In an interview in June, Jackson Wang freely admitted that his previous music was “wack”. While Wang’s perfectionism is no secret, a look at his early work helps explain why he’d be so harsh in critiquing his own music. Released three years after his debut with GOT7, his 2017 solo debut single ‘Papillon’ now sounds like it was released by a different artist altogether. While catchy, the track was at times juvenile and uninspired, and felt more like a young man asserting he was more serious than people thought, instead of doing much to establish his identity as an artist.
But Jackson Wang is nothing if not willing to grow, and ‘Magic Man’ is proof. As he’s tried on concepts and genres – going from hip-hop to pop, and now rock and grunge – he’s become more than a performer or musician. He’s a storyteller, laying the foundation for his own cinematic universe where music is interlaced with complex, moving narratives that unravel the pulsating threads of his mind. The Jackson Wang of those universes is a driven, boundless figure, overcoming everything from personal inhibitions to even death (see the music video for ‘100 Ways’) to say what he wants to.
‘Magic Man’ is a glorious manifestation of Wang’s growth. Take the singles ‘Blow’ and ‘Cruel’, through which Wang set the stage for the album. Both were miles away from the pop sound we heard on 2021’s ‘LMLY’ – with distinctly alt-rock and grunge progressions complimenting his husky voice and distorted guitar riffs, they feel like the musical equivalent of sneaking away to an underground gig clad in fishnets, Doc Martens and chokers. Credit is due to Wang’s willingness to commit. Not only does he deftly wear this new sound, but also combines it seamlessly with his previous influences to delightful results.
We hear this on ‘Drive It Like You Stole It,’ which starts with a pop-rock beat supported by bass and twinkling sound effects that keep appearing throughout. Even so, Wang keeps a tight leash on the sound, spinning an alluring after-hours tale that never veers too much into either pop or rock. Similarly, ‘Go Ghost’ starts off as a dark pop song, but the drums and electric guitar on the pre-chorus and chorus bring a fresh flair, even if the lyrics leave something to be desired. The angst on the track seems ill-fitting with lines like “I’mma need a cake, I’mma eat like an entrée, she want me to put a ring on it like Beyoncé.”
The experimentation on ‘Magic Man’ does have its weak moments, especially towards its conclusion. While ‘Blue’ starts with an interesting guitar riff, the slow pace of the song never quite delivers the satisfaction one hopes for. On ‘All The Way,’ the transition from a pared-down guitar arrangement into an intense, full-blown chorus is exciting, but the song loses momentum once you realise the progression offers little variety throughout.
The best moments on ‘Magic Man’ come when Wang combines his commitment with a casual, cool attitude that’s borderline playful – when he edges close to the mysterious, charming persona of the album’s title. Even if these moments are accompanied by lyrics that sometimes are a little juvenile or self-aggrandising, the underlying confidence makes all the difference. Wang’s almost effortless in these moments.
‘Champagne Cool,’ the best song on the album, boasts some of its most ostentatious lyrics: “I take my troubles with my bubbles, and I keep my champagne cool,” he declares. Sonically, Wang surprises at almost every turn, going from steady drums overlaid with playful guitar and soaring backup vocals, to a pre-chorus with beats reminiscent of jive before seamlessly segueing back into the initial vibe.
A similar cavalier attitude permeates ‘Come Alive,’ which starts off with smooth bass that complements the song’s flirtatious style before breaking into a thrilling chorus. Wang repeats this pattern on ‘Dopamine’ and ‘Just Like Magic.’ On the former, the drop on the chorus feels like its namesake – a burst of satisfaction after Wang’s deliberate yet teasing set-up. The latter blends rock with reggae hip hop influences, Wang segueing into a paced chorus as backup vocals complement his voice, giving the song an ethereal, atmospheric feel. It’s these moments that make the record such an enjoyable listen – if his previous releases told his coming-of-age story, ‘Magic Man’ is where Jackson Wang steps up and fully embraces his own potential.
- Release date: September 9
- Record label: TEAM WANG Records / 88rising Records / Warner Records / RYCE MUSIC GROUP