written by: Drowningn00b
Like Rain, BoA is a monolith onto herself, or rather, a brand bigger than Kwon Bo-A. Her name is synonymous with K-Pop and Korean culture at large, whether throughout Southeast Asia or overseas. Her fame is mainly in music, but her huge popularity around the world has led to numerous ad campaigns and opportunities outside of making music, like judging the ill-conceived mess that was Kpop Star and her upcoming Hollywood debut in ‘Cobu 3D‘, a dance movie version of ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. But, unlike Jung Ji Hoon, BoA has yet to take control of her own image as an entertainer. She is still signed to SM Entertainment, the company that put her on the map, and much of her promo material is not under her control. Not only that, but as someone with self-professed interests in R&B (source: Avex Network), BoA’s Korean material as of late falls into the trends of the day, “Hurricane Venus” just one example.
Whatever the career trajectories of BoA and Rain say about the role of men and women in the Korean idol stratosphere is up for grabs, but one thing is certain: BoA’s clay-like nature underlines the widespread criticism that BoA isn’t a person, but a creation.
So what’s to be made of her latest record, ‘Only One‘, with her first self-penned single? Is it an aberration? An artistic achievement? A sloppy mid-tempo number with a terrible nasal delivery?
Yes, ‘Only One’ is an aberration. Out of all her full length recordings, ‘Only One’ is the first one to have a low to mid-tempo track as the lead single. On top of it being the first track she wrote to become a single, are we seeing BoA the artist for the first time? It could be, and that’s a huge deal.
She’s on the record as saying she doesn’t mind participating in the K-Pop machine years ago, and for her to take the lead on her career is a feat to be commended for, especially with “Only One”.
A pop ballad with R&B influences, the track has a nice piano loop underneath the drum machine and the synthed “strings” that adds lightness to BoA’s nasal delivery. The arrangement works remarkably well for her, since her voice isn’t the stuff of the elite SM vocalists. The music stays consistent throughout, leaving BoA to sing comfortably in her limited range. And BoA achieves the emotion here, going the length just enough to be enjoyable without straining herself to our potential detriment. Kudos has to be given to SM Entertainment, though, for bucking their own trend of up-tempo dance pop songs for their major acts in the summer. “Only One” is a great song, revealing BoA with a talent never given the time of day and a penchant for calmer and mature pop her previous material belies.
But, like much of K-Pop, all of that praise gets run to the ground when money is the goal. What I fear will be the first song in her comeback stages, “The Shadow” has all the elements I’ve come to despise in pop music: an electro-pop sound with synth in the chorus and a “rap” segment so lazy, Garfield would yawn at it. A spiritual successor to “Game” in many ways, “The Shadow” fails in believability. On the former, she sounds playful, actually believing she’s in a cat and mouse flirtation game. The latter, thankfully, finds BoA half-assing the lyrics, as if she’s over using pop gimmicks to prevent her fanbase from experiencing a sensation other than moving their feet. I say thankfully because my hope is for a negative reaction to “The Shadow” so that future material won’t have terrible fillers like this (likelihood of this happening are zero).
The rest of the album vacillates in this way, from low to high tempo numbers. The ballads “Hope” and “Mayday! Mayday!” complicate the simplicity built in “Only One” early on by adding layers. “Hope” has a drum machine loop that’s intrusive. Not only is it loud, but it doesn’t stay away long enough to enjoy the ballad as is. As a consequence, BoA’s vocals are layered often throughout the song, so when you reach the bridge at the end of the song, the impact of that layering is gone. And “Mayday!” continues this pattern, adding its own cluster of layers, from an electric guitar and two sets of strings, and multiple vocal layers. Thankfully, the arrangement quiets down when it should, letting BoAx3 get their time in the forefront. However, all of this distracts from her.
BoA, to her credit, nails the song, delivering the longing in the lyrics and even hitting her notes. But what good is all that effort when I have to rewind the song to catch it?
In all this, you might be asking: ‘Should I bother listening to the rest of “Only One”?’ Yes, Neighbour, because you’ll inevitably reach the other song that matters, “Not Over You”.
This is a dance throwback song to a time when acoustic guitars were all over the place. It’s a relief to hear BoA calm on a dance track. She’s normally chasing after beats, but here, the beats are working with her to create the atmosphere. The buildup is great, but the pay off isn’t as satisfying. “Not Over You” keeps going higher, but drops off when it should rocket upward; at least miss A’s “Lips” was interesting in its pay off whereas “Not Over You” just sputters out. And K-Pop’s current blue flame, dubstep, makes an appearance in the pre-chorus, and it’s slight enough to be recognizable without grinding the song to a halt.
“Not Over You” would’ve been amazing, had the pay off delivered as the buildup promised.
‘Only One’ is a rarity in K-Pop. BoA controls the message in the lead single, a first for her and the other lady idols in the SM family. As a pop ballad, it is rare among the dance numbers that flood the landscape in the summer months. But as an album it is a victim of K-Pop culture, with filler tracks aplenty (“The Top” and the theme to “Kpop Star”, “One Dream”), and gimmicks so clichéd BoA herself lacks the enthusiasm to fake it.
It’s a shame for BoA, but look on the bright side; BoA’s “slave contract” is set to expire next year. Maybe then she’ll finally take reigns of her material to let us know if there is some “one” underneath the brand.
|Not Over You||
| Points scale
0 – could do without
0.5 – mediocre/filler
0.75 – pretty good/grew on me
1 – liked immediately
Points to stars conversion: [(2.75/7) x 5] + 0.25*
*there is a 0.25 bonus for every album. The logic is that, if every song were “pretty good”, it’s a 4-star album.