Album Review: KAI – KAI

[SM Entertainment; 2020]

Not everything desired arrives quickly, and perhaps no one knows this better than those who have yearned for a solo album from K-pop superstar Kim Jong-in – better known as Kai. Having debuted in 2012 as a member of the massively successful boy-group EXO, he has always been popular, with particular acclaim directed towards his dancing skills and stage presence. However, this left questions of who Kai is musically and what direction his anticipated solo would take. With him also being a member of super-group SuperM (which consists of members from EXO, SHINee and NCT) who have been particularly busy this year, it is truly a testament to his work ethic that Kai has found the time to answer those questions through his first mini-album simply yet boldly titled KAI (开).

Primarily seductively slick, modern R&B which often incorporates 80s flourishes, KAI (开) is set in a futuristic landscape of romance and sexuality. Immersive in its late-night ambience, the singer plays the confident yet considerate suitor, directing his lyrics towards a love interest. The album is preoccupied with the subject of his desire and portrays the journey, in all its excitement and occasional anxieties, of getting to know somebody beyond the platonic. Like his dancing skills, the six tracks on offer possess a certain smoothness that is transfixing and easily settles listeners into the vibe.

Lead single “Mmmh” is an R&B slow jam of whirring synths, chill drum patterns and sensual vocals that highlight the thrill of mutual attraction. Kai has a voice perfect for this genre, strong yet gentle, effortlessly navigating the production. As it progresses, the track shifts in subtle and pleasing ways – particularly in the bridge where strings arrive and he sings: “Girl I just want more.” The combination of production and his voice create a sexy atmosphere that is an effective indicator of the album’s direction.

Following track “Nothing On Me” is more overt and bombastic with its chorus of “I want nothing on me but you” and explosive synths. With its darker, ominous sonic palette that could soundtrack a metropolitan science fiction film, it wears the influence of The Weeknd on its sleeve. Although the song is on the shorter side, it is still a satisfying venture with a bit of edge.

Another hard-hitting track with its hip-hop sensibilities is “Reason”, where Kai confidently asserts that his love interest has a “one-way ticket to the top.” Taking place at a party, the singer works his charms on the dance floor, acknowledging that, while there’s a certain tension between them, the process of getting to know each other can be just as thrilling. The album concludes with the wholly romantic “Hello Stranger” which, although moodier in tone, is about mutual vulnerability. Although albums across all pop formats tend to end with a ballad, Kai opts instead for a guitar-driven R&B track. It has him admitting that even with his success and adoration he feels loneliness and believes that he has found someone who can empathise. This is a new side of the singer which highlights the beauty in emotional disclosure.

Although the album doesn’t veer from its consistent quality, there are two particular masterpieces on KAI (开) that warrant attention. Still maintaining the futuristic R&B atmosphere is the airy and euphoric “Amnesia”. Kai’s vocals are at a dynamic peak here, sounding urgent and powerful – especially when he uses his falsetto. This is the album track – an absolute highlight about being so impacted by someone that life before meeting them seems to disappear. As he sings “Can’t remember anything before ya” over the immersive production, the listener feels suspended above the reach of past demons and floating towards a better future.

The second masterpiece is “Ride Or Die”, which employs echoing guitar plucks, hypnotically slow synths and the most explicitly 80s-influenced track on the album. This is at a slower tempo, which matches the words’ more sensual territory about the deeper connections formed at night. The expression “ride or die” itself is a strong proclamation of loyalty, showing that Kai is heading into a deeper state of love. “I feel I can fly when you’re with me / I’m on a jet stream,” he sings before the production expands into its sumptuous grooves. An unexpected sound for the album, this is a standout track that listeners will come back to for repeat listens.

Ultimately, KAI (开) is a punchy and sensual album that maps out the different components of romance. From sexual tension to intimacy to the revelations of inner turmoil, Kai knows that there is a long pathway to achieving true comfort with somebody else. It is this quest alongside the polished production of the tracks that make this an incredible introduction to Kai as a soloist. It is both a rewarding experience for the fans who have waited years for this and for newer fans who will find his musical aura hard to resist.