Though I’ve enjoyed virtually everything Taemin has released, and often hold him up as one of K-pop’s luminary performers, there’s a certain energy I’ve missed from his Korean output since 2016. Perhaps this is just my bias, having grown up with the Jacksons as my musical icons, but Taemin has always struck me as one of the few K-pop artists capable of hoisting that heavy mantle. Past singles Danger and Press Your Number lived up to that promise, and new single Criminal is a perfect extension. The Taemin I adore is back, and better than ever.
Criminal was described by SM Entertainment as “synthwave,” but the song only uses that as a jumping off point. Above all, this is the Full Taemin Show, placing his charismatic vocal over a pulsing dance beat that feels like 2017’s Move on caffeine. Its verses are slinky and atmospheric, but Criminal is anchored by its killer chorus. It’s a brilliant melody, spiraling with a hypnotic structure that perfectly compliments the layers of synth underneath. It’s not a bombastic refrain, but grows more forceful and compelling with each repetition. I absolutely love Criminal’s climax, as additional vocal tics and ad-libs forge a playful arrangement and Taemin’s delivery becomes stronger.
Criminal’s instrumental is also deserving of praise. Though it slows a bit during the second verse, a consistent kick helps keep the track chugging along. The synth textures are evocative and exciting and add plenty of drama as the melody pulls and pushes the song in different directions. There’s a welcome sense of growth to the entire track. The production becomes more dense and daring as we reach Criminal’s finale. The police scanner dialogue during the bridge is a fun, theatrical touch, driving home the song’s cinematic concept. It all comes together to create a thrilling, fully-realized comeback that sees Taemin at the top of his game.