After a three-year wait, Mandopop king Wang Leehom has finally returned, armed with a new perspective on life and his music. Continuing his focus on the EDM genre, his 16th album ‘A.I. Love’ instead features a more relaxed and less curated incorporation of electronic elements, while adding in a fresh new set of elements reminiscent of his signature ‘Chinked-out’ style. Releasing the entire album digitally, Wang’s latest addition to his repertoire deals with the topic of technology as more than just a musical tool; expanding on it within this album and provoking discussions regarding what constitutes ethical use and where things start to become a little more questionable.
This question is most significantly poised (and answered) in his first two singles; ‘A.I.愛’ and ‘ World Without Tears沒有眼淚的世界’. Ironically, while these have widely been touted as the most controversial and dividing tracks on the album with listeners either loving or hating it, it just so happens that they happen to be my favourite songs on this 11-track release. While I’ve gone into detail about my adoration for ‘A.I. Love ’many times before; a highly electronic-based track which cleverly blends the East and the West while using wordplay to question the blurred lines between technology and reality; (see single analysis here), the album’s opening track ‘A World Without Tears沒有眼淚的世界’ is equally as intriguing in Wang’s choice of arrangement and content.
Written as part of a seamless collaboration between Leehom and The Swaggernautz, the song opens with Leehom’s voice in acapella as he sings ‘That year in spring when I opened my eyes/It was so quiet’. Unlike the poetic ambiguity of the lyrics in this first line, the arrangement shows us this is no conventional love song. Wang’s voice in acapella starts in an arbitrary, unhinging manner and seems to have been chosen purposely outside of Wang’s normal baritone vocal range. This evokes a sense of uncertainty, and the song continues in this tangent, adding in a delectable set of country western/folk guitar riffs which add texture and juxtapose Wang’s intentionally auto-tuned vocals.
The lyrics hint at the story of an A.I. being who has become sentient, but yet in living in a world with no tears is unable to be truly happy. I especially liked the comparisons of love to a program or to a game, but overall the lyrics were a little patchy in their coverage of the discussion on artificial intelligence and how all of this might relate to our current reality. Nevertheless, the song’s arrangement is full of texture and makes up for what words cannot express; using the grounded guitar riffs to humanise the experience while really testing the boundaries by making the autotune so intentionally hearable, just so Leehom can literally through his own voice bring this A.I. creature’s emotions and feelings directly to the ear of the listener. The skilful addition of the erhu especially at the second chorus of ‘ohs’ was especially genius; the breathy voices and sweeping EDM effects lifted higher and higher by the mellow and lively tones of the Chinese instrument before leading into the EDM drop, as if a breath of fresh air has entered a dull, mechanic space.
‘Thousands of Generations千秋萬代’ was another standout track on the album for me, part of Wang’s collaboration with The Swaggernautz that allowed for a little reminiscing of Leehom’s ‘Chinked-out’ days. Starting off with silken purrings and meanderings on the erhu and a few slick ‘yeah yeahs’, it’s clear that the hip-hop Leehom we know and love is well and truly back. Legato pluckings on the guitar in a call-and-return exchange with the playful erhu are the only accompaniment to Wang’s first verse, before simple snares and fuller strums are added to kick the second verse into gear.
The EDM contributions to this track lie still in the auto-tuned quality of Leehom’s voice, and to an extent in the use of the erhu to mimic synthesiser riffs that are signature to the EDM genre. Despite a heavy use of these electronic elements, they still do nothing to detract from Leehom’s signature ‘homeboy’ essence which is injected into this song with every melismatic embellishment, and every line of rap. Who knew a fusion of Hip hop and Chinese traditional music could be fused further with EDM in such a way? The lyrics are also intriguing, in that the verses are romantic and written more in a poetic manner; Chinese couplets and all, before slipping into some rather lascivious hip hop talk in the chorus, peppered with ‘babys’ and ‘maybes’. It is here that Leehom proves he can have his cake and eat it; sticking to his East-meets-West guns while continuing his exploration of the EDM genre.
The other two EDM-inspired tracks on the album, ‘Tonight Forever’ and ‘Why Don’t You Just Love Me’ were also well-produced, but unfortunately fell short of the ambitious precedent set by the above three tracks. ‘Tonight Forever’, a collaboration between Leehom and tween Mainland Chinese boyband TF Boys is an anthemic pop song featuring lots of clapping, ‘woo-hoos’ and singing in turns (Fahrenheit meets One Direction, anyone?). Although there were some interesting elements of hip hop, pop, acapella and EDM in the song (and a killer erhu solo), the ‘tween’ factor was too high for me to handle. You know when a 41 year-old man starts singing ‘let tonight go on forever’ that it’s time to skip to the next song.
The other EDM track, also another collaboration with The Swaggernautz ‘Why Don’t You Just Love Me’ starts off on the wrong foot with an obviously ‘Shape of You’ influenced riff, but otherwise hits its stride relatively smoothly throughout the verses. I have to say, the transition into tropical house in the choruses was a little too sudden and festive for my liking, pulling me out of much-preferred mellow beats surrounding me in the chorus. The lyrics in the bridge ‘You and me together/loving is forever’ hearkens back to Al Green’s classic ‘Let’s Stay Together’, and is yet another disappointing almost-rip off. Two strikes and this song’s out for me. His jazzed-up version of the song performed at last year's Universiade was undeniably electrifying though, I'll give him that.
As usual, Leehom’s ballad-based half of the album-the ‘Love’ half if you will- serves to please fans both old and new, with clean, warm and heartfelt melodies that bring out the sensitive side to the veteran crooner. One of the standout sentimental pieces on the album is ‘Dearest親愛的’, which Leehom wrote as a heartfelt letter to his two daughters. It is clear that within this album that Leehom’s perspectives on life and love have changed significantly; even the ways in which he fuses Eastern and Western elements are less sharp, calculated and extreme; instead more focused on improving flow and rounding out the edges. However this change of perspective especially in regards to finding a new type of love; that of fatherly love’ is most evident in ‘Dearest親愛的’, even to the most naked ear.
The song is one crafted with such care and warmth; almost painstakingly so to present a love so altruistic and pure that it could only be from a father to his children. Few are able to express themselves so articulately through music as Leehom, even to the point of capturing complex emotion in such a simple song, but the experienced balladeer has certainly succeeded with nothing more than a piano, his warm, supportive vocals and a few simple embellishments on the guitar and violin interspersed throughout. Written very much like a lullaby, the lyrics are a heartfelt letter that would melt the heart of even the most cold-hearted villain. Leehom takes it slow with this song, going with what he feels; his vocals polished but not exceptionally so to allow the richness of expression to come across even more clearly. An emotional masterpiece.
“Silent Dancer無聲感情” another one of the foremost singles on the album, is a beautiful waltz that is extravagant yet simple in its execution. Supposedly inspired once again by his children, the song is a clean ditty that is light hearted and uplifting, with a piano part that is swift and clever at some parts, and elegantly fluid in others. Another favourite on the album is Leehom’s contribution to the movie soundtrack ‘Listen to Love聽愛’. Although I usually don’t count movie theme songs as thematically part of the album (there are two others also tacked on to the end of this album), this song was too beautifully done not to mention. Starting off with a simple and folksy guitar part, it launches into this huge, extravagant, atmospheric sound in the chorus buoyed by Leehom’s powerful voice in a way that leaves me in awe. Incorporating more elements of Chinese traditional influence here (I hear the Guzheng especially), the folk-Chinese traditional-orchestral fusion here is awe-inspiring when you look past the fact that the song is kind of about tofu. I’ll allow it.
Leehom’s ‘A.I.愛’ album can be seen to contain two halves: A.I.-what is considered not real, false, artificially constructed, and 愛Love, which could be construed as the opposite; something that is real and brings true happiness. While the tracks rift with electronic influence discuss love and relationships which are simple (Why Don’t You Just Love Me, Tonight Forever) and unemotional (A World Without Tears, A.I. Love), those decisively created without are portrayed as real, especially through their direct connection with Leehom’s personal life in some instances (Silent Dancer無聲感情, Dearest親愛的). Although I can’t say that I agree fully with Wang’s suspicions towards artificial intelligence and feel like his discussions on the topic are rather patchwork in nature, I have to say it was a pleasure delving deep into his work and seeing him work his East-meets-West magic once again.
One thing I have noticed in this album is that the incorporation of Chinese and Western influences into almost all his tracks seem to have become almost second nature to Wang; whereas in his previous albums they seemed more experimental and calculated. This is something that I have truly enjoyed watching unfurl in front of me throughout the entire album, and his use of electronic elements in inventive and innovative ways to tell a story rather than as just a placeholder never cease to amaze me. Despite a few less-than-desirable tracks, A.I.愛 packs an emotional punch and re-houses that signature Leehom spark that was somewhat missing in his previous album. And for that, I am grateful.