Published on May 28th, 2014 | by Scott Interrante1
15&: ‘Sugar’ album review
After making their debut in 2012, JYP Entertainment duo 15& have finally released their first full-length album. ‘Sugar’ collects previous singles ‘I Dream,’ ‘Somebody,’ and ‘Can’t Hide It’ in addition to some great new RnB-tinged pop songs. The songwriting and arrangements are great throughout, but the real draw is the amazing vocals from Park Jimin and Baek Yerin. Overall, ‘Sugar’ does exactly what a debut album should do: it shows off the group’s strengths while experimenting with a few different styles to find what works best. As it turns out, pretty much all of it works wonderfully.
‘Star’ opens up the album with a definite ‘90s RnB vibe. The sound is interesting and the girls introduce their powerful vocals right off the bat, elegantly floating above the relaxed mid-tempo beat. But something is not quite right. The verses are very good, but chorus is not as catchy as it could be, and the fact that they change keys every time the song moves into the chorus becomes a bit ridiculous by the end. ‘Star’ is an enjoyable song, but fails to make a big statement for the beginning of their first album.
Don’t worry, though. If you weren’t blown away by ‘Star,’ you definitely will be by ‘Sugar.’ The song is absolutely crazy, in all the best ways. It’s part ‘60s throw-back, part jazz-fusion, and all catchy hooks. The arrangement is overstuffed with erratic brass, syncopated beats, and vocal harmonies galore, but somehow it all comes together to feel perfectly natural. In that way, it reminds me of Girls’ Generation’s ‘I Got A Boy.’ Not the sound of the song itself, but they way that, on paper, it shouldn’t make sense, but it’s completely perfect anyway. ‘Sugar’ would be a risky single for a new group, but now that 15& has got some solid hits under their belt, it’s nice to see them go with such a bold title track.
3. Shy Ma Boy
‘Shy Ma Boy’ is another subdued track, but after the craziness that was ‘Sugar,’ it’s welcome here. Plus, the song doesn’t feel as confused as ‘Star.’ It’s got a simple chord progression and a simple retro piano and drum-driven arrangement that just lets the girls show off their voices. It’ not a song that I’ll find myself going back to a lot, but it works well in the context of the album.
4. Oh My God
‘Oh My God’ returns to the ‘90s RnB with a melodic song about being young and in love. After an unusual intro, the track comes in with a tightly produced beat and Jimin’s sultry alto. The wordless chorus hook is so catchy that you’ll surely be singing along by the end of the song. But even with the straightforward songwriting, ‘Oh My God’ manages to always have a surprising and interesting arrangement. Whether it’s touches of accordion in the chorus, or the crackle of a vinyl record in the second verse, there’s always something different going on to keep you on your toes. It’s this kind of attention to detail, even on album tracks like this, that really sets ‘Sugar’ apart from the crowd.
5. Rain & Cry
15& has been releasing live videos of the album tracks, one a day, since ‘Sugar’ came out. ‘Rain & Cry’ was the first one, released at the same time as the ‘Sugar’ MV, and many fans are gravitating more towards this song, preferring the simple ballad to the over-the-top ‘Sugar.’ I, for one, definitely prefer the actual title track, but you can never really go wrong with a 15& ballad. Their vocals here are maybe not as impressive as we saw on a ballad like ‘I Dream,’ but they’re still great. Musically, the song sounds (a little too much) like Alicia Keys’s ‘If I Ain’t Got You,’ but the RnB style definitely suits their voices well, so it’s nothing to get too upset about. As you can gather from the title, ‘Rain & Cry’ is a sad break up song, and the girls bring some of their most emotional performances of the whole album for it.
6. Not Today Not Tomorrow
After a few mid-tempos and ballads, 15& picks up the pace again with ‘Not Today Not Tomorrow.’ The song also reverses the mood from ‘Rain & Cry’ lyrically. Instead of crying in the rain after the break up, now the girls feel empowered to leave the relationship. In the chorus, Yerin sings, “Baby I don’t need you” and they warn him that he can’t make it better, “not today and not tomorrow.” Musically, the fun arrangement keeps things interesting as always, but the melodies are strong enough to stand on their own. Outside of the title track, ‘Not Today Not Tomorrow’ is probably the biggest stand-out for me.
7. Silly Boy
‘Silly Boy’ is the most pure pop on ‘Sugar.’ It opens with saccharine electric piano chords before giving way to a lush mid-tempo pop song with just little hints of their RnB style. It has a cute, bubbly feel throughout, and, as shouldn’t be surprising, Jimin and Yerin both sound great in this style too. They sing about feeling insecure because they like a boy who doesn’t notice them. But it’s his fault, right? He’s a silly boy.
The last three tracks on ‘Sugar’ have all been released previously, but it’s still worth looking at them again in the context of the whole album. And even after a year, ‘Somebody’ is still such a great song. The intro—played on what sounds like a Bipa—lets you know right away that this song is gonna be something different. It’s not as crazy as ‘Sugar,’ but as the follow up to a poorly received debut song, they couldn’t be so adventurous. What they do have, though, is a massively catchy hook and a detailed, interesting arrangement. ‘Something’ fits perfectly with the rest of the songs on the album and remains one of the highlights.
9. 티가 나나봐 (Can’t Hide It)
Released just over a month ago, ‘Can’t Hide It’ became 15&’s first no. 1 single on the Gaon chart. The RnB-tinged love song is fairly straightforward, but really allows Jimin and Yerin to shine vocally. There are no extravagant arrangement tricks here, but the composition is so great and memorable that the song is easily one of the strongest on ‘Sugar.’
10. I Dream
It’s an interesting choice to end the album with their debut single, but I think it gives the song an opportunity for redemption. Many people complained that ‘I Dream’ was underwhelming when it was released back in 2012, and as a debut single, I can understand why. But now that 15& have proven themselves more, we can accept ‘I Dream’ for what it is: a simple ballad with absolutely amazing vocals. With its position on the album, we get to hear it as a kind of curtain call. All the exciting songs have already happened, but we get one more glimpse at their immense vocal talents. Even if musically it doesn’t fit in with the RnB style of so much of the album, it’s hard not to be swept away by their high notes.
Overall, ‘Sugar’ makes it clear (if there was ever any doubt) that 15& are a real force to be reckoned with. Though they easily could have rested comfortably with being a duo of great vocalists, JYP ensured that they got really top-notch songs and immaculate production to go along with it. Every once and a while, I step back and remind myself that these girls are still just 16 years old. I think ‘Sugar’ is a sign that we’ll be getting a lot of great music from 15& for years to come.