Key’s Tour de Force: Bad Love (2021)

Bad Love. Credit: SM Entertainment

After a series of visually stunning teasers, Bad Love has finally arrived, and it is everything that we have expected from Key. Grand, loud, and meticulous. It even hints the superficiality of not only the whole 80s-inspired and retro space concept, but in a way, also the Cheongdam-dong It boy persona alias anak gaul JakSelnya Seoul (intentionally or unintentionally), in a good way (after all, there were times when the 80s music, especially synth-pop and new wave, was denigrated as ‘style over substance’ and ‘superficial’). Bad Love is the epitome of Key.

Though super excited, I felt slightly nervous and skeptical as his previous works never sit quite well with me, but Bad Love sheds a new light on Key as an artist. “In the stunning new visual for the ’80s-inspired synthpop track, Key pays homage to retrofuturism through its fashion and colourful sets,” according to NME. What you hear and see in Bad Love is profoundly Key, through and through. It is Key’s manifestation of his fascination with every intersecting aspect of pop culture he experienced growing up. He took control of the whole process by being the creative director of the entire project and conceptualised everything from A to Z. Though I don’t know how far his involvement goes, a quick glance at the teasers is all that it takes to recognise his imprints all over this work. Bad Love is Key’s embodiment of SHINee’s unrivaled experimentalism and risk-taker trademark.

Bad Love Image Teasers. Credit: SHINee’s Twitter

Key avoids cliché reproduction of 80s synth-pop by mixing in American rock-pop and Korean pop melodies, which suit his bright nasal-y baritone (that can also reach higher pitch) well. The title track exudes Laura Branigan’s Self Control and Kim Wilde’s You Keep Me Hangin’ On‘s feel, and when belting higher notes, his runs somehow remind me of Steve Perry, especially in Foolish Heart. The latter is a great reminder that Key is an excellent wide-ranged vocalist, aside from being a SHINee’s fierce rapper and dancer. In fact, he is probably one of the most stable ones, which he has proven over and over again in live performances. Unfortunately, many people oftentimes overlook Key’s many talents for his sassy entertainer and fashion aficionado persona.

The rushed beat of Yellow Tape feels like “Run Lola Run” set in a futuristic crime scene. If SM ever plans to make an MV out of this song, I can visualise red-haired Key running around the entire duration while occasionally rest to catch a breath as he sings “breath in, breath out.” Now come to think of it, ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ Key as ‘Lola’ Key would make an epic MV concept for Yellow Tape. In an odd juxtaposition effect on Helium’s song structure, I feel thrown down in the high-note chorus, but lifted up in the low-note pre-chorus/bridge (pardon me if I get these musical terms wrong as I’m no expert in music). The same feeling I get from Eighteen (End Of My World). Love the rhythm and melody of the instruments, not so much with the singing part, which has always been the element that kept me off from liking his previous works. Probably because it sounds very Lady Gaga-esque (maybe because he is a fan?) and Gaga is always a no for me. Hence, it took me a few listens before I could finally have a solid grasp of Bad Love.

If there is one thing that Bad Love can do without, I think it is Hate That… because it messes the sound consistency and feels out of place. But then again, it is not something new in K-pop albums (or any other album, really).

The visual aesthetics for the entire project is nothing less than astonishing and Key’s impeccable fashion style is not just a cherry on top, it is quintessential. All of these may sound too much to take, but he blends them smoothly, treating the audience to wholesome audio and visual experience. Even the physical albums look like sets of collector’s items.

Do I think this album is perfect? No. There is still a wide room for improvement in the singing part’s melody (but that could have been just my preference) area. I would also love to see him play with his vocal register and techniques. His high notes are great, but his low notes have their own charms, like the one he showed in Yoo Hee Yeol’s Sketchbook where he sang Kim Kwang Seok’s The Story of a Couple in Their 60’s. For such a tour de force, this mini album also feels regrettably short, I wish that it was a full-length album so he can show a wider range of sounds. But his growth is tremendous, which is a good sign for future development. This album sees an inundation of Key’s enormous potential.

SHINee in Yoo Hee Yeol’s Sketchbook

Aside from the minor drawbacks, Bad Love is near-impeccable. And it is something that can only come from Key, the epitome of K-pop’s pop child.

Key. Bad Love