Ronin’s “Chemical Smiles” opens with Ronin pleading, “It’s your chemical smile.” All over a funky, Prince-like groove, sung soulfully with a rapper’s attitude.
Perhaps Ronin’s most Prince-esque moment is the wau he squeals at the end, and when sweet synthesizers jump in — like a Paisley Park The Time recording — it seals the deal. However, Ronin’s roots are far away from Minneapolis, MN. This Korean American immigrant was brought up in Philadelphia, PA. Granted, Philadelphia has a rich soul music tradition, but Ronin doesn’t sound too much like Philly.
This song’s lyrics are not linier, so it’s a little difficult to figure out what he’s singing about with this single. Although it’s not especially clear what his message is, it’s doesn’t really matter what he’s saying. It’s all in the way he says it. He’s singing, specifically, his lust for a girl.
The verses feature relatively sparse backing. In among the synthesizers, there’s also organ, low in the mix. The percussion is a stuttering groove, with an equally low thumping bass part. Over the top, Ronin places his elastic singing.
There is a science to love and romance. When a couple is good together, folks may say they have good chemistry. A chemical smile in Hollywood, might relate to plastic surgery, though. However, that’s not the sort of chemical reaction Ronin is singing about. His voice takes on Prince-y vocal flights in places, but also dips down into a lower register often. In these cases, Ronin sounds a lot like Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids. Chances are good, though, he’s never even heard of Cold War Kids, let alone Willett. With that said, though, if you place this song back-to-back with almost any Cold War Kids recording, you’ll probably immediately hear a strong resemblance.
With the way this song begins, you may set yourself for a more traditional soul song. It’s when the stop-and-start groove kicks in, though, you realize this is something entirely different. It even sounds like it will turn into a rap song. But it doesn’t.
Getting back to the song’s title, one might wonder if the song title is what it is, because of how it sounds when Ronin sings it during the chorus. It’s also a memorable and intriguing pair of words. Just reading it makes you want to listen and see if the work’s meaning can be deciphered. One is left with the impression Ronin is being cagy with his words on purpose. Pointing back to Prince again, a private person who had a mystique around him, Ronin may just want to build up some mystery surrounding his musical personality.
In the end, you’ll probably really like this song, even though you can’t put your finger on why. It’s just a funky, memorably few minutes of music that will have you moving (and maybe scratching your head a little). Songs more open to personal interpretation, like this one, are more fun than songs so straightforward they bore you. Take time to investigate this song – like a detective – and you too might have some fun. In a way, the song itself causes a kind of chemical reaction.