Read our guest writer Cy’s exclusive review of Alan Z’s debut album ‘First Time’s The Charm’!
Rapper-singer-songwriter Alan Z has been hanging around the underground scene for a few years and has built himself a grassroots fan base of those impressed with his covers and down-to-earth artistry. After sporadic releases of original music in the last year or so, he’s released his debut EP, First Time’s the Charm.
The album opens with power, or at least unapologetic proclamations. “No Handouts” is an honest declaration of one man’s struggle to stake a claim in the music business without being pigeonholed into a certain niche based on his ethnic heritage. In what ultimately ends up being the album’s most impressive track, Alan Z likens himself to Eminem — going so far as to reference his theme from the semi-autobiographical 8 Mile, “Lose Yourself,” at the song’s opening. He cites Em and other champions of the genre (2Pac, Dr. Dre, The Fugees, etc.) as the artists his audience should most closely associate him with. Bold, but perhaps it’s his attempt to separate himself from any and all possible comparisons between him and his peers in Korean pop: “Not K-pop. I can’t give KCON what they want.”
“No Handouts” does the work of setting up the listener for something extraordinary, if not songs that live up to the bravado. Unfortunately, from that point on First Time’s the Charm seems to go the way of a lot of debuts: trying with an air of desperation to showcase his mettle against other artists. We go from a song that, while a bit self-aggrandizing and ambitious (insofar as placing his name next to some of the most heavily lauded artists in hip-hop) to an album that lacks the actual profundity and lyrical dexterity to back it up.
As this is a debut EP, it makes sense that one would do his best to showcase his range. Playing dual roles of rapper and singer, Alan Z follows up the grit and tough talk of “No Handouts” with a softer track meant to play up his vocals. While his tone errs on the nasally side, his range is decent enough, falling on the higher end of the scale. His tenor is willowy, if not a bit thin, but it does at the very least work in terms of the song’s subject matter. The music itself is uninspired, using obvious and similar patterns indicative of most R&B from the early 2000s. The lyrics aren’t terribly original, telling the story of a man enamored of a particular woman, asking for the privilege of just an intimate touch or two. Of the “love” (or probably more apt “sensual”) songs on the album, “Touch and Go” is the sincerest. However, that doesn’t save it from being a simple song with little substance to grab onto.
We get more of the pseudo-sensual stuff with track “Color Me Bad.” Just as one would expect from the title, Alan makes obvious and exorbitant use of the iconic “I wanna sex you up” from the referenced group’s most celebrated track of the same name. One can appreciate the nod to probably one of the most misunderstood and underrated R&B groups to come out of the ’90s. It’s always refreshing to find an artist who genuinely understands the music that brought them up and who wants to pay homage in some way. But just as the song that preceded it and those that follow, “Color Me Bad” is an attempt at sensual bravado and braggadocio that does more to put the listener off than seduce them into a night of candles and tousled bed sheets.
While still suffering from unimpressive production, “Distance” does a lot of work to rectify what was on its way to becoming an album full of clichés and lackadaisical double entendre. It’s clear Alan Z shines when he’s trying to deal with spires of pain so obvious they stick out at the surface. We get peeks at his potential as a lyricist, the track acting as both a painful lover’s lament and his time to stretch his capabilities as a rapper and singer. He still seems to cling on to references of artists that fall outside his stratosphere (this time giving a nod to Ms. Lauryn Hill by proclaiming the subject of his ire is “the sweetest thing, killing me softly”), but that can be forgiven when one considers the earnestness of his delivery.
At this point one would expect Alan Z to purposefully delve into his vulnerabilities, give listeners a real look at who he is as man when he strips away all the bravado. Instead, he goes right back to the preposterous facade of ladies man with track “Windows Tinted.” There’s nothing more grating to the senses than someone who uses uninteresting pickup lines to lure a woman into the bedroom: “We can take this exit here to Route 69. We can turn this vehicle into slip n’ slide.” Lyrics like this take away from what is clearly a young man with massive potential. It’s difficult to take an artist seriously when the lyrics are so overtly asinine, as if the intention was to find the most elementary, least original word construction, testing out the theory that all it takes is a smooth voice and “grown up” intentions to get a girl into bed.
It’d be easy to say that “Windows Tinted” is a throwaway track with nothing to add to the album as a whole, but unfortunately First Time’s the Charm is such a hodge-podge of sincere and thinly veiled puffery it’s mostly just par for the course.
“All of You” is more of the same: uninteresting production and simple lyricism that references another artist to give the song some dimension (this time R. Kelly’s “Your Body’s Callin’”). To wax irritated about the song’s construction would be redundant. It’s an attempt at sensuality much in the same vein of the others on the EP, with no real texture or substance.
First Time’s the Charm ends much in the same way it begins: aggressive rapping meant to drive home just how disparate he is artistically to his K-pop contemporaries. Unlike “No Handouts,” however, “Discriminated” tries too hard to be profound, enlisting more comparisons between himself and Eminem, this time without any of the attempted subtlety. As the summation of the album, it acts as a final note on Alan Z as an artist. As a means to get listeners to consider everything that came before, the track, much like the majority of the album, is found wanting.
Lyrics like, “I’m more like Marshall Mathers” get thrown around on this album, and with it my ability to take anything penned therein with any sort of seriousness. One can certainly empathize with the feeling of being flung to the side, tossed to the back simply because of appearance. I can definitely attest to the expectations being placed on my ethnicity and where I came from. However, there’s a certain misguided boldness in quoting “Cleaning Out My Closet” without a) pouring out more than a clichéd set of platitudes, and b) having the lyrical dexterity or delivery of the MC in question. There’s something to be said for someone with the audacity to frame his life and its turmoils in the same breath as Slim Shady — and it honestly isn’t much of a stretch if stripping away the disparity between their skill sets. But the very real similarities in upbringing and society’s penchant for compartmentalizing people based on superfluous characteristics ultimately aren’t enough to reconcile that chasm.
First Time’s the Charm is a practice in frustration. When he drops the need to posture as a self-congratulating lothario, there are glimmers of just what Alan Z’s capable of as an artist. “No Handouts” and “Distance” show that there is indeed a competent songwriter and at times rapper/singer nestled underneath the almost overwhelming self-doubt and need to impress.
What rankles most is his compulsion to prove that he’s the antithesis of everything one may associate with a Korean artist, proclaiming,“Don’t you ever in your life compare me to these K-pop dudes” (“No Handouts”) instead of letting the music just be. Alan seems so preoccupied with proving that he falls out of the current Western obsession with any and everything Korean pop, he loses much of what could make this album good — true soul and honesty without all the huffing pretense.
Ultimately the tropish lyrics and uninspiring production stops this from being an album I can take seriously. Through all the childish lyricism, the hit-or-miss production, one can clearly see that Alan Z has a great deal of talent and the potential to be an artist people clamor to support. However, despite his best attempts to ensure his audience he isn’t following a trend, he’s fallen prey to the very same thing he seems desperate to show he’s immune to. So fervent is his desire to prove how different he is, one has to wonder who exactly he’s trying to convince: the listeners or himself.
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About the Writer: Cy is a digital journalist and blog writer specializing in reviews of music and film across a broad range of genres. Wherever there’s electricity, food and a good Wi-fi connection is where she makes her home. Find her on Twitter (@mindlesscy) and Instagram (@mindless_cy).