Lay surprises with lithe funk on “I Need U”, where subtlety became a strength

Though Lay is still technically part of EXO, he didn’t participate in their new album or repackage. Understandably frustrating for fans, his absence is the byproduct of continual Chinese promotions. With that in mind, his upcoming second Chinese solo album will see him dipping feet into both markets. He’s still signed with and supported by SM Entertainment, but is releasing music that focuses on his homeland. Pre-release “I Need U” dropped without any real forewarning, and that kind of expectation-free release schedule works to the song’s benefit.

Rather than return with a huge statement piece, “I Need U” succeeds on its steady groove and sentimental backstory. The song is dedicated to Lay’s grandparents, but if that fact conjures thoughts of some weepy, nostalgic ballad, listeners will be pleased to discover that “I Need U” is a lithe funk track that takes full advantage of Lay’s skills as a dancer. Similar to last year’s pre-release What U Need, “I Need U” is not built on attention-grabbing production tricks or explosive hooks. Instead, the entire track is perched over a gorgeous, bass-driven blend of rhythm guitar and wisps of disco strings. The instrumental has a stately appeal, offering the kind of throwback groove Michael Jackson would have worked wonders with in the late-70s.

I’m sure Lay would be the first to admit that he is no Michael Jackson, but even if his tone isn’t as dynamic or diverse as some of his bandmates, he proves himself more than capable of delivering as a solo performer. Even as accents of brass and a robust string section threatens to divert attention during the stunning middle eight, his ingratiating vocal never gets lost in the shuffle. Given a stronger chorus, “I Need U” could have truly soared. But even with the limitations of its modest melody, the song is the strongest solo work Lay has given us yet.

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