Following the success of his retro horror trilogy, Key has shifted many gears for his next project. His second EP, Good & Great, is not a complete 180, but rather a refocusing. He is still retro, still theatrical, and still an unrepentant superstar. However, he’s moved from 80s synths to 90s R&B, funk, and house music, and has moved from grandiose bombast to something more scaled down and introspective. Good & Great tells two stories–one personal, one professional–that are nevertheless bound together by Key’s struggles with passivity and difficulty of breaking unhealthy cycles.
Recognizing that you have a problem and fixing that problem are two separate things. It can often be very easy to identify one’s own flaws, if only from the effects they wreak on your life. And Key’s definitely aware of his tendency towards codependent relationships, as seen in “Bad Love” and “Killer”. But that self-awareness does not instantly fix the problem, and we see him battling it again in a one-two-three punch that lays out why breaking bad habits is so hard–it hurts.
People often frame leaving toxic relationships as freeing, liberating events that leave you feeling better than you did, but that’s often not true, especially the immediate act of leaving. “Can’t Say Goodbye”, “Intoxicating”, and “Live Without You” frame it like addiction, where you still have all of the lows, but none of the highs. “Can’t Say Goodbye” shows Key failing in his attempt to break things off because he is afraid of the voids that will be left once the relationship has ended, followed immediately by the dopamine hit of “Intoxicating”, where he fully acknowledges that the rush isn’t as good as it was, but he’s still chasing it.
The former channels 90s R&B. It’s slick and sweet, but with a darker undertone courtesy of the phenomenal bass line, further anchored by Key’s despondent, clinging delivery. “Intoxicating” has an R&B foundation, but layers electronica over it for a warped and surreal tone that mirrors the drunk-on-love effect this relationship has on him by distorting his perception. Then comes “Live Without You”. Staccato synths over a mid-tempo beat create a sense of frenetic desperation as he white-knuckles his way through actually leaving, anguish clear in Key’s voice as he asserts that he can live without this person. It’s hard. It’s painful. It takes immense grit and fortitude to do. But Key finally breaks his pattern of staying in unhealthy situations because it’s easier than leaving. At least personally.
The other three tracks deal with the same root cause–Key unhappy due to toxic circumstances, but choosing to stay in them–applied to a different aspect of his life. “Good & Great” is, on the surface, a funky uptempo victory lap. Yet it is extremely clear that Key is burned out and trying to convince himself otherwise. Notably, Key’s drowning in the fallacy that he’s not allowed to be unhappy because he chose to be an entertainer. It doesn’t matter how fried he is, he did this to himself. He’s worn out because he’s successful; how dare he be anything but grateful.
This comes back on “CoolAs”, which abandons the R&B sounds that have dominated most of the EP for disco. Like “Intoxicating”, the production sounds warped and unnatural, but also cold, emphasizing how disconnected Key is. The lyrics are ostensibly a brag track, but the life of glitz and glamour is undercut by how Key sounds utterly dead inside. The chorus is performed in a monotone that highlights just how hollow his life is. There is a nihilistic edge as well, mocking the typical warnings about the price of fame and the danger of getting everything you want because it’s a little late for that. Yet, Key makes no effort to deviate from his shallow misery, choosing to wallow in his resentment rather than separate himself from this.
Things come to a head on “Mirror, Mirror”. Softer, more organic, and almost watery in its production, this is Key’s true reckoning. Mirrors might claim objectivity, but we all know that mirrors only show what you’re looking for, either good or bad. In this case, Key is literally staring his persona in the eye, and finding himself wanting. He can see only his flaws in their absence in his perfect reflection. Yet, he ascribes the failure to himself and eventually shifts from wanting a fresh start to wanting to be that perfect reflection. That is the core of Good & Great: You have to want to change, and choose to stick to it, especially when it’s hard. And Key isn’t willing to do that.
From the outside, fixing other people’s lives is easy. We can see the patterns and problems that are making someone miserable–eg. Key’s enjoyment of dramatic yet toxic romances. But when you’re in the middle, making those drastic changes is hard. There is a great deal of comfort in the devil you know. Hell, the common logic is to stick to that one over the devil you don’t. But as Good & Great makes clear, there is a price for choosing to remain passive. The misery builds, accumulating each day, until one day, that excruciating price required for change seems better than remaining as is, and Key is on that precipice. Toss in some clean, sharp production, and some of the best bass lines K-pop has ever had, and Good & Great is a phenomenal EP. And if you find yourself on that cliff, I promise there are people to catch you at the bottom.
(YouTube. Images via SM Entertainment)