and heavy staccato breaths, which become instruments of their own throughout the song. To break up the falsetto, Key then turns to an atmospheric monotone that still climbs in pitch, as he sings: 

Judy Jetson

Take me up to space

And let’s get down and dizzy faced go dumb

Like helium got my lungs like.

The all-English breakdown later in the song (“Hey love/Wattup/With your friends?/So what?”) is another unique touch that sets the track, and Key, apart from current and past K-pop mainstays. There’s nothing like “Helium”, and fittingly, there’s no one like Key. 

In “Saturday Night”, things turn lighter (melodically) and almost melancholic (lyrically), while the lingering echoes of retro 80s elements from “Helium” remain. The track is also a welcome breather from the heftier, more aggressive likes of “Bad Love” and “Yellow Tape” too, as Key cooly tells those bearing pointedly American, arguably retro names like “Zachary” and “Stacy” to “play that song/Something cool but sad” and “give me something/something on the rocks” respectively.

Although Key proclaims his inability to “dance on a Saturday Night”, the track incorporates musical and melodic elements to ensure that won’t be the case for most. “Eighteen (End Of My World)” also keeps the 80s inspiration across the EP alive and strong, this time via a sharp, electronic piano melody and booming rock drums that back Key’s once again powerful and echoey vocals. In yet another nostalgic moment on the album, he tells his younger self “Don’t let it all fall down/Flying without limits/My eighteen, my eighteen”.

Bad Love’s one minor departure from its space age nostalgia comes with “Hate that…”, a pre-release single featuring Taeyeon. It’s an interesting choice for a pre-release track, considering much of the sounds it includes are not at all representative nor indicative of what to expect on the majority of Bad Love. Girl’s Generation leader and long-time friend of Key’s Taeyeon adds a nice vocal touch, but the song simply lacks the oomph and bite that the rest of the EP holds. 

Beyond the sounds of retro-futuristic space, there is a lot of truth to Bad Love being out of this world. It’s a new Key, but it’s also a timeless Key — the singer and idol we’ve in hindsight always known, and always expected, only this time, come to life. 

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