I did a quick poll earlier in the week to kind of gauge the interests of K-pop listeners these days, but more importantly, I planned to turn the responsibility to others to make my decisions about which albums I should be reviewing. I guess my more intelligent reasoning is that I don’t think I’ve given myself enough variety in discussion, album type, nor written expression when it comes to album reviewing, and I thought that a sure-fire way to force myself out of my comfort zone was to give myself less control over the music I am listening to and examining (kind of like the iTunes Roulette thing?). Hopefully this exercise will become a useful as I try to improve upon such shortcomings. Anyway, before I ramble too much (even more than I’ve already done), here’s the first half of my album discussion. Part two should come out in the next few days. Who knows, I might be so enthralled by this process that there might even be a part 3.
I have a major problem with the notion that “arteeeests” can do no wrong. Even Michelangelo can produce crap given the right set of circumstances. Being the author of genius in the past has no bearing on whether his works have mediocre worth in the present. The same attitude applies to Epik High, though I have to admit that taste remains a factor in what I consider good or bad. My issue with Shoebox, and of course, with a lot of YG albums, is the pompous attitude associated with it. I always have to stop and wonder whether people are liking it because it is a YG product, and with uncomfortable regularity, the answer is yes.
Thankfully, Shoebox is not a bad product. It’s actually much more grounded than I expected it to be, especially given the terrible output that was their 7th Album. I really like “Happen Ending” and “Shoebox” but a lot of it blends into everything else because the same motifs of composition show up over and over, much like in Nell albums. Despite my opinion on the subject, I can’t say that excessive continuity is a shortcoming because I don’t have real knowledge of what hip-hop is “supposed to be like.” However, if I sever my ignorance of the genre from how I feel after listening, I just end up with a headache. Shoebox is an album that gives me a whole plate of crackers; they are delicious, buttery crackers, but after the 10th one you want to gag a little bit.
Honestly, I think the album lacks bite that is executed well. When it tries to stretch its boundaries from traditional Epik High, we get a another stock YG track that rings false. Epik High can create sweeping melodies, yet when given the chance to use songstress Younha who made “Umbrella” a hit (IMO, and it’s not because of my interest in Younha), they fail to capitalize anything from her presence. I might even call “Fight Again” the worst song of the twelve. Thankfully the other collaborations fare better, though again, it feels like the spark is missing even when the gears seem to be in the right places.
I suppose I’ve ended up not saying much about Shoebox. If you are ready to have Epik High become part of modern day Hip-hop, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that the group is taking a step in the right direction. As for me, I’ll peruse through Pieces and relish the first decade of the second millennium. I won’t deny that I’m biased.
“Eternity” was my guilty pleasure track over the summer, and the follow-up album is tonally appropriate; it’s piano-driven, airy, has all the elements of dance-pop and carries the flourishes of EDM. “Steel Heart” + “Error” is a great opener because it hits all the sweet spots associated with melodic dance track, i.e. it doesn’t offend. Personally, I like that the song makes the most of its space, even when certain parts feel uninspired, namely the chorus. However, when placed against the messy follow-up track, “After Dark,” I think “Error” can be forgiven for almost anything. It’s a shame that “After Dark”‘s stronger presence from an interesting writing standpoint is wasted on a string of disjoint, but similar, ideas. Nevertheless, what is there is done with enough finesse that it can be appreciated for what it is; a song characteristic of VIXX, the “concept-dols.” “After Dark” is followed by “청춘이 아파,” another thematically appropriate track of the always necessary, but never wanted, ballad genre.
On the other hand, “Time Machine” has enough throwback to be fun despite the sense of “been there, done that” that comes under a rather inappropriate context. For VIXX, “Time Machine” sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t fit into “Error”‘s concept, and one cannot even dismiss it as some song that suits VIXX that got thrown in as filler. “Time Machine” is totally out of place save for its title, and VIXX would have been better off not including it at all. I should never have to come out of a song wondering “what the heck is that?” when its intrinsic quality is decent. “What Are U Waiting For” makes up for “Time Machine”‘s digressions, though by that point I’ve probably subconsciously dismissed the whole mini. Too little, too late?
Overall, I feel that VIXX has hit a mode of complacency common to any idol group with a decent amount of success. If the group can churn out albums with decent presence on a regular basis, the group is going to sell. It’s a simple fact in a fandom run music industry. We thrive upon sensationalism and group think, and a double plus-good EP is more indicative of our devotion (or the extent of brainwashing) than anything else.
JYJ, Just Us
I know I briefly looked into the album and its title track mid-summer, and I regret not examining the album in greater detail. Just Us is a conundrum from the JYJ perspective and is, for all intents and purposes, a message from the group that should last them through military service; a symbol of their musical identity, and a testament to their longevity. Frankly, the album doesn’t accomplish any of that to the extent that it was claimed to do by hearsay. Just Us is a rather unassuming album that sort of ends up in the massive collection of K-pop albums of the year. I can’t really say that much has stood out with or without JYJ in K-pop music this year, but what I think Just Us did, inadvertently or not, is set up a divide between the music that defines JYJ and what defines K-pop.
I don’t mean this in a way that suddenly JYJ has reached some strange level of artistry. Rather, it’s a point that establishes that Just Us is a product that is JYJ for strange reasons. Poorly produced western pop tracks with horrible English have become characteristic of a JYJ album (not Junsu or Jaejoong products, oddly enough), but even in the worst of them all, “Backseat,” there are pockets of musicality that makes you think twice before hitting that confirmation of deletion. The JYJ effect.
So what am I here for then? Self torture?
The more and more I listen to Just Us to discern my motivations, the more I’m feeling like I’m reaching out and digging for the figurine among the shipping peanuts, and what’s sustaining me is the anticipation for the figure in the package and not the value of the figure itself. It’s essentially the notion that I don’t care about what the album contains, and what I’m really looking for is what satiates a more subtle desire. Just Us is an amalgamation of JYJ in the best and worst way possible–it is everything I expect from them: a ballad here, a dance track there, a minimalist song, a retro piece, an awkward 4 minutes, and that final piece that reminds you why you even bother to stick around. But for a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on what made me come back again and again to a group I spent so much time scratching my head at.
To find that answer, it’s important to realize that K-pop is built under the assumption that every album is filled with a bunch of songs that are classified under good, bad, and I’ll just pretend that never happened. When we buy albums, it’s in part a reflection of affection toward the singer; an response to “how much do I love you?” For me, JYJ tracks have become the means to answer a different question: “How much do I want to hear your voice?”
The answer is a lot, evidently; a single lovely phrase from any song in Just Us can be enough to get me to listen to the whole thing.
So what does that say about JYJ? It says that they are musicians because they convey music in a way that celebrates sound, not because they self compose, or because they run their own company, or because of any of those BS arguments claiming “real artistry” that seems to float around K-pop sites these days. When JYJ sings, I care about their musical decisions, because I know that for JYJ, the delivery of every song is indeed a decision. In fact, I don’t even care whether I approve of said decisions, I’m far more concerned about the fact that JYJ gives themselves the agency to make every moment in every song count be it mediocre or outright terrible. Too few singers pay attention to the fleeting, the 10 seconds where one note, one embellishment, can up-heave the sentences of a song. This is where any idol has power to change the direction of the music, and it frankly is under-utilized. When artists spend time examining their relationship with their lines and the lines of their group-mates, my job as a listener become far more interesting.
And just in case you were wondering, this is what separates JYJ from most of the K-pop world.
[See Part 2 Soon!]
(Images Belong to Respective Owners)