Samuel Seo ft. The Quiett: 'TDC'
I say this with no exaggeration and zero irony. History will note Samuel Seo as the father of neo soul in South Korea. I think at this point the moniker is apt. His first release since his departure from Magic Strawberry Sound is classic neo soul as I remember it growing up: pared-down composition, pared-down vocals, stripped of trickery and getting to the heart and, yes, soul of the song. "TDC" speaks for itself. Seo's musical trajectory has led us here. A song that's classic '90s soul for the 21st century in a country that's never seen intentional attempts at the genre beyond rare smatterings of it from artists who don't purport that the "new soul" genre is their primary playground.
There's so much to unpack here. "TDC" is significant to Seo's discography and necessary to further establish his dominance of a genre he quite literally shaped in his home country. Let's start backward and work our way to the beginning.
Picking up where UNITY II left off, Samuel Seo has stepped back from playing any of the instruments to focus on production. The more he puts on the producer's hat the more we begin to see certain aspects of his music announce themselves.
He's become quite fond of ending his songs in a different place than where they started. The pattern itself happens in three stages: a guitar/vocal flare, different pacing and an ending phrase from a stringed instrument.
I first acknowledged this musical shift in UNITY with song "Happy Avocado." Allowing a guitar to have the last word as the song comes to a close. In "Avocado" it was a playful acoustic nod to a familiar military bugle call. In UNITY II, track "When" ends on another acoustic lament, this time drenched in more melancholy. But the song that most exemplifies this Shyamalan-esque twist comes from The Misfit. Track "Really That" highlights the two other Seo-isms, as we'll call them: the guitar/vocal flare and the deceptive tempo change. Before the final seconds of track "Really That," there's what sounds like a muffled screech. This effect, signals a volta (or "turn"/change) in the song's makeup in some way. It's unsubtle and jarring (as the whole song itself is quite smooth). Yet it's simple and very effective. In this track he uses both a guitar and a vocal flare. Imagine a burst of sunlight on a cloudy day, or the sun peeking out over the horizon while you're driving. A "flare" is a hot flash of sound that sears the notes and creates a burning effect (just like the burning fuzziness behind the eyes with a hot burst of sunlight). Metal fans will be familiar with the effect, as it's often used by the vocally ambitious in death metal bands. The first instance sounds like an electric guitar put through a deep fuzz filter to give it that searing screech. The flare that follows uses his voice right next to the guitar (or mimicking the guitar itself) using the same fuzz filter. I only estimate it's his voice because the sound is more organic, less of a metallic tint at the edges. Now, he somewhat uses this same vocal feature in "Jazz In My" (UNITY) right before the explosion of sound that is the chorus. It, too, is taken through a filter to distort the voice and give it a serrated edge.
When used in "Really That," it signifies the third of his Seo-isms: a deceptive "de-pacing." What sounds like the song's tempo slowing down is just a clever trick of composition. "Really That" sits at around 97 beats per minute in 4/4 time from top to bottom, but following the guitar flare, the song sounds like it's dragging. And here comes the trickery. The drum itself is keeping pace, but the gag is the piano audibly slows down. With no other instrument in use and an eerie under-sound of heavily reverbbed vocal ad lib, the effect tricks the mind into believing the song is actually slowing down. Again, letting the strings have the final say.
Seo shows that same musical trickery with "TDC." The vocal flare acting as the volta. Then the music taking a deceptive shift in tempo. It's a game he likes to play, an Easter egg we have to hunt for in order to grab the full scope of the song. Seo is terribly clever with his musicianship. Now at the helm as producer, he's cultivating a signature sound, something people will be able to associate with him no matter who he produces for. His penchant for the surprise twist has started to leave a trace. As with cementing neo soul as a standalone genre in South Korea, Seo is leaving his fingerprint on the genre he introduced.
The subtle brilliance of "TDC" extends to the rapper he features on the track. Throughout his (unofficially) 10-year career (officially six since his debut), Seo has rarely sought out the aid of features. His most feature-heavy album being Ego Expand 100%, with the likes of Nucksal, Ja Mezz and longtime collaborator Kim Oki. It's even rarer that he's enlisted the help of a rapper. A couple one-off singles, some B-sides. But ultimately he's always taken the reins as both singer and rapper when the occasion calls for it. So enlisting The Quiett for his first song completely devoid of label backing shows both his intention and his weight in the industry. It's clear Seo wanted to set off his musical independence like a sea mine: a subdued explosion whose impact is more prominent the closer it is to land. There's no need to completely dissect The Quiett's feature. But there is something to be said again for pacing. The Quiett has always favored an off-kilter flow. He delivers his bars outside the main beat. This allows him to pack more syllables into each bar, creating a tempo of his own imagining. You'll see it in rappers like Talib Kweli who deliver packed messages without regard to the stringency of a beat. The impact is no less potent, but it forces the listener to lean in to the words more so than the song's big picture.
But it's all another layer to Seo's understanding of the relationship between pacing and musical arrangement. He'd have very little input as far as The Quiett's verse, but knowing the rapper's style, then asking him to feature on his track was intentional. Or at least I'd be hard-pressed to believe Seo chooses his features based on how much clout they bring to the table. He's a musician's musician. His particularity when it comes to features on his tracks centers around that musicianship.
His ever-evolving vocal technicality is again on display. Seo's harmony work here packs one hell of a punch. Long gone are the days of his maverick-like usage of 20-30 vocal tracks to fill what he perceived as frequency gaps in his music. "TDC" sees Seo embracing simplicity. We get a three-part harmony under the main vocal (so, a four-part harmony). No obvious stacks or manipulations, just pure, old-fashioned self-harmonizing. The way the notes are packed together creates a luscious dissonance that buzzes in the ear. Again, intentional subversion of expectation and intelligent composition. Instead of giving us the ease and comfort of thirds, the vocals rub against each other in seconds and fifths. An unbalanced unity that speaks to Seo's respect for the genre. He didn't just listen to D'Angelo (whom he's touted on several occasions is his favorite artist) and imitate what he heard there. His understanding of pacing and composing shows he studied not just the artist, but the musicians that make up the bands of his favorite artists. His complete lack of track over-stacking, however, shows he's also taken a deep dive into the vocal work that comprise neo soul's best. He understands how background vocals function, how they act as support beams to the wall of sound created when jazz, R&B and hip hop intersect.
"TDC" is an ego flex. The lyrics alone prove that. Proclamations of "They don't care what you come up with" and "This time feels different somehow, I know" illustrates that Seo is very aware of what his independence as an artist means for his audience. Saying, "Whatever I come up with, it doesn't matter. My listeners have faith that I'm going to hit them with something crazy." He knows longtime listeners will feel like something about him is different than what he's offered in the past. It's like he's boasting that he can read their thoughts before they even have them. Sheer ego. Not necessarily in a bad way. But as I've said before, this man knows who the hell he is. And he's accutaely aware of just what his ultimate impact will be, even if those who listen to him can't see it just yet. I appreciate the hell out of his bravado. Telling the members of his ever-expanding audience about themselves, respectfully, while continuing flex his musicianship and burgeoning production skills.
All this being said and being true, is "TDC" an obvious masterpiece? No, not exactly. Ultimately, it's picking up where UNITY II left off. Seo is playing 100% in his wheelhouse, so nothing here goes against what we know about him. It's not groundbreaking taking into account who the man is and his previous work. However, dig a little deeper and see what he's really doing. Though on the surface it's very much in tune with what he's offered in the past, the details of this song paint it as a sleepy piece of genius. Musicians could pick this beast apart so much more (and probably more articulately) than I did now. But that's part of what makes this track such a smart selection as his first independent single. Samuel Seo is a smart musician. I'd say one of the most intelligent in South Korea's expansive industry. Though he does have to game the system a bit, at the end of the day he has never and, I suspect, will never compromise his musical integrity to bathe in the attention trend-following would get him. South Korea has no consistent history of traditional soul music, let alone its more rebellious little sister in neo soul. So he'll have to be satisfied with being a chapter in the country's musical lexicon until people pick up on what it is he's done to shape its musical landscape.
"TDC" is promising. I can't wait to see how Samuel Seo fulfills that promise with his coming releases.
Produced by Samuel Seo
Guitar Cheomji Park
Bass Kang Sang Hoon
Mixed by JRB
Mastered by Dave Collins
Artwork by sunghwi
If you enjoyed "TDC", you should listen to:
"Betray My Heart" and "Devil's Pie" by D'Angelo
"On & On" and "Cleva" (feat. Roy Ayers) by Erykah Badu