When Onew, the leader and main vocalist of K-pop icons SHINee, released his debut mini-album ‘Voice’ in 2018, things were much different. Of course, there was no pandemic. But he was also on the eve of enlisting into the South Korean military, and just past the most difficult year in SHINee’s career. It seemed appropriate, then, to release an album laced in gravitas.
‘Voice’ put Onew’s most known skill front and centre, showcasing exactly what the audience expected of him: heartfelt, contemplative ballads. This isn’t criticism – very few artists could pull off such a record – but to those of us who followed his trajectory with SHINee, it was evident that so much more lingered beneath the surface.
To know what Onew is capable of, you just need to take a look at SHINee’s dynamic discography. In over a decade of defining hits (such as ‘Replay’, ‘Sherlock’ and ‘View’, just to name a few), their versatility and avant-garde approach set the blueprint for many trends in K-pop. And among their vast catalogue, whether it’s a sleek EDM anthem, a sorrowful elegy or the finest piece of retro pop, Onew’s instantly recognisable tone colours each melody with richness and warmth.
That’s why his sophomore mini-album ‘Dice’ feels like a long-deserved revelation of Onew, the artist. As he mentioned during the press conference for the release, “I want people to see me as not only an artist who sings OST soundtracks and calm ballads, but also as someone who is capable of showing new music styles and performances. If I had to choose a word to explain this album, I’d say it’s ‘diverse’”.
‘Dice’ certainly offers a variety of sounds, but part of its charm is in how cohesive its six tracks sit altogether. Underpinned by synth-pop flairs and nifty basslines, the album displays such optimism that it makes summer feel just around the corner. In that sense, the title track provides a blissful introduction: “Start rolling dice / Thrown at you, all my heart / Forget about winning and losing,” Onew sings, detached from any outcome in a way that only years of experience can provide.
While the lyrics might be talking about a romantic pursuit, that carefree mindset is reflected in other tracks too, such as the stunning ‘Sunshine’. Between low registers and airy falsettos, Onew conjures a perfect getaway: sipping piña coladas in the Bahamas, “I just love being alone with you”, he states.
‘On the Way’ follows with a more subdued approach. It’s still breezy, just like the two previous tracks, but serves as an intersection to the latter, more introspective half of the album. Here, Onew’s romantic delivery blooms with nu-disco undertones, as he longs to meet a lover through sleepless nights. However, the longing turns to fear in the stripped-down ‘Love Phobia’. The emptiness of the instrumental accentuates Onew in his most vulnerable self: “Maybe I’m a coward / Draw a line between love and people / I’m avoiding tears again / I’m a lonely planet now.”
But nowhere is the overall optimism more conflated with cautiousness than in the haunting ‘여우비 (Yeowoobi)’. Summing up the experience of being in love as both adoration and circumspection, Onew recites the hypnotising chorus like a mantra: “Your love takes me higher than I’ve never been”. It’s a lofty segue to the personal waters of ‘In the Whale’, and therefore to wrapping up the album.
Contrary to expectations, the song that best encapsulates ‘Dice’ is not the vibrant title track of the same name, but the intimate closer ‘In the Whale’. The only one with lyrics co-written by Onew on the album, it paints a metaphorical journey through the insides of a beast – like the story in Pinocchio – and casts a new light over the singer’s journey, speckling it with hope and ’80s nostalgia. “You’ll find out soon enough / The end is a different beginning,” he yearns.
As a whole, ‘Dice’ proves to be a sublime addition not only to Onew’s discography, but to SHINee’s soundscape as well. It adds on to the group’s versatility, reaffirming how incredibly skilled each of their members are. For a long time, and despite his proven talent, it felt like Onew stood in the shadows – or inside a whale, if you will – but the skies have cleared now. There’s a whole ocean to explore ahead. By taking a chance and trusting his own experience, Onew allows himself to shine in all his multifaceted glory.
- Release date: April 11
- Record label: SM Entertainment