If there's one thing an SM artist is going to do, it's celebrate a milestone anniversary. Acting as an amalgamation their sonic evolution over the course of 15 years, SHINee's HARD makes a powerful statement.
Lead single and title track “HARD” is actually an interesting song. Upon first listen, it really did just sound like a song for another SM group. But when digging into the intricacies of it, it’s a song that kind of takes a moment to celebrate different eras in hip hop. Whether intentional or by happy accident because of the producer involved, it does more than just place SHINee in the same aural bracket as their juniors.
What elevates HARD from something that could possibly be construed as an attempt to “fit in with their fellow youths” is the vocal complexity of each song. It's unsurprising that SHINee, once again, has takes every opportunity to reacquaint listeners with their power vocals. But the harmonies in this album are absolutely frightening. They’ve certainly stepped into a brilliant new era for their vocal dexterity. This now-quartet has not lost an ounce of their power, and it’s actually pretty incredible. Songs that would be mostly mediocre in one of their musical descendants turn into low-key masterpieces when left in the hands of these bona fide veterans.
“JUICE,” for instance, which in and of itself is a revelation for the group, wouldn’t be out of place on an EXO album; however, the vocal layering, direction and tightness of their harmonics elevates it to a song that only SHINee could really bring to life. The group broke convention in a very subtle, yet no less brilliant affirmation of their new era of experimentation. Taemin begins the song with a rap, of all things. (And might I say, faired far better than a certain mercurial senior who attempted the same thing in DB5K's grown 'n' sexy era on track "Wrong Number.") Then the first actual notes sung don't come from Onew, as one probably might expect, but Key, who, while he has a decent voice, has never been the vocal core of the group. Again, a subtle nod to the foursome's latest era. They're moving gracefully into their life as a new group and staking their claim separate from the group longtime fans remember.
And, my loves, that's not a good thing. That's an exceptional thing.
Meanwhile, “10X” is just disrespectful. If you needed any proof that this group is a cut above the others, just close your eyes and sit in the harmonies on this or following track “Satellite,” which plays with pop-R&B conventions that would otherwise be a bit juvenile. The call-and-response of the pre-chorus, voices being thrown then caught by the members without breaking a sweat. Harmonies that are so sharp they’re almost inhuman. Somebody needs to say it: SHINee’s vocal stacking and harmonizing is the best in the industry, sitting on the shoulders of legends like Brandy and even Michael Jackson in terms of how intricately they’re able to synergize a four-part harmony into what sounds closer to a full chorale.
HARD as an album is their most inventive since 1 of 1, intelligently blending genres to create a piece of work that honestly does take SHINee to another level. This will go down as the album that really solidified the foursome in the annals of K-pop history as just as legendary as their original form.
PS: Deepest cut, “Insomnia”…. We need to talk about it! These fools had the audacity, the unimitated gall to give me some deep ’90s R&B, then had an even greater nerve to harmonize every aspect of it, including the rapped parts. What sounds like a synth vamp, could easily be mistaken for the harmonics these dudes throw all over the place, so intricately intwined are their voices that hey honestly create synth-like chord progressions using only the strength of their voices. I guarantee, whomever your bias is, they're not touching this!