While K-pop has its loud renaissance, K-r&b is having a quieter one. That’s fitting, given how colorful and loud pop is and how smooth and low-profile r&b is. Still, Korea’s r&b artists deserve a bit of that shine and spotlight, too. And right now, it’s time to talk about Heize and her new album “She’s Fine.”
In 2014, Heize first appeared on “Unpretty Rapstar,” a show that highlights women rappers and has occasionally given its contestants the fame bump they need to get started. Strangely enough, the show gave Heize’s singing career a bump. She got another boost when she featured DEAN on her single “And July.” Heize proved how talented she is by going toe to toe with DEAN, one of Korea’s best vocalists.
Heize has since steadily built up her rep with a series of strong singles and EPs. Heize has become a critical darling, with her songs reaching top ten lists, and her EPs generally getting good reviews. There are reasons for the accolades. Her vocals are crisp and clean and her tracks have dynamic movement that many softer artists neglect. Heize’s flat out pleasant to listen to.
Her new album is no different. “She’s Fine” is a really rich and warm album. It’s something that feels perfect for a rainy day, oozing the feeling of leather couches and jazz lounges from the stand-up bass rhythms, the violin strings and the pianos with ragtime echoes. It’s something that feels welcome in the sunshine too, with its bouncy pop horn lines, its pleasant touches of auto-tune, and its crisp snaps, claps, and rapid-fire vocals.” She’s Fine” has a lot to recommend it, but its moods struck me the most.
To me, there are few genres more mood-driven than r&b. All genres need mood to a degree, but I don’t think many genres need to sell their mood as hard as r&b. Metal and prog can be more technique than mood; pop can be more hook and production than mood, and rap can survive off beats and bars. Every album benefits from doing mood right, but an r&b album dies if it does mood wrong.
That’s why Heize’s impeccable moods matter so much. Heize maintains a consistent mood across the album while making subtle shifts that keep things interesting. A good example is how Heize slowly shift from a modern-style, electronic r&b in the first half of the album into a jazzier, more nostalgic r&b in the second half.
“Her Fine Weather” is a very K-pop styled r&b track, full of heavy synth, with a quicker singing voice and a catchy, easy chorus. “So, it ends?” has a modern ballad feel to it, though not nearly as dull as most K-pop ballads. “No Reason” starts to drop hints of the tonal changes with its more prominent horns and piano, and generally classic r&b sound.
Then, “But, I am Your Buddy” delivers on those hints more fully, bringing out the nostalgic tone more heavily with violins, deep, plodding bass, and soft key and string rhythms. It’s still a very modern sounding song, but it has enough little features and bits to ease the album into a much jazzier and classic second half. “Umbrella Calls for Rain” signals a full shift, going right into stand-up bass and a piano that sounds like it’s coming out of a record player.
Heize makes a lot of small shifts in tone and mood just like this one. She masks them well enough that they never disturb the flow of the album, but the shifts are noticeable enough that they keep the album fresh. If the album were all ballads like “So, It Ends?” then it would be really dull. Instead, there the ballad shares the album with fun, bouncy songs like “Hith Hiding” and “Her Fine Weather.” The album doesn’t become all bubblegum because the bouncy songs are mixed in with classic R&B tracks like “Dispatch” and “Tree Only Look at You.”
Heize keeps a consistent bittersweet mood going across the album despite the shifts. Sometimes tracks feel a bit sweeter, sometimes they feel a bit more bitter. Along the way, she manages the mood with no hiccups because she’s pretty consistent about the production on the album, and while instruments change, the effects and the mixing on them stay about the same. The instrumentation is usually rich, but the focus stays on her vocals or the vocals of whoever’s featured. All the vocals on the album fit in roughly the same zone, a kind of ’90’s-reminiscent r&b singing or hip-hop rapping. She also places the tracks well so that one often slides smoothly into the next.
Each time I listen to Heize, I’m always struck by how rich the music is. To me, that feeling comes from a well-maintained mood matched with lots of subtle shifts and intricacies. “She’s Fine” strikes me the same way.The song is rich not only for the mood that makes me feel like watching the rain from the comfort of a melancholy lounge, but also for the different styles shown across the album.