“NAMANANA”: Lay Serenades in Bilingual Release
The title track and its music video encompass the album’s sound and aesthetic. Viewers are taken on a fantastical desert adventure that looks like a live-action Disney movie. The inspiringly optimistic lyrics coupled with the tight group choreography and ensemble really resemble a High School Musical dance break, and we’re here for it. There seems to be a plot throughout the video, but it gets sidetracked by graphics of flying pirate ships and an unraveled mysterious sphere that comes crashing down into the sand. While the plot could be a little less convoluted, the desert setting is a stunning backdrop, especially when meshed with aurora-filled skies. There are several striking shots that really bolster the quality of the video: a church illuminated by sunlight, a lair inside a vibrant red-orange cave, and a pink body of water that later births a white pyramid. Furthermore, Lay’s crisp white ensemble is the perfect complement to the saturated backdrops of the choreography scenes. Side note: We are so thankful that Lay’s blonde hair has returned.
“Namanana” as a title track is reminiscent of Justin Timberlake circa Justified era. The wind instrumentals coincide with the “jungle of competition” Lay raps about. It’s Westernized by the Jason Derulo-esque blaring horn that sits on top of the trap beat. While the horns and trap beat make the track more appealing to a mainstream audience, they sadly mask the quirky sounds, like the twinkling triangle and airy wooden percussion, that dance around the main beat. Regardless, the melody and the simply uplifting lyrics make “Namanana” an easy listen, which gives Lay’s dance moves their time to shine. It’s a great effort on Lay’s part to rap during the bridge, but the song would’ve been a real smash if SM Entertainment had recruited a notable Western rapper. It’s not too substantial, which can garner both praise and criticism; while the song is inoffensive and easy to listen to, it lacks any deep connotations and is arguably forgettable—mostly supported by the hype around Lay’s English skills. It’s simply a quintessential pop release.
Eleven tracks is a lengthy piece for any artist, let alone one based in the Korean Pop industry. Now do the same thing, but in Chinese; now we’re trekking through a 22-song album. Lengthy sums up the listening experience of NAMANANA. What’s praiseworthy of the album is its dedication to the theme. The previously mentioned tropical-infused pop motif is clearly executed throughout the project. Signature sound effects, like the synth Lay loves in “Give Me A Chance,” show how the singer understands his own sound. It’s a cohesive piece of work that sticks to the concept and strongly delivers.
But with 22 tracks, listening to the album can feel like running a marathon. One or two tracks could’ve been substituted for interludes or erased from the project entirely. NAMANANA opens with the blaring “The Assembly Call” which sounds like a Marvel movie’s opening intro. Then come the title track and “Give Me A Chance,” which also has its own music video. So far, so good; it’s understandable why these were chosen as the titular tracks. Lay’s pronunciation and vocals are the clearest in these two.
The project continues on a high note. “Lay U Down” is a little less PG-13, implementing sexier R&B beat drops and lyrics that don’t detract from impressive vocal riffs and harmonies. “Save You” is the mischievous little brother of “Namanana.” There are some really cool sound effects that decorate the beat. It best exemplifies the tropical pop trap that the album circles around.
Singing in a non-native language is an amazing feat for anyone. And rapping is an even larger challenge. “Hold You” is interjected with Lay’s talk-rapping that is a bit, for lack of a better word, cringey. But “Thing For You” comes and saves the day. This track is another reinterpretation of the tropical theme. A definite highlight is the beautiful harmonies that elevate the chorus. “Thing For You” is the most lighthearted on the album and encompasses the happy-go-lucky attitude that comes with the tropics. “Mapo Tofu” is arguably the best track on the album as it the most representative of Lay’s goal with this project. Lay uses Eastern cultural imagery and delivers it in a Western style. Metaphorically painting his attraction to this girl as this beloved Chinese dish and incorporating Eastern music elements shows a blending of cultures rather than abandoning his roots.
At this point, Lay still has me hooked but starts to lose me with “Flavor.” It’s fine as a song, but in terms of being one of the more seductive tracks on NAMANANA, “Lay U Down” outperforms. The song’s inclusion doesn’t heighten the quality of the album, but doesn’t add anything new to it either. The album continues to dwindle with the last two tracks: “Don’t Let Me Go” and “Tattoo.” Once again, “Don’t Let Me Go” isn’t necessarily terrible, but the electronic track is pretty empty content-wise. “Flavor” and the aforementioned also start to stray away from the first eight tracks’ cohesive tropical sound. And “Tattoo” could’ve been completely left off of the album. It has no connection whatsoever to the rest of the album, and it’s the weakest track, especially when it’s supposed to wrap up the entire project. We know that Lay is not a rapper, and it’s okay that he isn’t one. The lyrics aren’t personal; they don’t tell a story that gives insight to Lay as a person. At one point, he literally says “mass protection / mad potential / mash potatoes” as if he made a point with that jumble of nouns. SM, we can take one step at a time. His singing skills are good enough to carry this whole comeback.
First and foremost, congratulations to Lay on his lengthiest release yet. It’s evident how much hard work he put into this comeback. NAMANANA solidifies the singer as a pop star, and we hope to see him continue to hone his creative juices into physical projects.