Everyone knows Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart.” I don’t care if you’re a punk kid, bubblegum popper, or classical musician, if you were around in the 90’s, you could not escape this song. Why would you? A voice as deep as Toni’s made you stop and listen. The 90’s were a good time for R&B, with singers left and right trying to make their way. The genre caught on in a huge way in Korea not too long ago, with acts like Big Mama and Brown Eyed Soul. Now, R&B as it was understood then, only exists in select artists and producers, Soulciety chief among them. After eight years(!) since the group’s debut album, 2 Colors, they released the Korean Music Award-nominated, Diamonds, and it was worth the wait.
From the beginning, you know Diamonds is special. Kicking things off with the group’s best singer, Nam Ju Hee, on “Special Love,” the production is hyper-polished and exquisitely layered. From the drum sounds, the synth-string effects and the mid-tempo pacing, “Special Love” is ear-candy. I prefer a little raw edging to music production, but Soulciety’s dedication to detail is delightful. On “Gonna Miss You,” Je Young’s introductory howl instantly transports me to my childhood. Han So Young from 3rd Coast is a great match to Je Young’s vocal acrobatics, providing a clean and heartfelt songbird quality to the song.
The first half of Diamonds continues in this mid-tempo party vibe, especially with Jung In on “Dancing (I Feel Your Love).” This portion lifts entirely from the R&B of yesteryear, and they don’t feel ironic or a cheap knock-off. Soulciety, especially Yoon Jae Kyung (or Mbrica), the producer, are passionate about this music, and it shows.
From “Love Is On” onwards, the mood is more intimate. The ballads are less bombastic, as Soulmen’s performance can attest to. His high note near the end is quiet, but still intense, like a loud whisper. Soulciety’s own, AMJ (or Amin J), shines on her solo outing in the beautiful pining “The One.” A solid singer, AMJ’s range is in full display here, which was missing on “Jammin.” The atmosphere gets quieter still on the two instrumental tracks, the soft funk ballad “Loose” with Jay Kim on saxophone, and “Jammin’ (Play The Jammin’ Ver.)” with Hong Jun Ho on the electric guitar. The latter, which closes the LP, takes bits and pieces of other songs and envelopes them in a smooth and languishing groove that barely gets off the ground. The album may end on a low note, but the second half of Diamonds is no filler.
I cannot end without mentioning “늘.” The lead single of the LP, it was nominated for Best R&B Song, and for good reason. The composition is spare, with just a piano, drums and strings, but all that takes a back seat to Nam Ju Hee. Ju Hee sings her heart out, going nuts, pulling every trick full-throated have in their arsenal. She’s fucking amazing.
Not since “Mermaid” by Diva Project (Lena Park, So Hyung and Lee Young Hyun) in 2011 had I heard female singers go this intensely on the vocal front, and Ju Hee trumps these three easily. Where “Mermaid” felt like the Olympics of singing, “늘” is the real deal, with genuine emotion from Ju Hee. Knockout, home run, showstopper, all of the superlatives!
Pop culture right now is in bed with nolstagia, from acid wash jeans (ugh) to video games with old school game mechanics (yay). The problem is taking what we look fondly back on and translating what we think we loved about those pieces of culture and making them feel new and old at once. Soulciety nailed it with Diamonds on all fronts. Nostalgic, with no sense of irony or mockery, this album is what I love about that time; superbly crafted love songs and excellent vocal talent all in one package. I cannot laud higher praise for this effort.