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10 Songs That Exemplify the Rise of Vietnam's Contemporary R&B/Soul Movement

In an industry where singers don’t stick to only one genre, Vietnamese R&B/Soul is often overlooked and sadly underdeveloped. While veteran artists like Mỹ Linh and Hà Anh Tuấn have occasionally professed their love for the genre, their work tends to reflect an outdated perspective, suggesting they have not listened to any R&B songs made after 1995.

However, with the rise of K-pop, as well as the availability of portable music software, Vietnamese R&B/Soul has gradually become more modern, polished and, in some cases, daring. We have seen a string of several remarkable releases in recent years, but their irregularity negates the possibility of a niche market for the genre. Nevertheless, there are enough deep cuts to argue a case for this movement, and each of the ten songs below serves as a fine representative in one way or another.

 

1. Jazzy Dạ Lam – 'Trăng Và Em' (The Moon & You), 2005

Composed by Nguyễn Tấn Đạt | Arranged by Phương Nam | Performed by Jazzy Dạ Lam

Gliding through the cryptic lyrics by Nguyễn Tấn Đạt, Jazzy Dạ Lam (JDL) sings the first known Vietnamese neo-soul tune with ease and elegance. Towards the end, she throws in a little bit of scat singing and tasteful vocal runs which are reminiscent of the genre’s pioneer, Erykah Badu. For the arrangement, Phương Nam allows jazz to take the spotlight, while JDL adds a few strokes of old-school R&B, blurring the line between the two genres and encouraging them to become one. The result is a rich and rewarding listen, highlighting the incredible musicianship on display, one of the most effortless and mystifying slow jams out there.

 

2. Mỹ Linh – 'Với Anh' (With You), 2006

Composed by Hồ Hoài Anh | Arranged by Cao Nhật Trung | Performed by Mỹ Linh

In the context of contemporary R&B, 'Với Anh' is not necessarily innovative. The choices of instrumentation are quite common: disc-scratching samples, an acoustic guitar loop, multiple vocal layers and a hip-hop-indebted drum machine. But in the context of Vietnamese R&B/Soul, 'Với Anh' was the first calling of the genre. The reference to a childhood dream of becoming Cinderella and waiting for Prince Charming runs the risk of turning the song into some unbearable Celine Dion-level schmaltz, but through a boisterous and sensual vocal performance, Mỹ Linh makes the character believable, her longing felt and her fairy tale sexy.

Through word of mouth, 'Với Anh' has gone on to become a classic among fans who consider it the singer's creative peak. Meanwhile, Linh has released two more albums since Để Tình Yêu Hát — one acoustic and one sequel to her 2005 R&B/Classical fusion called Chat With Mozart 2. The former is excruciatingly boring, while the latter sounds like a budget-version of Stevie Wonder with neither the hook or the personality. Though the amount of insignificant music she has released does not dismiss her vocal talents, that glimpse of magic in 2006 certainly broke hearts — oh what could have been?

 

3. Hà Anh Tuấn (feat. Hà Okio) – 'Vòng Xoay' (Roundabout), 2007

Written & Arranged by Võ Thiện Thanh | Performed by Hà Anh Tuấn & Hà Okio

Nine years after the release of Café Sáng (2007), singer Hà Anh Tuấn and songwriter/composer Võ Thiện Thanh reunited for Street Rhythms, an album that is less showy, but equally sophisticated. While Street Rhythms explores the fusion of funk, neo-soul, jazz and hip-hop, the early effort of Café Sáng takes a more traditional approach, dabbling in contemporary R&B and seeing how far they can push it.

During its four-minute run, 'Vòng Xoay' sounds exactly like what its title suggests: depicting the vivid urban scene at a roundabout where each scooter rider tries to pass (and sometimes kill) the others. To match the song’s imagery, Thanh layers the song in swirling synth, emphasizing each line with rumbling drums and masterfully deployed synth strings to add more urgency to an already busy affair. The relentless beat also proves to be a great cover for Tuấn, as it leaves no room for vocal improvisation and as a result, requires very little of him vocally. Tuấn has never been a strong singer, and the genres he picks often betray him. But on 'Vòng Xoay,' his unpolished, raw performance becomes the perfect vessel for the frantic energy, making this R&B cut both nerve-wracking and incredibly satisfying.

 

4. Mỹ Tâm – 'Và Em Có Anh' (And I’ve Got You), 2008

Composed by Lee Han Boem | Arranged by Cho Sung Jin | Lyrics by Quốc Bảo | Performed by Mỹ Tâm

Similar to 'Với Anh' by Mỹ Linh, 'Và Em Có Anh' is by no means challenging or forward-thinking; however, it is anchored by a gorgeous piano riff, a common kick-drum pattern and some electric guitar flourishes for the climax. But being musically ambitious was never the intention; Mỹ Tâm is not interested in complex song structure, sudden tempo change or cool jazzy chords. The song aspires to be a soulful diva-belting kind of song. It wants the big chorus everyone will dramatically croon to and it wants to be the moment that would win you the title of Vietnam Idol. And by delivering such a performance, Mỹ Tâm brings 'Và Em Có Anh' to life, and us to our knees.

 

5. KAANG (feat. JGKiD) – 'Một Mình' (Alone), 2013

Composed by KAANG | Arranged by Nguyễn Đức Hải Phong (So Good Fusion Band) | Performed by KAANG & JGKiD

KAANG was, and still is, a rare talent. Her influences range from Mỹ Linh and Erykah Badu to musical wunderkind Jacob Collier. She once revealed that she practiced ad-libs to the beats of the incredible US hip-hop producer J Dilla. So not only does the girl have exquisite taste, she also has some formidable writing chops, which are abundantly clear in 'Một Mình' — the second neo-soul song on our list.

Though quiet in its composition, 'Một Mình' still manages to present a self-assured maturity that is rarely seen in young artists, as proven by the song’s smart progression and the range KAANG chose to sing in. The tasteful instrumentation perfectly conveys the hinted regret, while the bass timbre adds much-needed warmth to the overall feel of the song. Like most modern pop songs, however, the rap verse from JGKID sounds like an afterthought, with the robotic, amateurish flow making it worse. If only KAANG took the title to heart and performed this song một mình.

 

6. MIN – 'Tìm' (Lost), 2013

Composed by Hoàng Tôn | Arranged by Khắc Hưng | Performed by MIN

As the first song from St. 319 Productions, 'Tìm' (Lost) signified where V-pop would head in the next five years: beautifully shot music videos, artists strategically managed and, most importantly, songs aimed to be hits that don’t sound like they were made 20 years ago. 'Tìm' is expertly crafted, with the perfect amount of needed melodrama and restraint. While the instrumentation consistently builds towards the inevitable explosive finish, the collision of lead and background vocals is the ultimate driving force. By the time the multiple layers of vocals harmonize to lead into the climax, 'Tìm' feels cathartic and exhilarating. It is possible that the song is heavily inspired by 'Only Look at Me' by Taeyang (BIGBANG), but when the result is this good, all is forgiven.

 

7. Sơn Tùng M-TP – 'Khuôn Mặt Đáng Thương' (Pitiful Face), 2015

Composed & Performed by Sơn Tùng M-TP | Arranged by Slim-V

Previous hits 'Em Của Ngày Hôm Qua' and 'Không Phải Dạng Vừa Đâu' made Sơn Tùng a household name, but they also turned him into a misunderstood talent. With tons of incredibly charming catchphrases which any advertising agency would kill to have, he's usually viewed as someone who created dumbed-down songs for mass consumption. But one listen to either of the aforementioned songs and the verdict is clear: it took more than just luck to craft such delicious hooks, and Tùng has more than just catchphrases up his sleeve.

'Khuôn Mặt Đáng Thương,' his seventh single, and also his best, builds not around a punch line, but rather an intricate vocal arrangement and relatively subdued production. Taking advantage of a rolling rhythm, Tùng layers short vocal lines in a panning effect to build more dimensions, delivers a rap verse with unexpected ferocity and scatters interesting background vocals throughout the track. For how limited he is as a singer, he sure knows how to work it to his advantage, favoring the overall feel of the voice against the production over Mariah Carey-esque vocal runs. The arrangement here is another example of K-pop’s influence on Vietnamese contemporary music, namely an abrupt tempo change and a bridge slowed down to transform the song into a rousing house banger. Both choices are handled with masterful precision, leaving us to wonder how the general public could ever doubt him.

 

8. Soobin Hoàng Sơn – 'Lalala,' 2016

Composed & Performed by Soobin Hoàng Sơn | Arranged by Touliver

Considering how reluctant V-pop is when it comes to stepping out of its comfort zone, it is refreshing to hear a song invested in the use of expansive space to suggest wordless sensuality. The trick can be traced back to the likes of The xx, James Blake and, of course, The Weeknd in terms of nocturnal R&B.

In the case of Soobin Hoàng Sơn/Touliver, the inspiration is obvious through the icy-cold synth and the reverb-drenched atmosphere. But while the above-mentioned artists treat their voices as part of the production, Soobin takes a more traditional approach. With plenty of confidence to spare, he handles the song with ease, injecting an alluring sexiness to the verses while staying committed to its breakup-themed lyrics. The chorus does not quite capture the same essence, but in this case, the gorgeous production can certainly sustain the interest, utilizing the overlooked sound of a harp and showing his contemporaries how to use space as an instrument.

 

9. Da LAB – 'Từ Ngày Em Đến' (Since You’ve Been Around), 2017

Composed by Da LAB | Arranged by Đoàn Minh Vũ | Performed by Da LAB and Emcee L

Despite being one of the more reliable rap/hip-hop acts in Vietnam, it is somewhat ironic that Da LAB gained mainstream popularity due to the success of the slow jam 'Từ Ngày Em Đến,' in which every member sets aside their fire-spitting bars and does their best Boyz II Men impression. It is not the first time Da LAB has shown off their knack for pop sensibilities since their best work has always incorporated great top-line melodies.

Nevertheless, it is still surprising to hear them wholeheartedly put their spin on nhạc nhẹ — a sub-genre consisting of mostly mid-tempo love songs which ruled the charts back in the mid-2000s. The melody was among the year’s best, the groove palpable and the horn section during the middle eight ridiculously blissful. But what absolutely steals the show is how committed JGKiD and Rabbit Run are to selling the song, particularly moments like 2:47 and 2:59. Such infectiousness is hard to find even in technically brilliant singers and here, with all their flaws in diction and dynamic execution, Da LAB does it effortlessly.

 

10. Vũ Thanh Vân & Dustin Ng – 'Chiện Tình' (Love Story), 2018

Composed & Performed by Vũ Thanh Vân | Arranged by Dustin Ng

The obsession with spoken-word samples from old Cantonese dramas has been a strange phenomenon in the Vietnamese underground scene. Rarely do they justify their presence, and most are frankly disruptive to the song’s flow. The one used in 'Chiện Tình' is no exception, since its dramatic intonation feels out of place in this fantastic trap/R&B fusion. Despite that, 'Chiện Tình' still has plenty to offer. The composition is intimate and melodic and the production is appropriately trendy, with enough attention to detail to keep things interesting. And Vũ Thanh Vân — who has been making waves in the independent scene for her gorgeously arranged and intimate tracks — managed to make 'Chiện Tình' sound as longing as any torch classic, even with all the electronic effects going on. Now if only someone had torched that damn spoken-word sample.

Ted Dang is the founder and writer of VNNTB, a blog dedicated to discussion and reviews on Vietnamese music and occasionally K-pop.


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