2023 Kpop Round-Up Review: Feb — Apr (SEVENTEEN, SHINee, and Lots of Girl Groups)

Maxine Thao
33 min readSep 1, 2023

As Kpop is a fast moving industry, comebacks I’ve been wanting to cover have accumulated… by quite a lot.

I originally planned to make this an entire first half of the year round up but for everybody’s sake, I decided to split it roughly in half, so look forward to that sometime in the future!

As a quick disclaimer, this is not a full extensive list of every Kpop release during this period of time — probably not even collecting a lot of the most popular groups! These are just releases that have piqued my individual interest, in terms of acts I’m curious about and ones I’m already invested in. I am simply one point of view in the sea of reviewers, not claiming my opinions as any objective absolute end all be all, so just keep that in mind… if you’re interested in my polished off ramblings.

“BSS 1st Single Album ‘SECOND WIND’ ” (2023) by BSS

Starting off the year strong, a true comeback by SEVENTEEN’s first offically debuted subunit BooSeokSoon (BSS) was bestowed upon us. The trio released their ‘single album’ (think an EP, but smaller) “SECOND WIND” in February of this year, which is 5 years since their impromptu debut with the digital single “Just Do It” in 2018.

The anticipation for BSS’ comeback had fan hype built up from 5 years of waiting. To everyone’s delight — the subunit released a great set of songs and the title track “Fighting (feat. Lee Young Ji)” was not only well received by fans, but gained huge success with the Korean general public as well.

For me, “Fighting (feat. Lee Young Ji)” and “7PM (feat. Peder Elias)” are tied as my favorites.

The first of the three tracks is the acclaimed title track “Fighting (feat. Lee Young Ji).” To be fully honest, just from hearing the title, I was feeling nervous about them aiming for the same type of encouraging, fun, upbeat tenor as their debut track. I usually find when an artist attempts to recreate the theme of the previous (typically breakout) successful release, the lack of growth leads to feeling nothing much more than ‘meh’ about the new release. Fortunately, by the miracle of BooSeokSoon, that was not the case! Now while there are some obvious parallels in production and theme, it feels fresh enough to say BSS have managed to find a signature sound rather than copy.

The prominent clanking bass and snare drums pattern that open this track and funky bass line awakens the listener and jolts us into the evergetic nature of the song. The more intricate bass and baby synth melodic motif work smoothly together and (alongside drums) act as the main grounding force in comparison to the erratic pulses of synth and the more staccato-leaning vocal lines. There is a great balance of familiarity from the various melodies present and more sudden, detached rhythms.

Clean harmonized background vocals and a lively synth pad rounds out the bouncy and infectious chorus. The entire song has fun sticky melodies that are easy sing-alongs, but the post-chorus chant is what gives the song its ultimate overflow of spirit. While the song never bores, the notable divergence with the rap break by Lee Youngji with the fore-fronted zooming synth bass, BSS members’ background vocals that build in harmony, and new piano line that extends into the short bridge is a cool section that adds even more interest. To top it all off, why not have SEVENTEEN’s main dancer Hoshi do the signature Kpop final chorus high note in between the two powerhouse main vocals Dokyeom and Seungkwan? (Well, because he can.)

The popular Korean phrase adopted from English — “fighting!”, is used to rally up support/encouragement, which can be applied as enthusiastically as sporting game cries or as casually as a friend saying it to you after complaining about your job. The highlighted phrase sums up the heart of the song. While the theme could easily feel like hollow positivity, I like how in the lyrics there’s an angle of acknowledging that that while yes, of course the daily grind is difficult in itself, there’s also the elusive lonesome insecurity stemming from not so easily assimilating like the rest of your peers (that in truth, everyone also feels). BSS emphasizes a mindset of acknowledging the cons, but also the power of gratitude from communal support — which is seen throughout the rest of the tracks.

The sandwiched track “LUNCH” is the middle-of-the-day, cup of coffee — well, to be more accurate, lunch delivery — pick me up. There’s no denying the high cheesiness of the lyrics; the scenario is the group delivering their love to fans all over the world but playing it off with the metaphor of cooking up music to deliver a special lunch to someone in a multiverse (but with a playfulness that doesn’t sound like a bad AI Marvel plot). This song manages to be both endearing and smooth, thanks to the poppy vocal melodies matching the cleverly cute lyrics alongside the casual synths and rhythm. The bright vocal delivery, chill warped synth pad, delicate synth taps, and the electronic percussion all work to create the undeniable zesty energy. The polished spouts of vocal harmonies dispersed throughout, continuous cheeky ad-libs, and the sole high frequency squeezed out synth atop the chorus add some divergence in texture of the production. While not a favorite, it does the job of a fun easy listen.

“7PM (feat. Peder Elias)” is the perfect close out for the project and a long day. The airiness from everyone’s vocals, plus the foolproof reverb, helps create the ideal atmosphere. I see this song as background music, played in low-fi quality from a smartphone, with the sound of nightly wind through the trees that line the public park pathway. Your closest friends are a couple of inches next to your left and right sides, as you sit on the slightly itchy grass with a canned beer in hand. The moderate percussion and acoustic guitar picking pull this song forward into an almost automatic loop set up by the melody — like this passing moment will somehow be the one to last forever.

The first half of the song entirely sung by BSS members versus the second half sung in full English by Peder (with a sprinkling of soft adlibs by the unit members) caught me off guard on the first listen, but it works smoother than expected. Coming in as a fan of the group and unfamiliar with the featured artist, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the addition of Peder’s smooth voice and English lyrics added to the overall enjoyment. As an English speaking listener, I can take in the general vibe of the consoling and warm lyrics in Korean — but the inclusion of Peder’s take on the lyrical theme is a nice means to get the message across further. This format also holds another purpose by acting as a parallel between two personal experiences from separate sides of the world sharing the same feeling. It’s a smart way for even more listeners to find a connection to this song.

“Teddy Bear” (2023) by STAYC

STAYC quickly became one of the prominent names of Kpop’s fourth generation girl groups and established themselves as part of the ‘teenfresh’ (think girl crush but cuter) sound with their releases as rookies. As they grew to a popularity within the general public that was delightfully unexpected, they became confident enough to mature their sound, as seen by the difference in the melancholic 2022 release “Beautiful Monster” compared to past synth-pop comebacks. While I personally adored the track, it seemed to not have as hot of a response as their previous sound. To me — it feels like that may have influenced their next release with a pendulum swing that swung too hard in the other direction.

I am one of the last people to ever dislike a bubblegum-pop girl group song — however, the title track “Teddy Bear’’ just misses the target for me. As a standalone song, it has the kind of cheesiness that’s one dimensional, vapid, and plainly forgettable rather than heartwarming. The quirky and lighthearted guitar riff and samples of childish shouts which open the song promisingly sets a playful vibe. The electronic synths and percussion creates a stable upbeat tempo, then attempts to deviate for the pre chorus with a synth pad and sparse echoes of hollow knocks. The typical Kpop build up to the chorus with the rapid drums into the drop takes us to a chorus where… it’s practically the same as the previous drum and synth pattern, childish shout samples still, and almost unchanging plain vocal melodies but louder. A pop chorus doesn’t have to be larger than life to be good, but the song should have some kind of kick at this point. The post-chorus simple repeated “teddy bear” and “oohs” are fine, but the high synth that mimics the melody of the “oohs” feels just thrown in there for maybe more interest, but doesn’t really add anything sonically.

Finally, a highlight of the whole song is the second verse rap break by main vocalist Sieun and rapper J. The members’ mischievous lines with the sporadic synth pulses ultimately give the dynamic change the track begs for. It bolsters that fun and quirky vibe that this song was probably aiming for. But alas, it’s short lived and we’re back to the same old. The bridge is the pre chorus 2.0 with the reverbed synth, and we’re back with the chorus.

The song is not offensive in any form — it’s fine to listen to passively. It’s just a disappointment in its primitiveness, especially considering their admired collection of compelling pop tracks. All the combined cons of the lack of dynamics, childish shouts that feels like the producer is telling the listener that you should be feeling ‘happy and fun!’ (which I honestly do not mind in most songs, but it’s overkill here), and the drab 2010s-esque synths combine into an uncreative track that feels like leaps backward for the group’s natural musical maturity they were eagerly walking towards.

The group’s Japanese debut track “Poppy” that is featured as the Korean version on this single album is a wonderful track that brings a fresh version of their familiar colorful, playful, and sweet synthy sound. With the title of “Poppy,” the bubbly and bright production reflects that description well. Dazzles of light synth and the members’ vocal tones that are the sonic versions of bright and cool shades of saturated blue, pink, and yellow skip along the track, decorating the whole song. The house bass line in the chorus supplies this cool groove that grounds the dancing synths, with this alluring flute-like high synth line that skates in the back as a fun texture. The rhythm smoothly switches throughout in a way to keep the overall slickness of the track intact while keeping the listener attuned. The song plays through easily yet is animated just the right amount to instill a cheerful feeling.

“The Beginning: Cupid” (2023) by FIFTY FIFTY

As with the majority of Kpop listeners in the west, I have absolutely loved hearing “Cupid” (well, the English version) from endless Tik-Toks and numerous plays on American radio stations. Everytime I listen to it, I’m reminded that everything about it exemplifies the female-led pop-timist charm that is — in my opinion — the strongest appeal of Kpop girl groups.

The unadulterated Kpop girl group sound that straddles between the titled ‘cute’ and ‘teenfresh’ concepts being so beloved by a western audience feels like a delightful surprise, but then I started to see the modern western appeal as well. Removing the preconceived Kpop-colored glasses, the song very easily slots into the modern bedroom/indie pop sound that has risen to prominence for Gen Z. “Cupid (Twin Ver.)” is a slightly more polished version of that sound, sharing the characteristics of straightforward and relatable lyrics about baffling love, synth-forward instrumental elements, and simple catchy pop melodies and rhyme schemes.

The gentle synth chords pad the members’ clean and luscious group harmonies while the very prominent percussive bass line and simple kick and snare drums work jointly to create a calming mid tempo pace that makes it the perfect easy and feel-good listen. The addicting magic of this song is thanks to the heavenly harmonies — that are the staple of the whole track — backdropped by the soothing synth pads and easy beat.

However, before taking the time to sit down and give both the Korean and English (named ‘Twin Ver.’) versions of “Cupid” a proper listen back to back, I honestly had no expectations of any semblance of differences besides language.

While both tracks share the fundamental production, the original Korean version has a rap break during the bridge and a key change for the second to last chorus. Meanwhile, the English version simplifies those elements by leaving the bridge as the instrumental with some continuous strays of harmonized vocals and ending with just the regular chorus. While the sound of Kpop is, of course, primarily based upon western genres, the original version of “Cupid” has the Kpop appeal of going the extra mile that with even the smallest difference, might seem too offbeat for western audiences. But as far as Kpop standards go, its an average format — if anything, swapping out a typical title track final chorus berated with high notes for a key change is a welcomed alteration.

As for my personal preference between the two, it might actually be the English version by a minute point. There is a slight sonic difference through the language; I prefer the sound with the English lyrics that seem to focus more on the vowels sounds compared to the Korean version that has more pronounced harder consonant sounds. Not to mention, I am somewhat impressed at the coherency of the English lyrics that is not common to come across in other Kpop-turned-fully-English songs.

“Circle — The 1st Album” (2023) by ONEW

While Onew — leader of legendary veteran group SHINee — has a couple of solo mini albums under his belt, his first full album “Circle” was released just this year. While his 2018 debut mini album “VOICE” was full of elegant heavy-hearted ballads, the most recent mini album “DICE” from last year took on a cheery brighter pop sound. The two projects showcase opposite sides of his artistry, but this full album does an excellent job at portraying a complete vision of ONEW’s musical identity.

The album is a solid collection of songs for whenever you crave Onew’s vocal color. It’s to no one’s surprise that vocals are his strong suit, but his distinct warm but crisp tone is what gently holds this album together. I love how his vocals here are mostly his homely mid-range with flourishes of his pure light and airy higher range.

The title track “O (Circle)” is a statement piece in its sound and message. This music video and rich track acts as a simmered down homage to Oscar winning film “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” While some more obvious parallels come from the fast cut video collages and multiverses, the important part is the core theme. This song has some gorgeous lyrics using plenty of naturistic imagery to convey the beautiful delicacy of humanity. Rather than creating a large network of fantasy worlds, it highlights earthly cycles — such as the seasons, weather, and emotions. I love the tie-in of human sorrow and love amongst the worldly phenomenons to give the parallels stronger intimacy.

That depth is also exhibited in the ample production. There is this wondrous synth that acts as a sonic revolving door to drive home that feeling of cycling through emotions and worlds. The low buzzing bass sets the serious tone for the floating vocals, as if it’s narrating the world it sees from above in the sky. The choir addition in the chorus acts as an echo for these feelings and scenarios we all feel and nourishes the power behind these simple words. The understated trap percussion is the one aspect I have mixed feelings about, as it feels little too modern for the timelessness this song tries to convey. Any hi-hats specifically feels the most out of place, as the bass and snare are fine. I would’ve liked a real set of a bass and snare, with maybe some reverb on it, to fit the mood more.

My favorites of the album would be “Cough,” “Rain On Me,” “Anywhere,” “Paradise,” and “Expectations,” — with “Rain On Me” as my absolute top choice.

I have zero complaints about “Rain On Me.” Onew’s voice in the first chorus— that is airy yet so extremely that it sounds like its on the edge of breaking — immediately makes me want to cry every single listen. The amount of control and emotive skill you need to pull that off as well as he does is not easy. His vocals cast a desperation that mimics a weakened voice from a throat lumped with spilling sadness, simply accompanied by acoustic guitar strums. That one part is so addicting in its heartache, and the instrumental choices continue to drench the listener in its sadness, like the way the lyrics talk about being drenched in old memories. The loud dry drums and wavy synth are added into the second verse, then into a second chorus of those drums and a bestowing of a string arrangement. The song aligns itself in such a gratifying sequence.

I adore the softness of “Cough” with the relaxedness in his voice along the picked guitar and reverb background synths. It’s also wonderful lyrically with a slightly more profound take on equating love to a fever — it’s beautifully put by likening yearning to a seasonal sickness.

“Anywhere” and “Expectations” are both great modern dusky synth pop tracks. “Anywhere” is a song with sweet lyrics about staying by a person’s side, but made into a sensual sound with a warped synth bass leading the groove beside Onew’s smooth falsetto. “Expectations” sonically mimics that vibe of a contemporary beat, but including a rhythmic guitar line and lyrics coated in disappointment about careless interactions that leaves the narrator’s expectations lower and lower.

“Paradise” is probably the most fun song on the album. The title directly matches the almost tropical sound of the dynamic sunny and gleaming instrumental. The song does a brilliant job at keeping amusement up by adding various new elements as it goes on; first the lively rhythmic acoustic guitar strumming opens the track, high dial-toned slow arpeggaited notes and a delightful fluttering synth line joins the first chorus, then a sudden but very welcome joyous melodic string sample in the second verse? The peppy percussion and every single flourish makes for a really good time. Also, that high note into the last chorus ever so casually is a treat I’ll gladly receive.

Lastly, I want to mention something small but noteworthy. In the song “Caramel,” Onew mimics a brass instrument with his mouth in the jazzy bridge. When I first listened to this song, it made me so so happy because it immediately reminded me of fellow SHINee member Jonghyun, who loved to get down with a kazoo in that same way. To the already sweet sound of the song, it adds such a cute and silly touch in a really endearing way. The song itself is a pleasant mid-tempo track, but not a standout unlike the aforementioned moment — which happens to maybe be a top contender for my favorite bit of the whole album.

“I’ve IVE” (2023) by IVE

IVE have quickly grown and established themselves as a hit-maker among the ripening fourth generation. While it’s easy to say the group’s notoriety comes from the two former members of the beloved temporary group IZ*ONE, IVE is its own fresh identity. It’s clear that the success of this group is behind them fully understanding the importance of musical character and quality. I believe they’ve had great b-sides since their debut, but when they gained the groundbreaking success of “LOVE DIVE,” they have since leaned into that glam pop sound and aesthetic that has only grown more ambitious.

I’ve briefly listened to their previous comebacks and like what they’ve put out. I’ve heard great things about this album from the general Kpop-enthusiast sphere and I’ve been naturally meaning to listen to it since it came out. Honestly, on first listen I did feel a little whelmed. Maybe it’s on me for assuming a more sonically punchy album based on “Kitsch” and “I AM,” but I wasn’t expecting for it to be more tempered. Once I adjusted those expectations to these composed naive love songs, the album easily grew on me. Although sometimes in this album I still feel some parts are too static in a way that ceaselessly passes through your ears, its not bothersome enough to eclipse the whole project.

It’s an easily accessible album containing some good pop songs whenever you wanna listen to music to help pass time. As a project, it’s really well produced — I’d describe the quality as velvety. I’m mostly impressed by how smooth the vocal production is. There’s an ideal amount of various effects (mostly) reverb, harmonies, and leveling with the instrumental; not to mention, they clearly know how to use the girls’ voices properly by having them in comfortable ranges but also not shying away from showing off falsetto and some mild belting.

The infamous title track “I AM” is easily one of the best girl group tracks of this recent generation. It’s clear that the people involved in creating this masterpiece loves and grasps the power and potential of pop music WELL. For a group not well known for their vocals, the group harmonies and bursting high toned main vocal line are the driving forces of the explosive chorus and blows every listener out of the water. The lush harmonies sewn into the song sets the luxurious tone. The chorus uses a house arpeggiated bass synth line with classic electronic snare hits along it, which act as the grounding rhythmic engines. Beams and taps of synth decorate that rhythm and vocals to not take away from the star of the show. Not only does it all present this lavish atmosphere, but the dynamics of the determined first verse, sentimental pre chorus, grand booming chorus, shifting trap percussion in the second verse rap break, and that GLORIOUS build up from Yujin in the bridge to a brief reverse drop before the final blowout of the chorus act as key players in a big symphony.

I also want to give a nod to that subtle whirl transition that mimics an airplane in the distance; it’s genius and so clever in subconsciously adding to the opulent mood.

The recurring sonically moderate tracks — “Heroine,” “Mine,” “Next Page,” “Cherish,” and maybe “Blue Blood”? — ranges from a bore to agreeable to pleasant.

I would not consider “Kitsch” to be as sonically standard as the aforementioned tracks, but the pre-release is just a fine song… with some sufficient cringe. I appreciate them trying to introducing a new development in their previous sound, but it doesn’t really land on any solid ground — so much as experimental but rather flat with a lack of intent besides being kind of different. Oddly enough, the premise behind the lyrics feels exactly like that. I’m confused at how the overall theme is supposed to be celebrating their uniqueness that they claim has been ridiculed, while going on to brag about… custom fits and popping up on your algorithm everyday? Those key words and the genuine use of “OOTD” and “YOLO” in a 2023 pop song just elicits a cringe that’s a little hard to choke down.

“Heroine” is the only song I consider to be a straight skip; for the lyrics implying yourself as the tenacious main character that has made it through rigorous hardship, the production is ironically and incredibly anti-climatic. This stale production feels unsure of itself, like it’s playing small. It’s a throwaway track just off the sound, but looking at the lyrics, I’m just confused at how this production is so uninspired. Maybe it tries to portray and play off as too cocky that it comes off as careless rather than cool? There’s nothing here in the composition that doesn’t do what other songs on this album do, except they do it better.

“Mine” is a track that feels ever so slightly elevated compared to the aforementioned song, but it’s simply agreeable. I do adore the vocal melodies and production choices with that deep synth and all the reverb that lifts up their voices to make the sweetness of their voices come out lighter, but it could still use a little oomph to it to take the song somewhere. After reading the lyrics, the sweetness from the vocal deliveries makes more sense, but the instrumental production choice did not naturally have me make that connection to an innocent love profession. This one gets a favor simply by the hair of the lovelier vocal melodies and wispy vocal production paired with the buzz of the electronic synths.

“Next Page,” “Cherish,” and “Blue Blood” all fall into the same category for me — pleasant nonetheless. However, other tracks just stand out over them. “Next Page” and “Cherish” are the most similar to each other with their contemporary pop sound of synth pads, trap-inspired percussion, and satisfying pop melodies.

“Blue Blood” is a really cool vibe of a song, but again, I just like other ones better. It works well for an opener. It immediately gave a teen apocalyptic story vibe, which sort of matches with the lyrics, alluding to entering a relationship with an intense person (themself). I also love the aerial chorus background vocals adding to the atmosphere, like a team in an empty arena before they strike. The militant marching drums and steady low synth bass and verses spouted through almost gnashed teeth give that punch, and a modest amount of high synth reminiscent of sirens to add to the anxiety. The string riff of the post chorus is a cool touch to add a different type of tension, but my only complaint is that it’s a bit jarring as it comes out loudly (which much less reverb than the rest of instrumental) out of nowhere while clearly sounding so midi-like, it sort of takes me out of the atmosphere the song built.

The tracks “Hypnosis” and “NOT YOUR GIRL” are among my top choices, with my absolute favorites being “Lips” and “Shine With Me.”

For “Hypnosis,” I was initally a little turned off by the sudden mood change to a hip-hop inspired piano pattern, loud squeaking synth, and a smug cadence, all reminiscent of an NCT 127 track smacked in the middle of this album. Despite how jarring it was to digest on first listen, I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought. I can’t deny how catchy the jerking synths and deep piano are with the snappy chorus vocal melody. Also, shoutout to that random aerial vocals under a garage beat before the final chorus that seems to exist just for added interest. The rap outro for this song is actually really great and works so well; the cocky attitude in the girls’ voices to wrap up the lyrical theme of electrifying control in love is perfect. Knowing this theme makes the song even more enjoyable.

“NOT YOUR GIRL” is a classic Kpop girl group summer song. You just can’t go wrong with the bright beachy guitars, horns, funky bass line, lively drums, and joyous group singing and chanting.

My most listened to b-side on this album will definitely be the fun and flirty “Lips.” It’s a great easy listen where I love every single melody here, from instrumental to post-chorus. It makes me imagine a group of young girls with various big sunglasses laying in beach chairs under the sun, sharing their daydreams about each others’ crushes. The main almost beachy reverb heavy guitar riff and frolicking keys and vocal melodies make this a simple yet addictive sunny mid-tempo track.

The closer “Shine With Me” is surely in the running for the most emotional Kpop fan song. Of course, the song with the most dramatics is the one also battling for my favorite. I wouldn’t consider myself part of their fandom, but if I was, I would definitely sob to this every time it comes on. The mild verses with acoustic guitar and then piano are the ideal grounding force to let the climactic choruses shine. I am a sucker for an all encompassing array of strings and sparkly chimes that permeate the chorus, feeling like a child in a princess costume dancing in the living room. The impressive emotive belting to add on carries so much deep sentiment that digs into your heart — I truly can’t imagine listening to this and not feel tears begin to swell.

“SEVENTEEN 10th Mini Album ‘FML’”

As the proudly self-proclaimed Carat I am, this legendary mini-album that has made history as the #1 best selling Kpop album of ALL TIME (over 6 million sales as of most recently) is something I can’t emphasize enough is an incomparable achievement to a group that could not deserve it more. However… personally I found the content of this mini album to be a bit of a let down. Not only speaking in terms of expectations from the enormous achievements it has made, but because of the capability shown in the rest of their works.

I do like the majority of the songs here, but the ones I do like are not touching any of my top ranks in their discography (except one — which will be very clear as you’ll see). I plainly have more gripes with it than their previous releases. Its because of these mixed feelings about the songs that I don’t reach for this album over their others. It’s an okay body of work.

As a true title track matching the title of the mini album, “F*ck My Life” pursues a bold shock with a provocative title (of course, by Kpop standards). They divert that expectation with a lowly mid-tempo track expressing depressive thoughts that ultimately comes to a positive thematic resolution.

I initially had some gripes about the composition of the song, but there’s something about the dreariness that holds me in a way that I can’t help but feel an attachment to it. This song is very straightforwardly depressing, but that’s its charm for me. No juxtaposing bright production or flowery, poetic lyrics to mask the simple gloom. It’s the kind of depression that is candidly in the stage of defeat.

The group’s main songwriter (and producer) Woozi usually writes using lots of metaphors and imagery, but here it’s tastefully stripped down to plain truths that are thoughts ripped straight from the head. In particular, there’s a lot of self-deprecation and aimlessness throughout the song, with numerous lyric variations of calling themselves an idiot and surrendering to restlessness. The pre-choruses are probably my favorite set of lyrics, especially the line “Isn’t there anyone who could trade their heart with mine just for a day?” There’s even a foreshadowing to their other title track “Super,” which is directly after this song in the tracklist, from the lines “When I was young and watched cartoons / I wondered why I couldn’t be / The main character like I would see.”

The somber subject matter is paired with a midtempo laid-back old school hip-hop inspired production along with weary vocal intonation and melodies. The composition is fairly lethargic in comparison to past more dynamic title tracks, which to be honest, at first was rather frustrating. The song opens with the hip-hop percussion leading to a ‘drop’ showcasing a vocal chopped sample with a smooth subtle bass line and a more faint legato ghostly whistling in the background. The verses stay casual with the familiar aforementioned legato echoes and a mellow adaptation of the hip-hop percussion, now featuring a central slowly oscillating synth pad chiming into the vocal line. I really enjoy the short pre-chorus that’s almost spoken and almost acts as a reverse drop, as everything besides the vocal and drums cuts out leaving a combined staccato rhythmic section — even though the minimalist reverse drop ends up not landing quite well, as there’s just not enough payoff through what should be a more maximalist chorus.

This is where I have mixed feelings, as a big chorus is not necessary for the sense of the song, but the leveled nature of it along with the already tame verses makes for a kind of bland listening experience where the song can easily go in one ear and out the other before you know it. It lacks any real peak, the closest being the drop that shows up at the intro and once as a post chorus for the second (and final) chorus. I can, and do, enjoy the song keeping that expectation of a careless leisure in mind while focusing on the message in the lyrics (of course, recalling the translation roughly from memory). However, sometimes it can just feel lackluster, and for that reason it can turn forgettable in the grand scheme of just… the existence of other music.

While both “F*ck My Life” and “Super” were advertised as double title tracks, it makes sense for “Super” to get the big push. The song is a fire-breathing, colossal statement piece, and in hindsight became a manifesto for their huge success with this release. SEVENTEEN takes the Korean title of the song, “Son O-gong” (aka the main character of the East Asian mythological story “Journey to the West,” aka for westerners, the muse behind “Goku”), and aim to wholly embody the tenacious spirit of that character. Throughout the song, they speak about their unrelenting resilience and determination, along with professions of deep gratitude that grounds their expressions as authentic passion rather than flexing an unearned cocky attitude.

The production lives up to that powerful essence with a modernized bass heavy track against the integral component of traditional Asian musical elements. It opens with a wide howl melody of a coarse synth and vocal ad-libs from Woozi with a taste of a contemporary shuffled beat, before the booming bass looms plus a slightly distorted shouted vocal sample repeats over the whole song and a kick drum that punches you in the face from the first verse. The grand storming of an entrance eases into the bass as the backdrop and the members’ husky toned rhythmic vocals and accelerating shuffled drums stably build up the stamina. A more spacious synth grounds the pre-chorus as the drums, a faint high toned synth, and higher vocals continue to race towards the chorus. A ripple of drums take us to the anti-drop chorus that is rather hollow, spotlighting a picked string staccato riff that is reminiscent of traditional Asian musical string instruments. The recurrent vox sample and bass are still present to give it a leg up before the full drop of the chorus rushes in with chants of “I love my team, I love my crew” and the brash accumulation of all the aforementioned musical elements.

The outro is such a treat thanks to member Woozi’s paramount expressive declarations starting with the “Ping and out comes fire” into a crowd chant and the beating of the aggressive drums along the intro roaring synth to close the song out.

While not generally being my personal taste in sound and having grown with repeated listens and performances, I do appreciate them having such a monumental song filled with their genuine burning passion on front display. I do still feel like this song could have still gone harder, with more dramatic drops and maybe one smooth melody to be more prevalent against all the jolting rhythms to add just a touch more depth in sound, but nevertheless I still enjoy their awe-inspiring vision.

“Fire” is the product of the hip-hop unit realizing their strength lies in their hype energy. Backed up by the positive audience response during concert performances, they’ve clearly hit a stride with a sort of hyper-electronic-dance-pop sound. Thanks to the hot responses to pure hyperpop “GAME BO1” and the electronic “Back it up,” we have the pleasure of the dance pop-inspired track “Fire.” While this is a natural evolution of the unit’s sound, this sound also fits into the latest progression of pop music trending towards a more dance heavy sound, largely in part to Beyoncé’s “RENAISSANCE.”

The minimalist electronic sound focusing on rhythm, full-bodied bass, a vox sample from Wonwoo, triangle-like chimes (probably my favorite instrument choice), and spare shrill synths set the foundation for the unit’s boasting. All their verses here are adequate and do the job well, but the big dynamic change of Wonwoo’s verse that dunks your head into this pool of sudden heavy autotune and droning synth is the standout for me.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully describe my experience of listening to performance unit’s “I Don’t Understand But I Luv U” for the first time because, well, I’m not sure how much of my soul was still in my body. Do not let the cutesy title fool you, even though, yes, the story behind the title is adorable.

During a livestream (performance team leader) Hoshi read an English comment saying (presumably the same spelling?) “i don’t understand but i luv u” and he was clearly touched as he kept ruminating about it not just throughout the livestream but still DAYS after. So as expected, it is in fact a fan dedicated song with lyrics that do allude to the connection with fans regardless of language/cultural barriers — albeit, with a dubious exaggeration of desire. Now imagine the shock of hearing a smooth, sexy, and passionate r&b track. Personally, I find the dichotomy just hilarious to think about. Despite it, listening to this song makes every thought melt away as there’s no choice but to be enraptured into its sensual aura.

It brazenly starts off with a fade into the rousing electric guitar line, brooding synth pad, and a simple leisuring kick and snare pattern to set the mood. The verse quiets down the instrumental slightly to make way for vapory vocals that only grow more heavenly with flourishes of harmonized adlibs. As the mysterious and abrasive synth pad continuously swells up, a modest whistling enters the pre chorus, all to a gorgeous vocal line that leads to the chorus.

The bewitching masterpiece of the chorus is an audio umami bomb; it has the immaculate balance of the meaty earthiness of the bass drum and deep synth pad, the biting sexy guitar line that works in tandem with the main vocal melody, sprinkle of trap hi-hats, and refined vocal harmonies that act as fresh herbs onto the savory plate. Even the transition of the sudden acapella staccato last line of the chorus into the post-chorus is excellent, as it reignites the passionate production. The second verse is slightly more cadenced with a rap verse by Hoshi and Dino, although the song has already had a good balance of dynamics throughout, it’s still a nice change up. The song reaches the second post-chorus and the outro already comes right after, letting the beat continue on with the guitar leading the way and synths swirling to your exit with a hammered down ending. The halted length of traditional format truly does not bother me — a bridge and final chorus would probably work well here, but the song sincerely feels satisfying enough as it stands.

I’m not entirely joking when I say any gripes I have with the mini album are rectified in my mind because of the fact that this song exists. From the first listen I knew it was immediately one of the best in their whole discography.

“Dust” by the vocal unit is an airy warm weathered and 80s synthy, anime-like track. Their light vocals and swishes of bright synths act as wind weaving in and out of tree tops. It’s very much a song that is straightforward in its sound, maybe adding an interesting juxtaposition with the melancholic lyrics comparing longing for someone to accumulating dust. Lyrically, it’s well done and does what Woozi does best in his songwriting — visual metaphors coated in yearning. It’s a delightful song, but the short length and mild dynamics make it a blip of a moment, nothing too expansive enough to savor. Granted, the lack of dynamics with the silky synths throughout is part of its charm. I don’t think anything bad of this song, but it’s a just a cute little treat from the vocal unit.

Lastly… sorry to any “April Shower” enthusiasts out there but there is practically nothing I like about this song. It just lacks any noticeable sonic or lyrical substance. There’s no real peaks and valleys in the composition, which can work in some instances, but not in this production where it attempts to and feels more like it falls flat onto its face. The derivative arpeggiated bass, vapid vocal tones and melodies, uninteresting use of synths, and plain percussion, all add up to a frankly boring track, but the worst crime in my personal opinion, is the damn stale distorted vocal chops as the central point of chorus drop. Lyrically, as common as the ‘April showers bring May flowers’ theme is, I believe there could have been a better way to pull it off instead of these simple lines that feel this banal. Every part of this song feels like a rip off of a better SEVENTEEN song — something like the fan favorites “Heaven’s Cloud” and “To you,” that are also fan-dedicated bright synthy songs.

With all of that being said, I’m not sure I can say it’s objectively a bad song, as in my eyes the biggest sin is its basicness. It’s just not up to standard with the freshness of the rest of their discography. It’s not offensive, just… blah.

Honorable Mentions: (notes of releases I enjoyed, but don’t have strong feelings about)

“READY TO BE” (2023) by TWICE

“READY TO BE” — TWICE

I haven’t listened to a full Twice comeback in quite a while, but I have enjoyed some of their past works. Of course, the vast majority of all their title tracks I do enjoy. This mini album has some good pop songs that to me aren’t anything I would frequently revisit, but I imagine it being satisfying for fans. Although, I will say I’m pretty impressed at how the group here sounds their best vocally. Not to say it was their detriment before, but it’s just really solid now and the payoff is a significant improvement to their musicality.

Highlights

“SET ME FREE”: The warped synth, loud electronic drum bangs, and use of lively strings is a hot combo that conjures up a confident and dramatic allure. It perfectly sets the mood for the confession that takes place in the lyrics. Their vocals really shine on this track, as Nayeon, Jihyo, and Jeongyeon’s strong vocals all leading the choruses is a great choice. Honestly, sometimes I’m not the biggest fan of their vocal production choices in the past, but here the main vocal lines and all the background adlibs, harmonies throughout sound really great. Also, the English version of this track has very smooth lyrics that might flow better than the Korean version?

“MOONLIGHT SUNRISE”: Epitome of modern American pop R&B music with the trap percussion including classic prominent 808 beats, synth pads, and light and hollow bounces of synth. Also may be the most explicit theme I’ve seen from a Kpop group undeniably about a booty call? The vocals and background harmonies are nice — subtle and low but great. It’s a catchy, lightly sensual pop song that overall suits the group and their voices well. Shoutout to Chaeyoung’s rap verse — her tone and cadence was very surprising in the best way possible.

“GOT THE THRILLS”: The b-side that stuck out to me the most. The vibe is so bright and sunny, it kind of reminds me of their English single “The Feels” from the vocal melody and upbeat pop vibes. The beachy influences from the underwater-like reverb and picked electric guitar line, synth pad, and chorus build up to drop is really fun. The constant build up from the drums keeps the energy up for a great summer party song.

“expérgo” (2023) by NMIXX

“expérgo” — NMIXX

A really well made album that honestly diverted my reserved expectations of the group, as this is the first full piece of work that I’ve listened to from them. This really made me want to dig into their discography and look forward to whatever they put out in the future. All the songs are just fun! I love how they play with rhythm and synth in all the b-sides.

Highlights

“Young, Dumb, Stupid”: The most prominent stand out of the song is the famous melody from the original “Frere Jacques” French nursery rhyme, which I believe at this point is a melody that has become a part of nursery rhymes around the world. On initial listen, it is pretty jarring to just hear a nursery rhyme in an otherwise trendy, modern kpop song (meant for…not babies to listen to), but with more listens, it’s just fun and oddly nostalgic, not to mention it fits the “young and free” message. I can see how it can feel childish, but the way it’s used in the lyrics feels like turning that criticism of naivety into limitlessness instead of limiting. Besides that, the song and production itself does not ring much as bubblegum to me.

I enjoy the fun and carefree vibes from the song. The production is amusing with the lively rhythm from the interesting skipping beat of the drums and elastic synth bass. The smooth pre chorus with the building synth pad into the group chant of the nursery melody paired with the percussion feels like the equivalent of jumping rope. The bass comes in again for the post chorus to tie that throwback into the rest of the song, more smoothly than you think, as the song continues.

“Love Me Like This”: The title track gives a more laid back and cool version of the aforementioned pre-release, that similarly has a scampering rhythm and catchy hook as the main appeals. It’s a slight 2000s hip-hop inspired beat in the verses and chorus, especially with the vox “hey” chant samples, claps, and whistle. The fat synth bass that suddenly revs up from the second part of the chorus takes the quick and light rhythm to this new kind of brooding depth that adds cool tension to the demand of the chorus lyrics. The rhythm for me is the most attractive part of the song.

“My Gosh”: While I generally enjoy all the b-sides, the mood change here makes it stand out the most. It’s a welcomed switch up from the modern synth and bass heavy songs. That smooth acoustic guitar, darling electric guitar line, and audio dazzles give that separation, with the synth pad and the throbs of synth pad subbing for a bass, and snaps for percussion setting the softer scene. The vocals become more swirling with the instrumental and the sweet “my gosh” are perfect together. It paints an affectionate scene of cherry blossom trees, blue skies, and fluffy clouds that lets you feel the sweet love declaration.

“the Billage of perception: chapter three” (2023) by Billlie

“the Billage of perception: chapter three” — Billlie

It’s objectively a solid and well produced mini album that centers retro-inspired production. Most notably, I find the songs freely blend together. It doesn’t make the songs or album bad, but an easy and smooth listen for those who prefer sonically cohesive bodies of work. Personally I wish there was a little more variety, but this definitely perked my ears up and I’ll probably look forward to their future releases and get around to diving into their previous ones. It’s a really good easy listen that hits the spot for girly retro synth pop. The whole project is a great consistent mix of ethereal and chic from the dance-pop synths, graceful vocal production, and sprinkled edgy or cute ad-libs.

Highlights

As I mentioned before, the songs all blend together in a way that makes it hard to favor one so much over the other. However one track notably stood out amongst the others.

“lionheart (the real me)”: The dramatics from those pounding drums, booming bass, and sheer amount of gruff from the girls’ vocals makes it the standout.

A round of applause for anyone who made it this far to the end… but also for me! I attempted to be less detailed than usual given the amount that’s covered but… I’d like to think it’s part of my charm (or rather in my blood).

In my personal life it’s been a whiplashing year for me, so suddenly it’s the end of summer and more dust has gathered on here than I would like! I didn’t intend for this long of a hiatus, but I’ve really been itching to gush on about all the music releases since! I have lots of new ideas in mind and upcoming releases I’m looking forward to that’ll be making its way in time :)

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