Review: Karencici – Blow-Up EP

Flipping through music radio in Taiwan is quite the experience. While it’s clear that Mando-pop and American pop music dominate the airwaves (Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Red-Haired Ed–the loving nickname for Ed Sheeran–are still king here), K-pop, J-pop, and other songs from East Asia receive a radio spotlight every once in a while. Unlike the popular radio stations back at home who restrict themselves to playing music in English or Spanish, Taiwanese stations don’t seem to care that they’re playing a song that most of their listeners won’t understand. Although pop is undeniably the genre of choice in most cases, this musical smorgasbord seems to lead to a wider acceptance towards artists and music from all kinds of regions–not just the country that they’re in.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that at that very moment, sandwiched between a KPOP song and an ancient Mando-pop hit, Chinese-American Karencici made her first Taiwanese radio appearance with her pop/R&B song “Go On.” The catch? “Go On” is not in Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean–it’s in English.

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The Michelangelo Antonioni-inspired cover for Karencici’s debut EP, Blow-Up. 

At only 20 years old, Karencici (whose Chinese name is 林愷倫, English name Karen Lam) already seems primed for stardom. In fact, according to a profile that she’s done in Taiwan’s version of Vogue, she’s been in the music business ever since she was in her early teens, sending music demos to Korea in hopes of signing on to a major record label. When that didn’t happen, she set her sights onto making it in China, appearing on Sing! China (one of China’s many variations of The Voice) and getting mentored by Chinese rock musician Wang Feng in the process.

After building up quite the resume for herself and returning to Taiwan to do some behind-the-scenes writing for others (including penning the lyrics to Taiwanese pop-star Hebe Tien’s “Useless”), Karencici finally signed onto a Korean record label and started recording for her first EP. Blow-Up, the result of these sessions, is a polished and chilled-out debut, announcing the arrival of a rising pop star ready to dominate all of East Asia.

Throughout the three short R&B songs on Blow-Up, Karencici demonstrates that she has a steady grasp on what her sound should be like… and it’s no wonder why. Rejecting the style of the countless ballads and singer-songwriter covers that she performed on Sing! China, Karencici opts for a more hip-hop approach even though she definitely has the pipes for the former. Blow-Up instead features lo-fi hip hop beats elevated by personal signatures: the smoky saxophone solo at the end of “Timeless” and the beautiful vocal inflection on “love” in the chorus of “One Love” shows that Karencici has more than just a pretty voice. Think of it as a marriage of two musical styles: a reimagining of slinky American R&B mixed in with East Asia’s pristine vocal style and production. But it works! All of the songs here are easy listens, and they’d make a great addition to any chill-out playlist–or any pop playlist, really.

The language that she chooses to sing and market herself in is also something to take into account. Unlike other approaches to Asian-American superstardom in Asia (Asian-Americans Utada Hikaru, Eric Nam, and Will Pan come to mind), Karencici doesn’t seem too concerned with releasing an English language EP outside of an English speaking country. It’s clear that she has a choice in the matter too–she’s already demonstrated that she can speak fluent Mandarin, and her Korean is at the very least okay if she’s going to continue setting up base in Korea. Besides switching out a few Chinese verses for Korean ones in “Timeless” for her fans in Korea, Karencici seems to be mostly in control of the creative process and what she’s singing. (An early version of “Timeless” is in Mandarin and English, which is posted below.)

However, she seems most comfortable when she’s in the presence of other Americans (Korean-American rapper Junoflo drops by for a guest-verse on “Go On” and Korean-American producer kvn appears on and mixes “Timeless”), and she continues to work with them despite having a number of other Korean collaborators in her arsenal. Blow-Up is a curious case, because more than anything else it seems like the rare case of an American project that is solely backed by East Asian music industries.

But maybe that’s the only problem with Blow-Up… it’s a project that seems little too safe and too familiar to what Americans are used to listening to. As I mentioned earlier, all of the songs are well-produced and well-sung, but Karencici and her collaborators don’t take any major risks to define her as an artist. Each song on the EP is about love or heartbreak, and is constructed to be as lyrically vague as possible to appeal to as many people as possible. It’s a calculated approach since she’s casting a wide net in three pools at once: Taiwan, Korea, and possibly even the states. For now, this is understandably the best move for her in establishing her popularity, but probably not the best move for her artistically.

Case in point: just five days ago, Karencici released “All Good,” a short song on her personal YouTube channel, that doesn’t appear on the EP or any streaming platforms. Clocking in at only a minute and thirty seconds, it’s only a snippet of larger things to come–yet it arguably packs more personality and fun in its short runtime than any of the songs released on Blow-Up. “I’m way too salty, this beat is too wavy,” she swaggers at one point. “I’m feelin myself, Yeah I’m feelin myself.”

Once Karencici finally finds her footing (and her fanbase), hopefully this is the direction she’s veering towards with her music. I believe that it’s only then that her career will truly “blow-up.”

Link to Spotify Playlist of Blow-Up EP.

Check out some of Karencici’s songs on our Spotify playlist!

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