Ballad Roundup: Mailbag (John Park, Lim Jae Bum, KARD, AKMU), Hwang Chi Yeul, Crowd Lu, Wendy

John Park, Respected Entertainer

Sprinkling mailbag goodies in with some more recent content.


Hwang Chi Yeul – “Two Letters”

On the Bugs chart (at the time of me writing this), there exists IU, “Rollin’“, Justin Bieber, and … Hwang Chi Yeul. So let’s talk about him.

My favorite Korean variety show of all time is The Genius, but my second favorite is I Can See Your Voice. I’m convinced that one out of every three people in Korea can sing because for eight seasons now that show has carried on. Each mystery singer comes equipped with the most amazing sob story: a failed debut, career ruined by THAAD, sick family, tax fraud, and beyond.

Sometimes, their “last chance” performance goes viral, and the singer gets a second chance at a career. It was through this show that Chi Yeul, former vocal instructor for Pledis Entertainment and Woollim Entertainment, got his second chance, and on only the second episode ever. Since then, his career has skyrocketed, being blessed with an underdog’s feel-good story.

“Two Letters” is a very nice ballad, befitting Chi-Yeul’s husky voice. His whole mini-album is pretty consistent in this respect, though for my money “I Didn’t Know” is the best of the bunch. The super dramatic MV seems like Chi Yeul is gunning for some acting roles, and I’m interested to see how that goes.

On a side note, for a guy pushing 40 he looks younger than ever. Homie should publish his skin care routine.

John Park – “Thought Of You”

I’m mostly aware of “Thought Of You” via John Park‘s viral duet with Joseph Busto (shoutout again to ICSYV). It’s always funny to me how they give the Korean-Americans the doo-woppy blue-eyed soul singles. It seems lately he’s been on a more electropop tip, as his most recent OST and digital single seem to indicate.

Note: I’m very amused to learn through his YouTube channel that John Park has embraced his identity as Naengmyun Guy so wholeheartedly.

Lim Jae Bum – “For You”

Is King Lim the Michael Bolton of Korea? I’ll go with it. “For You” is a time-tested classic, used over and over again to showcase vocal talent generation after generation. A legendarily soulful delivery, and the way his voice rasps out when it reaches its limit, it’s a genre defining formula.

Note: Hwang Chi Yeul’s reveal song was Lim Jae Bum’s “Confession”. Everything is either wrestling or ICSYV.

Crowd Lu – “Your Name Engraved Herein”

Though this cut is about eight months old at this point, I’ve been hearing it all the time at KTV, so wanted to give it a shout. Taiwanese singer Crowd Lu has been around for the better part of a decade, busking his ass off and charming university coffee houses all around the island. But his song for the award-winning film of the same name is by far his biggest hit yet, with a MV boasting 34+ million views and counting.

The film is an exquisitely shot queer love story set in post-martial law Taiwan. The ballad perfectly captures this love, which must be hidden from the rest of the world. In addition to Crowd’s impressively fragile timbre, it’s the horns really make the song for me. Catch the film on Netflix if you’re curious.

KARD – “Trust Me” (BM & Somin Version)

I don’t think I’m a KARD apologist, but I seem to like tracks that most people pooh-pooh more often than not. Maybe because I can mix their more dembow-ish singles with a lot of modern club tracks when I DJ. That being said, what about their ballads?

Around 30 seconds into “Trust Me” I hoped it would get good, around a minute I was still waiting, and then around two minutes BM started rapping, and I just lost it. I’m sorry to Somin, but there’s just nothing for me here at all. This sounds bootleg as hell.

Wendy Feat. Seulgi – “Best Friend”

Like Water” already got briefly covered here, so let me pick another track and take a crack at some perspective in regards to Wendy and her career going forward.

I’m a fan of Wendy, I already wrote previously in this same feature how she single-handedly saved the Red Velvet cover of “Milky Way”. It’s also incredible how she’s bounced back after such a horrible incident and is already performing on stage in such a short time.

But “Like Water” is a brave record, not just for her recovery, but because it shows a map of Wendy’s weaknesses as a solo vocalist. RV as a whole is vocally soft (not “weak”, “soft”, as in power), so when Wendy sings along with the rest of her group it sounds powerful and deep. But when you take her away from that context, she runs into the problem a lot of group main vocals run into: she can’t quite support a whole song on her own.

“Best Friend” is the most soothing song on the album, simply because Wendy sounds the most comfortable here. With Seulgi to depend on, she’s able to go a little deeper, a little richer with her belting, a little more confident with her adlibs. There’s no comparison to the confidence shown here compared to the rest of the album. No bones about it, she is the better vocalist on this track, but she needs her friends to get to that point.

Red Velvet’s contracts are up for renewal this year. I’ve been thinking a little bit about the future of RV; it pays to stay positive but I’m also seeing a lot of parallels to f(x)’s disbandment, e.g. Irene’s troubles and the recent debut of Aespa. I could see SM Entertainment applying leverage, withholding schedules, and reassigning material to other groups in order to get favorable terms. I do think it’s highly likely they renew (that sweet, sweet Japan revenue), but if one or two members choose to back out, I don’t know if SME is invested in Wendy as a solo artist.

“Like Water” shows you can’t apply the Taeyeon battleplan to Wendy’s solo work. She just doesn’t have the voice for it. Wendy, right now, is a good soloist and a great group singer. And SME has recently shown, in regards to solo female artists, if it’s not Taeyeon or BoA, they have no idea what the hell they’re doing. To again draw parallels, Luna was much better prepared for a solo career when the end came for f(x), and they left her on the curb.

I think if contract season goes poorly, Wendy could be the first to leave herself. I’d be happy to be wrong here.

AKMU – “How Can I Love The Heartbreak, You’re The One I Love”

Not only was “How Can I Love The Heartbreak, You’re The One I Love” my favorite ballad of 2019, but it was one of my top-five songs of the year, ballad or not. AKMU’s first song after Chanhyuk’s return from military service found a group once reveling in its youthful image now confronting adulthood. On its face, it’s a song about a breakup, but more importantly, it’s a song about time, compromise, and choice. The narrator here knows loss is inevitable, but she is in full control on whose terms.

While Chanhyuk was away becoming a man in the army, Suhyun also grew leaps and bounds: with an acting debut, radio DJ debut, and solo appearances at the NK/SK summit. “HCILTHYTOIL” feels like a gift to Suhyun from Chanhyuk, a tribute to her growth and an “I missed you” to a sister he finds hard to express affection for in words (as many siblings do). The song puts her voice on a pedestal and builds a delicate latticework of harmony and accompaniment to support it. The way Chanhyuk’s chorus harmony rises to emotion while Suhyun’s melody wallows in uncertainty? Perfect execution.

Another good indicator of whether a ballad is great is how often (and how well) it gets covered. “HCILTHYTOIL” is such a great platform to show a lot of vocal drama, and it continues to be a staple cover choice to show off vocal chops. And every time it’s covered, it never fails to stun.

I think most fans of K-pop don’t like ballads because they’re not for them, as in the majority of ballads are about drinking oneself through middle age. But it’s so valuable to see an act like this age so gracefully and take their audience along with it. Dealing with the uncertainty of growing up and putting it out as the lead single! Through this we get a golden goose: a ballad that contemplates the uncertainty of shedding one’s youth.

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