Album Review: Saay – Claassic

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Release: May 21, 2018
Label/Distributor: Universal Music
Genre: R&B, soul

It feels like Korean R&B has entered a golden era these last couple of years. Quality and depth abound both mainstream and underground and across sub-genres, and the scene shows little signs of letting up. But if we had to pick a niche that has become less-served, it might be the prolific female soloist in the “diva” mold: that is, a particular kind of vocalist who takes central, forceful presence in the music. Many of the most impressive up-and-coming female R&B artists – Soma, Hoody, Sumin, Henmi, and Nieah, for a few – work in PBR&B or alternative fields that do not really lend to that type of performance, and the handful that do carry the mantle – Boni, Satbyeol, the ever-active Lena Park – have not released substantial works for a few years. In a stroke of boldness, Saay’s debut LP Claassic goes a long way towards filling this gap.

Saay isn’t entirely new to the scene, having debuted as the leader of short-lived idol group EvoL in 2012. Since signing with Universal in 2016, she’s released a pair of mixtapes and also cut several promo singles last year: “Circle”, the first of those, landed as one of our favorite R&B songs of 2017. What was visible then and apparent now is just how much attention she commands on a track. With a freeform singing style that combines arresting power and casually slipping rhythm, Saay drives bars forward and wears the production around her voice.

That’s not to say the arrangement is lacking; on the contrary, Claassic is a lavishly produced album. The consistently excellent Deez (best known for his portfolio with Red Velvet, Taemin and other SM artists) took executive charge on the compositions, while bringing in a handful of fellow SOULTRiii composers and song-camp help. (Saay herself is also extensively credited, signalling promising songwriting chops.) It’s a polished package throughout, with no discernible lapses in quality.

The one-producer approach results in a unified sound direction, as it should. Deez and Saay focus on bold melodies, heavily layered vocals and complex arrangements. The first half of the album does this with elevated verve: in a slow burn this results in the pulsing and explosive “Circle”, and when the tempo’s kicked up, we get the effortlessly confident “Encore”. Both of these have immediately discernible, strong melodies (though the former is quite winding) that drive the track, and lie atop trendy synth-based arrangements featuring sleek textures and smooth harmonics.

Aside from these, I’m particularly interested in “Overzone”. This is the extended cut of a teaser that appeared on last year’s The Zone mixtape, and whereas that track began quietly with nondescript keyboard chords, the 2018 edition opens with a bang in the form of six off-beat brass notes. Saay then navigates a moody verse through a subdued environment that more resembles the original, up and into the satisfying chorus. I enjoy that the escalating arrangement here seems to feed off the colorful vocals. Saay performs a pre-chorus melody that features a soaring, drawn-out syllable (“now”), in a sort of priming act while the backdrop stays low-key; she immediately does the same melody again, but this time the instrumentation responds in an explosion and it’s a chorus. There’s a similar sensation when those brass notes accompany the chorus outro, entering a beat after the “I am begging you” line starts. It’s a cool composition.

(The music video splices the first minute of “Overzone” with “Encore”.)

“Overzone” is far from the only spot where analog sounds make their way into the arrangement. The second half of the album makes notable effort to break out of the cut-with-a-knife atmosphere and introduce softer sounds, perhaps as part of the artist’s stated purpose to bridge old-school soul with the future. From the washed-out strings and locked-groove loops of “Fallin'” to the lush jazziness of “Rainbow Car”, these easy-listeners provide some respite from the intensity of the earlier tracks. But some of these actually feel a little bit overproduced: I wonder if so much double-track was necessary in the chorus of “Fallin'”, in what could have been a less chaotic and more savory jam. “Ol’ Me, Myself” is likewise encumbered.

Taken as a whole, the album begins to feel loose towards the end as tension dissipates and is not replaced by something as engaging. This section also highlights one issue with Saay’s performances. As aforementioned, the vocalist has a tendency to be liberal in rhythm and pacing; I think this is great style and she makes it work. But she can also be just as cavalier about enunciation, over-slurring lines and sometimes switching out vowels mid-word. When the two tendencies coincide with dense instrumentation, it can be difficult to figure out what is being said. (“Overzone” and “Jaam” are prime examples.) I’m sure that it’s a stylistic choice, and the more atmospheric tracks help to mask it. Still, just a little more crispness in delivery would be welcome.

The album’s last track, “Stay”, strikes a good balance here. It’s a soulful and open ballad, with plenty of room for vocal flair, and Saay flows freely along the tumultuous melody even as the words come through loud and clear. Bolstered further by the intensely focused lyrics (the writing in Claassic is just serviceable, but this one has a simple earnestness to it) and unpredictable arrangement, the song emerges as one of the album’s best.

Claassic is far from perfect, but it’s an album we need more of. There’s the whole “we need more prolific diva style vocalists” thing, but this is also just intrepid album-making. A rookie artist going for volume that spans nearly 50 minutes, complete with interludes like a proper old-school record. No tracks that serve pure filler roles. Creative focus, to the point of keeping featured performers to a minimum (though what’s here is good – Tish Hyman is magnificent, and the Crush appearance makes me imagine a future collab with Saay’s label-mate Dean). Even the moxie of calling the album “Claassic”. It’s a gift onto this burgeoning scene, and Saay’s is an important career to be watching.

Tracklist (recommended tracks in bold)

  1. From the Horizon
    Composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  2. Circle (Featuring Tish Hyman)
    Written by Saay and Tish Hyman; composed by Deez, Saay, Coach & Sendo, Tish Hyman; arranged by Deez and Coach & Sendo
  3. Love Drop
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez and Saay; arranged by Deez
  4. Before the Show – Interlude
    Composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  5. Encore
    Written by Saay; composed Deez, Saay, Daniel “Obi” Klein, Ylva; arranged by Deez and Daniel “Obi” Klein
  6. Zone for 2 – Interlude
    Composed and arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  7. Overzone (Extended)
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Coach & Sendo, Jamil “Digi” Chammas; arranged by Deez and Coach & Sendo
  8. Time, Energy & Love – Interlude
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez and Saay; arranged by Deez
  9. Sweaty (Featuring Crush)
    Written by Saay and Crush; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu, Crush; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  10. Fallin’
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Soulfish; arranged by Deez and Soulfish
  11. Jaam
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  12. Rainbow Car (Featuring Punchnello)
    Written by Saay and Punchnello; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  13. Vodka & Lemon Shot (2018 Nu Mix)
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  14. Born in 1993. – Interlude
    Composed and arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  15. Ol’ Me, Myself
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  16. Cold View
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu
  17. Stay
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Coach & Sendo; arranged by Deez and Coach & Sendo
  18. To the Horizon
    Written by Saay; composed by Deez, Saay, Yunsu; arranged by Deez and Yunsu

Album cover image from Bugs Music.

Other music videos available from album, not linked in body text: Sweaty (Feat. Crush), Cold View

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