Nearly a year ago, Shinee’s Key made a powerful return to the spotlight with the release of his first mini album, Bad Love. A retro-futuristic reflection of Key’s over-the-top, theatrical persona, Bad Love made waves for all the right reasons — namely its inventive, modern take on 1980s-era musical themes, palatable eccentricities, and sheer individuality. That success inevitably placed high expectations on whatever the idol was to put out next — now Gasoline — as a release of Bad Love’s caliber would be difficult to replicate, if not beat. 

Comparing Gasoline to Bad Love isn’t like comparing apples to apples, however. Although visually Gasoline appears to be a continuation of the charming but freaky conceptual world Key and SM Entertainment first crafted through the teaser images and accompanying physical albums for Bad Love, musically it both builds upon and extends beyond the heavy ‘80s synthpop inspiration of the previous release to create a collective sound that’s even newer and more “Key” than before. 

Personality-wise, Key’s name was written all over Bad Love. The same goes for Gasoline, and although now his name is quite literally written all over the album, he also made his way into the writing credits on four out of its eleven tracks. This gives the album an outwardly more personal tinge than its predecessor, as Key is able to share his own autobiographical story throughout with the addition of his own words. 

“Gasoline,” the album’s lead single, is the first of such tracks, kicking things off with a rightful, celebratory anthem of the idol’s own success (“Fire my gasoline/In the end, I always deliver”). Musically, “Gasoline” leans further away from the synthpop, New Wave inspiration that blossomed in “Bad Love,” and much closer to what is typically expected of an SM title track nowadays — heavy bass, hip hop vocal delivery, and bombastic electronic instrumentals. 

That’s not to say that the track is devoid of Key’s signature style. If anything, “Gasoline” is an even broader expansion of it. The melody doesn’t soar as with some of his other tracks, nor does it always feel like it’s entirely there throughout most of “Gasoline.” But as Key does, he goes all in on the drama — in his vocal stylings, the loudness of the instrumentals, and extraneous sound effects like sirens and a noticeably deep backing vocoder voice — all to a greater extent than ever before. Each of these elements of grandiosity and maximalism combined create a sense of mystery, almost to the point of spookiness, and pompousness that sets the tone for the rest of the album. 

“Bound” and “Villain,” the next two tracks on the album, take the boastful-bad-guy theme of “Gasoline” and run with it in two entirely different ways — a clear sign of Key’s continued growth even after nearly 15 years in the industry. On one hand, “Bound” has an outright darkness and sultriness to it, primarily thanks to its sampling of the hefty, lurking bass from Rina Sawayama’s 2020 track “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys),” also written by “Bound” writer Bram Inscore. As the track is anchored by the sample bass’s weighty murkiness, Key smoothly traverses between his lower register in the verses and breathy falsetto in the chorus to keep listeners on the edge of their seats. 

Conversely, on “Villain,” Key enlists NCT’s Jeno to round out the equally mysterious, almost diabolical track. The feature is entirely fitting, as the idols seesaw back and forth on its verses, their voices at times melding into one sinister growl. Unlike “Bound,” “Villain” leans heavily on strong synths to create a sense of constant push and pull, which is only exaggerated by the color that Key’s and Jeno’s harsh vocals add over top.  

In the following few tracks, Key takes a break from the madness — literally and figuratively — to make his vulnerable side, and the Kibum that exists alongside and within the theatrical Key, known. While the first three tracks indicate well-rounded growth in his musicality and ability to convey thematic cohesiveness, “Burn,” “G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time),” and “I Can’t Sleep” showcase his writing chops and knack for connecting to his listeners on a personal level. At the same time, the melodies and production never fall flat, always resurfacing as something new or unexpected to keep listeners on their toes. 

“Burn” begins with Key’s impassioned cry (or rather, belt) toward a love who ultimately “burned” him, 

Your name has spread black

There’s only one letter left

Too common reason lost in meaning

In love and hate, we’d both end up burned

soon unexpectedly transforming into a groovy mid-tempo number when the track reaches its chorus. “I Can’t Sleep” conveys similarly relatable feelings, this time in reference to the all-too-common sleepless nights that most can recognize in their own daily lives (“Without an alarm, I’m already awake/I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep no more”). The track is also the first clear departure from the dark, mysterious, and lingering influences of the sounds and style of Bad Love, especially seen in tracks like “Guilty Pleasure.” Instead, “I Can’t Sleep” is led by a 2000s-era pop guitar, lending it the space to excel in a simple and straightforward fashion. 

“G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time)” easily takes the album’s vulnerability up a notch, as Key lays out his fears of growing up against the backdrop of an atmospheric ballad filled with ethereal, bubbling synths. Halfway through the final iteration of the chorus, Key adds in his signature twist, switching up the beat of the song to seemingly increase its tempo by adding in additional half beats in between the original as he sings: 

The greatest (Oh, yeah, oh, yeah)

The greatest (Oh, yeah, oh, yeah)

I made up my mind

Every moment I’m there

In every scene that’s reflected

You’re the greatest of all time.

As far as the remaining tracks on Gasoline go, nearly all are highlights when it comes to Key’s exploration of new genres, signaling that for as great as Bad Love is, its sound is by no means what he’s permanently settled into — and for good reason. “Another Love,” an all-English track Key first performed in 2021, is by far one of the album’s standouts, but an exception to this, as it firmly resides in the ‘80s synth-wave sonic world of Bad Love. It doesn’t feel out of place either, and if anything brings Gasoline back to its explosive beginnings to finish things off on a grandiose note by way of its pulsating beats and Key’s echoing vocals. 

The genre change-ups come with the disco-inspired “Delight,” which, as indicated by its name, is quite the poppy pleasure. The track takes Key’s known affinity for retro elements — in this case a series of tight, percussive claps and a groovy, ‘70s-esque bassline — and transforms them into a bright burst of energy with the help of the singer’s easygoing falsetto. “Ain’t Gonna Dance” is another poppy moment, leaning breezy and atmospheric at the start, then biting and staccatoed for the rest as Key sings of a brewing attraction that he refuses to let reach its boiling point (“I ain’t gon’ dance for ya lovin’/But let me break it down for ya, honey”). 

Key makes a final leap into the new with “Proud,” an experimental hip hop-heavy track that also leans personal, as with much of the rest of Gasoline’s selections. “Proud” closes off the album on a similar note to which it starts, reflecting on the idol’s success to date. However, the humbless of the lyrics reflects the gradual softness that develops from the start of Gasoline through its end, both musically and lyrically, as Key admires his growth seemingly from the lens of his inner self, rather than the outer Key we see in “Gasoline”: 

Man, I’m so proud

Racing without answers

Thus, I made it

The crown above my head

Even if it disappears

Never chase the famous

From “Gasoline” to “Proud” and everything that transpires in between, this latest release is a triumphant showcase of Key’s continuous growth, reinvention, and incomparable sense of self and individuality. His grandiose yet chameleon-like vocals lend him the ability to traverse new genres and sounds, while continuing to stick with his characteristic affinity for making the old feel new again, as explored on this album. Nevertheless, whatever Key decides to do or be, his willingness to be unapologetically himself (and to continue reinventing that self) will take him anywhere he strives for — even beyond the successes he reached with Bad Love, as proven with Gasoline

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4][5][6]. Images via SM Entertainment.)