It has been forever since I’ve liked a YG release without a nagging feeling of pretentiousness, with Crush as the most recent offender. Here though, we have something else, for Play is both honest and self-confident, and is reflective of Akdong Musician in its most natural state. Simply put, the album is dominated by sweet tunes laced with some ‘snap, crackle, and pop’ of mainstream K-pop. I guess Akdong Musician is that happy medium between Busker Busker and a classic idol group, and for them, it works really, really well.
I don’t know if I’m making this up in my head or not, but I find that most of K-pop fits within two categories. The first is trendy pop music, consisting of a blend of Hip-pop, R&B, Rap, and Electronic elements and is home to your everyday idol. The second is a “folk-pop” based genre that sort of worms its way towards the indie scene in presentation, but turns out to be extremely popular. Some of the biggest names in Korean music are people whose music fits right in with this laid back genre; think Roy Kim, Busker Busker, Clazziquai, Togeworl, Lim Kim, Juniel, Park Ji-yoon, etc., along with Akdong Musician.
Akdong’s niche was carved out from the moment they walked onto K-pop Star 2, so coming into Play, they probably had a very distinct idea of what they wanted to put on their record, and on YG’s part, they knew exactly what made the duo famous. It’s only natural that YG went with the hands off approach to the album, save for dictating the title track…because that was probably the dumbest decision in the whole debut.
Well, admittedly, it wasn’t all that dumb, because “200%” is definitely the track with greatest mainstream presence (did anyone else feel a sense of Dynamic Duo in the rap?). It’s a fun song, save for the fact that it’s very heavy handed with hooks compared to the rest of the album. “200%” hovers within three or four notes of the central tone, which is great for creating the “catchy” element (see Shinee‘s “Lucifer” for the best, and most extreme version of this), but not so great when it comes to the overarching resonance. Personally, I would have picked “Give Love” for the title track because it avoids this resonance effect, yet keeps “200%”‘s snap and brightness.
“Melted” is the complete opposite of “200%” and “Give Love” not only because it’s melancholic and melodic, but it’s a song that uses phrasing beautifully. A reasonable complaint is that in being melodic, “Melted” is all chorus and nothing else, but there’s just enough variation and depth for it to become a non-issue. The vocals, harmonization, and intonation are gorgeous and I love how they made most of the natural beauty of the chromatic scale. It’s by far my favorite track, and is probably the song that best depicts the strength in the vocal pairing of the siblings. I love how they’re able to pick up lines from each other seamlessly.
The rest of the album is just as well crafted as “Melted,” though I didn’t have the visceral reaction when listening that I did for the latter. I guess another one of my favorites is “작은별,” a quirky, yet relaxing track…then again, I could use this descriptor with nearly any song on the album. It might be better to say that “작은별” is softer and understated, but still well within the pop territory (in contrast to “지하철에서,” which is simply soft and folk-y).
A downside to having very pointed style like Akdong is that songs can easily get lost among each other. While melodies and embellishments change from song to song, the foundations are mostly the same. Even after listening to the album multiple times, songs blend together rather than become increasingly differentiable. This is not so problematic in the most practical of perspectives, but what this could potentially lead to is stagnation in sound. Play is great at building a fence around itself and planting its feet in the middle of that allotted area. What it fails to do is to tread along the fence–pushing the boundary while never actually jumping over it.
The most memorable albums are cohesive, yes; however, it’s not sufficient to be cohesive. There has to be conviction behind that cohesion, coupled with a little bit of daring. Play lacks fire, the fearlessness to burn some corners and even trip a little. “Melted” wasn’t my favorite track because it was objectively “brilliant” or something–it was just the song that decide to reinterpret Play‘s tone, and it stood out for doing it well. I just wish there were a few more songs that attempted to jump some unexpected hoops.
All in all, Play is an impressive debut, and one of my favorite albums of the year. I look forward to round two, Akdong Musician.