Monday, September 27, 2010

INAUGURAL POST! Thoughts on BEAST's Mastermind

Hello everyone! Welcome to Mixtapes and Liner Notes - my blog on music from around the world and other related ramblings. I'm taking an unauthorized break from studying to write this post, so you can find a more formal introduction to me in the "About Me" Section on the sidebar, and maybe in a future post. But for now, let's talk music.

BEAST has always been one of the tragedies of the k-pop industry for me. I've always thought they were talented and charismatic, but they have failed to produce great music in the year that they've been active, despite already releasing two EPs. Their third EP, Mastermind, just dropped, and unfortunately, this is only continuing that trend, albeit with some improvement.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Can't Nobody Do It Like 2NE1?

Aaaand they're back! I have glued to my computer for the last three hours trying to get the first listen of this album, and I've finally found some Youtube videos of the tracks from 2NE1's latest release, To Anyone, with decent audio quality. A large fraction of k-pop fandom has been waiting for this release since it was announced in back in the spring - many expectantly, others not so much. Now that it's finally out, let's have a listen, shall we?

I am a huge fan of 2NE1. These girls bring a sense of style and strength to the k-pop industry that I find really refreshing, mainly in that they don't depend on showing skin and acting all cutesy in order to sell their records - in a word, they're FIERCE. I find it really interesting that k-pop fandom seems to be divided on these girls. A lot of people think they're revolutionizing the industry, others are annoyed at the hype. I think the dichotomy itself is interesting, and it begs the question - is 2NE1 really all that? Or is the whole issue simply a fight between fiercely loyal 2NE1 fans and antis (who are likely SONES)?

Here are some facts to consider: they had the most successful girl group debut of 2009, winning more awards and topping more charts with their first two singles than any girl group of the last decade has been able to do with their first release. This album, one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2010, sold 120,000 in preorders - i.e. they sold almost as many albums before the release as Katy Perry did in her first week. Money talks, and it's telling me that these girls are big, they're talented, and they give the fans what they want.

YG has always made itself out to be the rebel entertainment company in k-pop, mainly through their dedication to releasing R&B/hip-hop influenced tracks despite industry trends towards bubblegum and electropop. Their music definitely stands out from the pack - just take Taeyang's mellow "I Need a Girl", or Se7en's electrified Digital Bounce. 2NE1’s new material preserves YG's reputation, as the songs on the album manage to sound like they belong in 2010 without sounding like every other track that's been released this year. What also stands out to me is how they managed to fit many different sounds onto this album. The mellow "It Hurts (Slow)" is a [great] R&B ballad, and yet it's sitting next to "Clap Your Hands, " a pretty standard hip-hop track, "Can't Nobody" which is a dance track reminiscent of U-Kiss's material (and I mean that in a very good way), and "Go Away" a great electropop track which I think will be the runaway hit from this album. Despite this, we don't doubt that this is all authentic 2NE1 material, and that it captures the essence of what this group is all about.

When it boils down to it, though, they're still making pop music. It can't be too revolutionary or else people won't listen to it. In an industry where instant success isn't just the goal, it's the standard, they can only deviate from the norm so much. However, their uniqueness in an industry filled with cookie cutter girl groups seems hard to deny. While I don't think the album is game-changing, it is explosive, filled with fast beats, improved vocals and that trademark 2NE1 swagger k-pop's been missing in 2010.

I don't want to turn this into a review of the album, but I do want to comment on the songwriting/producing on this album. First, of all, I think YG is wearing Teddy out. His sound is unique, and it wowed us back in 2008 when Taeyang's first solo EP came out. However, he doesn't seem to be growing past that. Taeyang's full album was a lot of Teddy, but unfortunately not a lot of awesome because he failed to produce a lot of stand-out tracks.  Now he's back on 2NE1's album, and the songs are good - great, even in the case of "Go Away" and "Try To Follow Me" - but not groundbreaking, and that's my concern. "Clap Your Hands" is a pretty standard hip-hop track without much substance, though it does have a lot of Teddy's trademark "OH!"s in the background. The chorus is really the only thing that keeps me listening - that and the reggaeton/Naija funky* middle 8, which I LOVE. "Can't Nobody" sounds like a 2009 Brave Brothers track (again I mean this in the best possible way) with influences from the producer of "Digital Bounce". I worry that by next year, k-pop fans are going to expect something new from him and he won't be able to deliver. But I am crossing my fingers for him because he's great and I'd hate for him to peak so early in his career. He should go on vacation somewhere and get inspired. As for whoever did "I'm Busy", you should be fired for making a song that's so all over the place. They asked you to make ONE song, not three in one. The individual parts are great, but the whole is just a hot mess.  Love is Ouch isn't bad, but it's not great either. That producer (Choice37) gets a pass because he produced my favorite track on Solar along with G-Dragon, but he could step it up a little too.

*Naija funky is the word I use to describe your typical Nigerian hip-hop/R&B dance song - slower than Western pop music with a very distinct groove that only Africans seem to get down to. For an example, listen to this song.