I want to start this review by stating I will try to be as unbiased as possible in my analysis of the lyrics and musicality of KEY’s 2019 album, but I must say that because I am such a fan of this artist in many respects, my enthusiasm for his work is bound to leak through.

As this is my first album review for the blog, I will let it be known that I only intend to leave my commentary on albums I know like the back of my hand and have fallen in love with or have at least one nice thing about which I can share my thoughts. Otherwise, I wouldn’t find the pursuit worth it.

Chances are, many of you finding this article are thinking to yourselves: “Why review such an old album?” As of this writing, I Wanna Be is just over 4 years old… but even with its apparent maturity, it hasn’t received enough of the attention I would hope it would have received as a long-time fan of KEY and SHINee. His more recent album with single “Gasoline” received far more accolades, probably because it showcased more of the artist’s personality and was stereotypically glitzy and bombastic in the man’s famed Lady Gaga-esque fashion. But the first album, with titular single “I Wanna Be” and other tracks that feature KEY’s songwriting abilities, seems more down-home and earthy. This is consistent with how some of his fans perceive him–a blunt, straightforward, yet simple guy with a flair for the dramatic. And as you’ll discover in this review, while I did enjoy some of the songs in his latest musical endeavor, I am always going to hold a different sort of place in my heart for his premiere album.

One reason is because of the production quality on the re-package. Each song practically glows with the management company’s hopes that a member of one of their 2nd Generation groups would succeed at release date, and their touch virtually blows away what would have been an otherwise lackluster single, nearly overwhelming it at times with Soyeon’s performance (and well, mere presence–due to her marketability at the time) and the bashing of notes in a bright tenor and key. While I replayed this song numerous times upon its release in 2018, watching the incredibly pared-down and equally bouncy and blindingly clear visuals over and over (like taking a freezing shower on a hot day, not once, not twice, but letting a continuous flow of crystal spring water run over me like my life depended on it), I was left feeling hollow. It was over-produced to get streams and fan reactions, and I fell for the faux-freshness. Looking back on the work now, it doesn’t feel like the KEY I had come to appreciate, though both the audio and visual components contain many bits that seemed at first look to be quintessentially “KEY”. I have a feeling the artist himself knew he was being played for a chance to make real music and these were just the motions, but since he is someone who mostly runs on telling it like it is, it must have grated on his nerves a little bit.

The rest of the album resonates more with that public image KEY puts out. I’ll say this: we’ll never know the real person, and we probably shouldn’t. So all the albums and media he puts out are likely an amalgam of his philosophy, methods, and self, but fractured and as seen through broken glasses instead of eyes imbued with LASIK. I might be wrong in saying his first album is more “him” than Gasoline/Killer with its explosive and dangerous energy, but I’m going to stand by my viewpoint for now.

My favorite and most-listened-to tracks from this album are those listed at the end, though nearly all of them have a unique spin added to them that make them listenable and interesting for even the average consumer. I happen to be hard to please for various reasons which I won’t go into here, but while this album isn’t a masterwork of pop craft, it certainly offers that splash of passion so needed in an over-manufactured industry. I know, I contradict myself, don’t I? I just said that the main single was overdone, and I fell for the production values, but even in my moments where self-awareness lapses, I think “I Wanna Be” can be a good comfort song. And yes, I do know the lyrics to each song on the album and have, to the best of my ability with my limited knowledge of Korean songwriting skill, examined them for their inherent beauty and meaning. If you’ve read other posts on my blog, you’ll know I study Korean and other languages, too, so I’m no stranger to this kind of digging.

One of the songs that first caught my attention when I initially went through this album so long ago was “Show Me”. It’s playful, but with an edge, one that the artist later comes to own in Gasoline. The lyrics and instrumentals work delightfully together to convey the intended message, and it’s a quick romp through relationship foibles that make it seem more like a swordfight. I usually listen to Korean music without checking the lyrics first, so what initially drew me into the song was the instrumentals. The inclusion of this song on the album almost seems due to KEY’s love of musical theatre. If he had a lot of say on what went on the final product, I am happy that he chose this one, because it’s sassy and upbeat, and he really shines performing it, as opposed to the stiffer single performance.

Most of the songs on the album are written by people other than KEY, and at the beginning I had fallen hard for the typical cotton candy fodder. But as I listened more deeply to the prototypical “deep-cuts,” I found that the few songs penned by the singer are full of depth and/or personality, and while not groundbreaking, they certainly are my favorites for having heart and thoughtfulness.

“The Duty of Love” expresses the frustration and joy in equal measure that can come of loving someone, and goodness is it catchy. I find myself singing the chorus happily to myself in spare moments, and am reminded to give my loved ones grace. Perhaps that’s not what KEY desired, but that’s how I interpret the song. “Easy to Love” is relatable on a personal level, and it seems to reflect KEY’s awareness of self, so it’s interesting it’s included on the album and makes a long-time fan such as myself excited to see him thinking about more than his dogs and clothes, like some people seem to think he must be about. “This Life” is basically “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga (hey, why are you here… again?), but served with a side of bibimbap and a hint of melancholy when it’s supposed to strike a more decidedly inspiring chord. The singer even mentions his mother (and father!) in the song. Bonus points for referencing your queen directly, KEY. (I don’t know if the man still adores her work, so feel free to correct me in the comments.) In either case, it still manages to speak to the desired audience of young people and in its self-referential nature, ease the suffering of the artist through a dab a realism with a pinch of sparkles.

Overall, as you can see (even with my sarcasm, which is mostly a defense mechanism), I enjoy this album so much I still play songs from it every week to get me pumped up. As I said before, it has its share of sadness mixed with the good times, if at times so well they’re indistinguishable. And that’s perhaps what makes this work from KEY stand the test of time for me. It’s a little cheesy, yeah; and it’s kind of dramatic, sure; but we all have our moments, and even in a language I study but struggle to fully maintain a grasp of, I’m able to understand the essence of the music, which gets across the idea that reality is blurry, and all we have is ourselves, so we better love each other.

And there’s nothing more real than that.

Featured image from X.

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