Gasoline‘s title track in an unfortunate low point on Key’s second full-length LP, but the album’s b-sides remind that he’s one of the most magnetic K-pop soloists in the game.
Key, member of K-pop boy group SHINee, does not do things quietly. Gasoline is his fourth project as a soloist and second full-length album, following up last September’s Bad Love EP, whose explosive synthwave title track was one of the very best K-pop releases of 2021. The EP itself was also excellent top to bottom, with b-sides ranging from ‘80s throwback to contemporary dance-pop to mournful R&B balladry.
Gasoline is, in most ways, a smooth progression forward for Key’s solo discography, with plenty of the confident dance-pop he so excels at. However, the title track goes in a different direction, brash and brassy with a hip-hop beat. It will probably be great as a hype song in concert, but outside of that context “Gasoline” is underwhelming. The instrumental is a bit dry and flat, and because it stays at maximum energy for the entire runtime, it doesn’t offer much in the way of interesting dynamics to contrast Key’s performance (which is committed as always). The rest of the album is more synthy and interested in negative space, which also makes for a difficult transition from title track to b-sides; “Bound” is one of the best songs on the album, but its sexy restraint doesn’t play quite as effectively right after the explosive power of “Gasoline.” Really, the project makes a lot more sense if you take the title track away: start at song number two, and you have a collection of tight synthpop that plays around with tension and release, darkness and light, without getting too caught up in being the defining statement that a K-pop single is expected to be.
There are a lot of anti-drops, and choruses generally built around negative space, on Gasoline. The first few are sinister and slinky; “Villain” plays with offbeat rhythms and hip-hop production, and the delicate vocal shivers, heavy bass, and evil flute of “Bound” would undoubtedly have shown up on a Taemin album if Key’s groupmate was releasing music right now (this is one of K-pop’s highest compliments). Songs like “I Can’t Sleep” and “Delight” take a more soaring and tender, but still irresistibly upbeat, approach; “Ain’t Gonna Dance” has slight hyperpop drum squiggles; the LDN Noise-produced “Guilty Pleasure” understands its role as the requisite banger and does it well. And Key’s vocals are a consistent highlight: his sharp timbre gives his solo work a distinct character, and his charisma as a performer comes through even in audio form.
SM Entertainment manages several dozen comebacks per year, and so more than any other K-pop label relies on writing camps to fill up their many album tracklists. Because of this, albums from SM acts — especially full-lengths — tend to feel a bit collaged together, collecting whatever appropriate b-sides happened to be in the vaults as the album was being worked on. Elevating this collage format is one of the thrills of a good K-pop project, but a listener can at least guess that Gasoline was partly assembled by throwing a lasso around some miscellaneous, vocal-heavy dance-pop demos in the SM vault. Standout track “Another Life” is even a leftover from the Bad Love sessions: it was first teased as an interlude during Key’s concert last year, and the larger-than-life synthwave sound is a clear holdover from his previous era. And while many K-pop artists have done ‘80s retro songs, rarely do they sound as drunk on the feeling of freedom as this one. Key knows how to sell a powerful melody, but when he sings “let go” in the chorus, the production briefly turns weightless. Meanwhile, “Another Life” makes a strong case for being the best track on the project, though it’s probably for the best that it wasn’t the single for the sake of not creatively stagnating. It’s disappointing that Gasoline works best with its title track taken out of the conversation, but there is nothing underwhelming about its b-sides, which remind us that Key is one of the most magnetic soloists in K-pop.