Released on May 30th, 2016, XIGNATURE is the fourth solo album from JYJ member Kim Junsu, performing under his long-held alias, XIA.
Recommended for: Listeners who primarily enjoy drama OSTs and ballads, long-standing fans of XIA looking for more
Not recommended for: Anyone looking for an album of dancefloor jams or a more cohesive selection of up- and down-tempo songs
I’ve personally been a fan of Junsu’s solo work as XIA since his initial album, Tarantallegra. As a soloist he rarely disappoints, bringing enthusiasm, drama and sweat to a lively and creative stage. That said, it’s my view that in recent years and aside from a few bright breaks in the gathering clouds, his solo output has been on a steady but noticeable decline. It seems to have become more difficult for the artist to determine his true identity as a performer. So, does XIGNATURE reverse the trend?
ROCK THE WORLD (feat. The Quiett and Automatic)
The title track is an upbeat club number, a theatric dance-cum-R&B song with an unusual, disjointed rhythm. As far as title tracks go, its high production value and similarity to XIA’s previous singles make it seem an obvious choice to throw in front of the public, but the confusing juxtaposition of its restrained verses and full-thrust chorus also make it a risky one.
Something about this song feels incomplete. You may have seen people comparing it to notoriously whiplash-inducing SNSD tune The Boys; in essence, they’re not wrong. ROCK THE WORLD is similarly restless, and feels like it would have been a much better song if they didn’t try to throw everything and the kitchen sink into it and stick such a bombastic song directly at the opening of an otherwise mellow album.
Of course, I may be coming off too harsh; like The Boys, ROCK THE WORLD has its own moments of greatness that easily rescue it from being a cluttered mess and elevate it to a fun, serviceable body-moving jam. Coupled with the creative, colourful and intriguing MV, it works. Just about.
SWEET MELODY (feat. Ben)
Following up ROCK THE WORLD‘s apocalyptic rave stylings, we’re immediately thrust into the territory of wholesome balladry. I don’t mind a bit of variety when it comes to genre on an album, so for being track 2, I can tolerate this choice.
SWEET MELODY is as and cute as the title suggests, with former Bebe Mignon-member Ben lending her gentle vocals in a handsome duet with Junsu’s huskier tones. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s a charming collaboration and a nice way to ease in to this album. A very relaxing song.
이 사랑을 떠나가면 안돼요 (This Love Shouldn’t Go Away)
Following up SWEET MELODY is another ballad. I can handle back-to-back balladry, especially on vocals-focused albums that are presented as a vehicle for the artist’s voice above everything, and usually have minimal instrumentation. However, this time, veering into wall-to-wall ballad country so soon in an album with an attitude-heavy opener like ROCK THE WORLD is, personally, a cause for concern.
This Love Shouldn’t Go Away is tender and emotional, showcasing XIA’s affinity for lovelorn standards. Admittedly, the melody is not particularly memorable, and I’m even finding difficultly remembering it now as I read this post. For me, this is unfortunately a skippable track, and by its midsection I was already looking forward to the next song in the hopes that it would pick up the pace set by XIGNATURE‘s sassy introductory track.
Alright, we’re back on track with… another ballad!
I can forgive a triple whammy of ballads if those ballads have some variety that sets them apart from each other, as the real danger with albums made up of ballads and slow jams is that the songs tend to blend into each other and end up inadvertently creating a dull and unremarkable listening experience for the consumer.
Okay, to be fair to this song, it does have more character than This Love Shouldn’t Go Away, and it at least has an actual rhythm that may inspire the occasional foot-tap or two. Pretty is a sensitive, guitar-led, downtempo song with R&B leanings that just about elevate it above the other album tracks before it. As a standalone song it isn’t particularly remarkable – it even sounds a bit dated – but it holds itself up fairly well and is a likable and inoffensive song.
Unfortunately, Pretty also has one big question mark hanging over it: I can’t help but feel like it’s a lesser shadow of XIA’s perennial hit, Intoxication, which is a masterpiece of K-pop-meets-Latin-R&B innovation, and which far outstrips anything presented on XIGNATURE so far.
The guitar, beat and vocals are all there, but Pretty lacks the unique sensuality and production that makes Intoxication so timeless. While I don’t dislike Pretty, I can’t help but feel like more effort could have been made to make it a song of its own rather than a lazy copy of a noted predecessor.
FUN Drive (feat. Crucial Star)
Finally breaking the string of introspective balladry is FUN Drive, a jaunty feelgood tune that fits into a summer mix just right. As the title suggests, the song is angled for wholesome good times, featuring Crucial Star rapping casually over a pleasant and comforting beat. While it doesn’t blow my mind, it’s a welcome and appreciated change of scenery in an album that has been mildly disappointing so far.
BREAK MY HEART
At last, we’re leaving ballad country behind and setting sail for the shores of Clubland! BREAK MY HEART is a retro dance tune that takes a major departure from the tone set by the previous tracks. Continuing the summery vibe of the album, this is a fun and simple pop tune that clearly sets out to rouse the listener out of their ballad-induced slumber and get them to start doing some star jumps.
Sadly, as an aficionado of cheesy European-style club music, to me this track feels like it didn’t get the attention it was originally intended to receive. Something about it feels incomplete, and the production, while aiming for a minimal, ’90s-style groove, unfortunately just feels rushed and unfinished. The vocals and instrumentation struggle for the spotlight, sometimes overwhelming each other completely, and the production does little to flatter either of them.
Once again, post-dance tune XIA chooses to test the waters with – you guessed it – another ballad. Fair enough, we just had an upbeat song, so I can accept this interlude for the time being.
Still is an introspective, piano-driven, poppy ballad that would feel right at home in a drama OST or soothing your soul at a coffee shop. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, but there’s nothing in particular that makes it stand out either. If you like to just listen to XIA vocalising, then you’ll appreciate this track more than I do. If you’re not a fan of OST music or the coffee shop genre, then I would steer clear.
While there’s nothing to outright dislike about it, there’s nothing that I particularly like about it either, and again, it will unfortunately be relegated to my dungeon of skippable tracks. Save this one for hardcore fans only.
Hold onto your seat for an unexpected twist because this song is not a ballad! I have to say my relief at getting another upbeat song was palpable. Unfortunately, it was also short-lived, as MAGIC CARPET does little to assert itself in the album, and it sadly ends up feeling like a throwaway song sandwiched between rank and file balladry in order to lend the album some variety.
Repetitive and generic, it’s another retro dance song without much to say for itself. I truly wanted to like it – especially as it has such a great title – but it fell flat for me, and like BREAK MY HEART I found the production value to be far below what I would expect to hear released by such an otherwise accomplished artist. A real pity.
잊지는 마 (Don’t Forget)
Don’t worry, here’s another ballad to soothe you after the disappointment of MAGIC CARPET. A classic OST-style song, Don’t Forget is so reminiscent of standard drama soundtracks (which XIA already releases on a regular basis) that you may even feel like you’ve heard it before. To its credit, Don’t Forget does boast some worthy vocals and instrumentation reminiscent of musical stage performances, so it’s not as if neither XIA nor the team working on this album don’t have the chops to take songs like this further and mold them into something truly unique. Instead, it seems like they’re playing it safe with something they see as more public-friendly which, while understandable, also feels like an unfortunate move as it clinically smooths out any interesting rough edges this song may have had.
A softly-sung and emotional song, Don’t Forget sets out to move you and whether it succeeds or not depends on your own natural inclination when it comes to OST-ish songs. Some people love them, others don’t. In my case, I admittedly get tired of these kind of songs easily and I have little time for them, finding them either dull or overwrought, so I don’t consider songs like Don’t Forget remarkable enough to keep my attention for long. Maybe you’ll fare better than me, but after so many similar-sounding ballads on this album already, it’s even more difficult to target the listener’s emotions, especially with a song that sounds like so many others.
XITIZEN (feat. Paloalto)
All of a sudden, a saxophone crescendo out of nowhere takes you out of the nap you were probably having during the initial half of this album and makes you stand up and pay attention. Smooth instrumentation punctuated by sax and keyboard riffs lend XITIZEN a nu-soul edge, perfectly complimented by Paloalto’s authoritative rapping which brings this uplifting song into the modern era while still retaining the timelessness of long-held classics. This is the gem of the album, and if you’re going to listen to anything from XIGNATURE, this is it. This song feels mature and professional, and is delivered with effortless and harmonious precision by both XIA as vocalist and the session musicians providing the backing music. My only complaint is that it’s tragically short.
다른 누구도 대신 못할 너 (You’re Irreplaceable)
XITIZEN got me all excited, thinking that this album could yet be drawn back from the dangerous waters of humdrum balladry, but unfortunately You’re Irreplaceable is yet another tender ballad which would find itself perfectly at home in the soundtrack of the latest romantic melodrama of the month. Nice orchestration, decent singing, the public would probably like it… but is that what really makes a great song? This song is inoffensive and well-sung, but I for one could easily take it or leave it.
If XITIZEN didn’t have enough character for you, then let TONIGHT be the song you take from this album. With a sound reminiscent of French pop, TONIGHT takes you on a journey through your own imagination, illustrated by fantastic and unusual instrumentation and theatrical vocals which culminate in such a fun and enjoyable song I don’t think anyone could dislike it. The whole track reminds me of the stage, and the influence of XIA’s musical career is plain in this song.
I only wish that he had displayed such wonderful versatility and creativity in the rest of this album, because TONIGHT proves that he has the ability. This is the true centrepiece of the album, and what I wish the entire concept had been built up around.
Just to bring us full circle, ..IS YOU is another sugary-sweet, mellow pop song delivered with saccharine coyishness. It’s lighthearted and enjoyable, and generally not a bad song. However, I think closing the album is the wrong place for it, and it would be better suited as a mid-album song to provide a comfortable interlude. Of course, I say that as someone who would also prefer this to not be album primarily consisting of other drowsy songs and ballads, but there you go. I don’t have anything particular against ..IS YOU, but it feels a bit too generically coffee-shop for my liking, and that makes me feel like it’s a bit of a cynical attempt to appeal to the general public when, in my opinion, XIA is capable of much more interesting work.
Overall, while I had high hopes for XIGNATURE, I feel as if it only lived up to my most conservative estimates. For a performer who I know is so talented and capable, the selection of songs on this album seems far below his ability, and it makes me wonder what the thinking behind this album really was.
As XIA Junsu is due for enlistment into the military soon, it’s possible this was a rushed effort under serious time constraints. The production on some tracks far outstrips others in such an obvious way, I can’t help but feel like this album has been compiled with a lot of filler in order to meet a sudden release schedule.
I at least hope that was the case, because that’s what it feels like, and while I can at least forgive being under pressure due to commitments outside of your control, I think it would be a great pity if someone overflowing with creativity and ability started phoning it in just because it’s easier to rely on fanbase sales than make the effort of producing a truly standout album.
Thankfully, breaks in the clouds like TONIGHT and XITIZEN give me hope for the future. I’ll keep listening to XIA to see what direction he goes in, and I hope he can deliver more of what these two songs bring to this album, because they’re saving it from the brink of obscurity right now. Both are absolute masterpieces.
I won’t be replaying this album much outside of its standout tracks.
If this has been marketed as an easygoing ballad album, then I would probably find it cohesive. However, ROCK THE WORLD and other tracks seem to sit completely outside the album’s true concept, and I don’t think the songs are ordered well.
If this review was just about XITIZEN and TONIGHT, this would be a solid green. However, the other tracks sadly dilute XIGNATURE into a mediocre release.