After NU’EST’s near ten years as a group, an official solo debut from one of its (now former) members couldn’t feel more overdue. Following the group’s disbandment after members J.R, Ren, and Aron chose not to renew their contracts and depart Pledis Entertainment, Baekho began teasing solo music a mere few months later. Now, Baeko’s official debut as a soloist is finally here, with the release of his first EP, Absolute Zero.
Largely a collaboration between Baekho and resident Pledis producer and singer-songwriter Bumzu, who frequently works with labelmates Seventeen and also holds several writing and composition credits across NU’EST’s discography, Absolute Zero has an underlying, distinctly “Pledis” sound, but with an edge suited to Baekho’s mature image and sultry voice. Certain moments and stylistic choices are reminiscent of older NU’EST tracks, while others have a similar tinge to Seventeen solo releases from the past two years (Hoshi’s “Spider,” Woozi’s “Ruby,” and more recently Jun’s “Limbo”). While the album isn’t the most cutting edge compared to many of this year’s releases, its dedication to playing to Baekho’s strengths as an artist and establishment of a thoroughly sensual sound — both in the most casual of ways — are striking enough to make it stand out.
Like Baekho himself, Absolute Zero has a cool, calm, and collected way about it. On the surface, its production is unassuming, giving most of the tracks a sense of airiness and weightlessness and plenty of “space” for Baekho’s dynamic vocals to fill. Underneath the surface, however, the production remains multilayered and sturdy, bringing an extra punch to each track to hook listeners in.
The title track, “No Rules,” firmly establishes this groovy, sensuous, and punchy yet laid-back vibe. An edgier continuation of NU’EST’s typical sound, the track is inclusive of the markings of the former group’s musical canon, including heavy bass and whistle accents — a sign of Baekho’s hand in the production and composition of the track as an avid participant in the making of NU’EST’s music too.
Like the other tracks on the album, “No Rules” teeters back and forth between breezy and fierce as the instrumental makeup and Baekho’s vocal styling shift from section to section. For example, the song begins with Baekho’s sensual falsetto backed by just a gritty bass and whistle accent notes. During the verses, he then shifts to a breathy, sultry tone as subtle piano notes back the bass instead. When the electric guitar kicks in during the pre-chorus, Baekho’s voice takes on a raspy tinge, later reaching maximum power when he hits the high notes at the top of the chorus (“Woo, baby”). But even at its harshest, most earwormy moments, “No Rules” remains smooth and effortless as Baekho skillfully maneuvers through his various vocal tones.
“Festival in my car” and “Love Burn,” the first two tracks on Absolute Zero, are also prime instances where the production consciously shifts in and out of weightless, calming moments, and bursts of intensity to keep listeners on their toes. These constant yet smooth sonic shifts again lend to Baekho’s dynamic vocals too. At the beginning of “Festival in my car,” a lone, vibrating rock guitar reverberates as Baekho sings solemnly in his lower register:
The melody that revolves around my mouth
The title is ‘Nothing is alright’
I put it from my cloud
On my 80’s 735
The track sticks with its pensive rhythm until the pre-chorus, when the beat charges up until it breaks out into a vibrant, rock-inspired EDM melody. The emptiness of the mostly instrumental chorus is contrasted by Baekho’s continuous, smooth vocals, which keep the track’s overall lightness anchored down.
“Love Burn” capitalizes on many of the same elements, and is one of the album’s easiest listens. Electronic, rock-genre synths and guitar riffs are the basis of this track, along with booming but airy drum and percussive elements. While “Festival in my car” charged up Baekho’s feelings of lust, both lyrically and instrumentally, “Love Burn” releases them out into the open (“Crazy for your love burn, ah, you / Craving for your love burns, are you?”). You can hear it in the unrestrained nature of his vocals, polished and mellow yet flighty and fleeting.
A variety of genres are introduced in the latter half of Absolute Zero, which is at its most experimental within the confines of how we have previously known Baekho as an artist and member of NU’EST.
“Bad 4 U” fittingly takes Baekho’s mature aura into R&B territory, highlighting the contrast between his sultry, almost raspy but consistently smooth lower register and honey-like higher register (including his falsetto). Like in “No Rules,” he seamlessly skates back and forth between his lower and higher registers, so much so that it is easy to lose track of how often it occurs from lyric to lyric. His voice leads the track with a kind of fluidity that makes it easy to overlook the fact that he is singing about a bitter love gone wrong.
The album flips the script yet again with “We don’t care no more,” another standout track that mixes retro synths and modern, pop, and rock guitars. Singer June One joins Baekho on the track, adding his tinny yet equally sensuous vocals to the second verse and chorus. Even though the vocal tones of June One and Baekho are noticeably different, especially when they sing the chorus on their own, they still mesh harmoniously into the track’s vibrant electric guitar melody and atmospheric drums.
“Wanna go back,” a mix of rock and rap with another feature, this time from rapper Sik-k, is another genre change-up, and perhaps the only track on the album that feels just slightly out of place compared to the rest. It still carries the rock motifs from the rest of the album, but it is also the fullest and most instrumentally layered track on Absolute Zero. Still, Baekho finds a way to make his voice stand out amongst a fuller soundscape, leaning into his raspiness to produce a gritty vibe fit to the song’s nature.
For someone of Baekho’s talent and tenure — an all-rounder in several respects — Absolute Zero is a triumphant conglomeration of his many skills as a vocalist, producer, and artist. Although its title refers to the scientific term for the coldest temperature possible, Absolute Zero is anything but freezing, and rather a solid balance between both ends of the temperature spectrum that is constantly finding its perfect center.