Identity and Kim Sung Kyu’s “27”

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Kim Sung-kyu‘s admiration of the music style that Nell and its playwright of sorts, Kim Jong-wan, embody is no secret. 27 is produced and written by Kim Jong-wan himself, so it’s not so surprising to see that influence drive into the core of the album. I’d like to think of Kim Sung-kyu’s efforts as a pop version of Nell in effect, as the heavy instrumentation inherent to a band gets stripped away for traditional vocals and stronger melodies. 27 is certainly not the first time we’ve seen this happen: Sung-kyu’s previous album, Younha‘s “Wasted,” and BoA‘s “Implode” are examples of Kim Jong-wan taking his electronic-rock influences towards the pop world.

I’m not knowledgable in music’s technicalities and theory but I think that what Kim Jong Wan has tried to do is dilute what he would write for Nell and give it to other artists. Some dilutions are more (BoA) than others (Sung-kyu), though in the end it really all just a forced erasure. From a certain perspective that erasing process as a means of separating Nell and his works for others is backfiring on Kim Jong-wan.

To see what I mean by that, take this version of a “chicken or egg” question:

Does Kim Jong-wan define Nell’s music or does Nell’s identity define Kim Jong-wan?

At first glance, the question seems ridiculous–of course it’s the first. Kim Jong-wan writes he music, and Nell, with Jong-wan as lead singer, performs it. But let’s not look at this question from Kim Jong-wan’s perspective; rather, what did you see first? Most people’s first interaction with Kim Jong-wan is not as him the individual, rather, we interact with his musical ideas as Nell first. The question above is posed not for the sake of Jung-wan himself but us as listeners. When we encounter artists that use Kim Jong-wan’s tracks we come into the song with an archetype that is partially fulfilled. Nell is that archetype, and by the referent based theory of semantics we can sort of make the same sort of associations between these tracks and the basis set.

The action of comparison hurts Kim Jong-wan because nothing he writes with half of the style of Nell will live up to the full style of Nell. The half-erasing process is actually bringing attention to the loss of Nell. More importantly, however, is that the artist who receives the song loses a portion of his own identity. In the case of BoA and Younha, the isolation of those tracks in their vast repertoire means that whatever the track chips off doesn’t mean much. For Sung-kyu, however, it means the world. I never get to figure out what Sung-kyu’s existence as an artist means because Jong-wan wrote the whole album. Sung-kyu has no defining musical stance, be it from the vocalist position or in the themes and musical genres of his album.

So where does that leave 27? I think it really has to do with whether you feel Sung-kyu’s album fly close to the sun when it comes to the defining line between Nell-influenced, and being a poor-man’s Nell, and whether that even matters to you.  I’m a huge Nell fan and still enjoy as 27 as a collection of music. Surprisingly enough, I like that it has the consistency and the nerve to not skimp on the reality that this is going to sound like Nell. I like that this has the depth of production that I feel that any good album should have. The sound of 27 lingers, and it’s undeniable that Sung-kyu has the voice to carry out most of Kim Jung-wan’s vision. Yes, Sung-kyu has a bit of a bland edge to him which only adds another barrier to his struggle to bring himself out, but I don’t think that should fully detract from the natural beauty of his voice.

Despite being okay with the end product, something is keeping me letting myself lay out what works and doesn’t work about 27 as a track-by-track review. Maybe it’s the way I think about music–it’s not one album but a story; it’s not a track but a phrase; it’s not just a collection of songs, but an ordered set. So as a result, I guess what I have here is not an album review but an album introduction; ideas to think about as you draw your own conclusions.

I hope you let me know what those are.

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