Credit: ELLE Korea
by Kayla Beardslee Featured Foreign Correspondent Music


November 28, 2022

S:INEMA is a lushly produced and confidently fluid record that goes a long way in asserting SAAY’s unique artistic character.

Although the average K-pop fan might not know SAAY by name, they may be familiar with some of her work. After debuting in the short-lived K-pop group EvoL in 2012, she pivoted to solo work in 2017 and has been penning dark, crooning R&B releases (and the rare glittery pop gem) ever since. Together with her frequent production partner DEEZ, SAAY has worked on K-pop tracks such as Baekhyun’s “Bambi,” aespa’s “Yeppi Yeppi,” Billlie’s “B~rave,” and Viviz’s “Loveade,” but although these credits alone, especially the electric “Bambi,” would be enough to take her songwriting voice seriously, SAAY’s own music is not to be dismissed either. In a musical landscape where many Korean R&B artists go straight to either hip-hop influences or sugary-sweet romance, her signature sound stands out: alternately yelped and drawn-out seductive melodies, fluid mixing of Korean and English lyrics, and electropop mixed with raw — and occasionally jazzy — acoustic layers.

S:INEMA is SAAY’s second full-length album, following up 2018’s CLAASIC and her 2020 EP Feel-osophy. It’s an ambitious project, over an hour long and featuring 16 full-length tracks (plus interludes) that incorporate a wide variety of sounds. Her smoky, siren-esque take on R&B is out in full force: the video for single “Talk 2 Me Nice” finds her shot in black-and-white wearing a suit and fedora, and its sound exactly matches that aesthetic. “Just come to me and make me roar,” she winks over crisp percussion and suggestive bass. August pre-release “Alarm” is another highlight in the same style, the guitars and thumping drums also joined by heavy piano chords, though here when she sings “Baby come and talk to me,” the lyrics cast it within the more serious light of depression and looking for help rather than something sensual or physical.

One of the most interesting parts of SAAY’s music is how the creative liberties she takes in vocal performance and pronunciation become an instrument in their own right. She often sings like she’s keeping a secret — eliding syllables, adding surprising emphases and trills, climbing rapidly up and down melodies, and blurring the transitions between English and Korean phrases. Grammatical precision is not her strong suit (“A lot of say I’m so fucking crazy,” begins “Rocky”), which may be a sticking point for some considering that about 80% of the album is in English, but general meaning comes through clearly anyway, and the result is a distinctive lyrical voice that knows how to make bending the rules sound interesting.

Despite its hour-long runtime, S:INEMA almost never drags in pace thanks to the adventurous spirit of its production by DEEZ, Yunsu, and Soul Fish. It begins with the soft R&B of “Interstellar” and proceeds to move everywhere from jazz-electropop fusion to dark, watery beats to sexy electric guitar flutters to club bangers (“Sweet as Hell,” “Sin City,” “Mind Ur Business”). There’s hip-hop, funky pop, and moments that concede to more trendy, vibey R&B sounds (“Stuck,” “Simple Way,” “Summer in Love”). Closing track “S:perience,” which starts at ‘90s slow dance but quickly morphs into an almost disco beat, is a good example of the album’s stylistic fearlessness. Basslines are often the star, and the lavish stacking of harmonies adds an important background touch. “Rocky” is maybe the album highlight, managing to pack many of these musical choices into a single song. It’s jazzy, it’s got electric piano juxtaposed against brass instruments, the backing vocals bear a touch of gospel, the drums crash, and all of this empowers SAAY to turn in one of the bolder vocal performances on the project.

All of these intricacies make S:INEMA sound like an album that no one but SAAY could have made, at least not in the same way. It’s not afraid to be dark, sexy, or bitchy by turns, but takes care to deliver plenty of fun in between, and it can’t be understated how consistent (and consistently good) it is from top to bottom. There’s a stretch in the last third that lags a little (“Stuck,” “Tint,” and “Summer in Love” all have more pared-back beats compared to the rich layers of earlier songs), but it’s a brief lull, and the last few tracks pick the energy back up on the way to a strong end; in fairness, it makes some sense that things would need to slow down somewhere, and too much of a good thing is one of the better problems a record can have. Lushly produced, passionately performed, and a whole lot of fun, S:INEMA is exactly the kind of artistic statement an album should be.