BLACKPINK's “The Album": stuck in a time warp

The K-pop phenomenon’s debut album does not live up to its name.

There is one fact that we can’t deny: K-pop and Korean culture are taking over the world. The distinctive mixture of addictive melodies, choreography, picturesque music videos, and performances are methods that preserve the uniqueness and enhance the impacts of K-pop on a global scale. Many countries have taken the formula of K-pop to restructure their local markets, establishing a new generation of artists with multi-talents, polished aesthetics, and picture-perfect concepts every time they appear or make a comeback in public.

As Western pop music has opened its door for non-Anglophone lyrical content to prosper, we have witnessed many young talents making their names as parts of the globally cultural movement: from Latin America with J Balvin or Bad Bunny, to the neo-flamenco elements of Rosalía. K-pop does not stay out of the game. In fact, their attempts to take over the West, especially American industries burned up since the English album of BoA back in 2009, to the Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” — marking the first K-pop song to be charted on Billboard Hot 100 and the craze of “Gangnam Style” with the viral horse-riding dance. However, the “fandom culture” being introduced to Western countries is what makes K-pop prominent from other music industries in the world. It is not difficult to find a non-Asian cult following in a K-pop concert today, even when they don’t fathom the language itself.

BLACKPINK is arguably the second-most famous K-pop groups that truly have made their voices heard in different corners of the world. Their highly-anticipated debut album, ironically, named “The Album” is something that the Blinks (the fandom name of the girl group) have waited for since their first double singles “Whistle” and “Boombayah” back in 2016. Took them 4 years to have their first full-length LP, BLACKPINK, and their agency YG are imperceptive in diversifying their discography as well as providing the fans with a music production that truly showcases the vocal and versatility of these four girls: Jisoo, Jennie, Lisa, and Rosé.

Containing only 8 tracks, “The Album” is a glossy lab-made pop musical party with lyrics bantering sequences of heartbroken relationships, being in a cotton-candy-sweetened love fantasy to the realization of self — which is a common scene in Korean girl groups. “The Album” is filled with various touches from the past with colors from Western-influenced collaborations, however, as we have been expecting new elements and genre versatility from BLACKPINK, this record failed to offer as they are playing it safe.

The first track off the album is “How You Like That”, the record-breaking first single hitting the top spots in various markets in the world, maximizing their accessibility and converting more Americans into Blinks. The method of muscular trap and bombastic beats filled with strong repetitive hooks has become the mold of BLACKPINK’s big singles. With “Kill This Love” and “Ddu-ddu Ddu-ddu” paving the way for a Coachella-crowd rave hit, “How You Like That” is an underwhelming track compared to the former two, however, making this track as the starter of “The Album” implying, though vague, the ideas of strong female empowerment, reminding us of the beginning of their heyday. Another trap attempt in “The Album” exists in the 3rd track, “Pretty Savage”, beginning with the Cardi B’s Grammy-performance-inspired piano hooks. Lisa’s rap in this one fails to elevate her versatility as we have expected a different flow from hers. The song built up pretty well until the chorus and it felt flat until the end with no noteworthy trace after all. However, through “Pretty Savage”, the listeners can see another side of Jisoo as it exploited the raspiness in her voice when she sings parts that she has not been responsible to do in their previous records. With the YG-method breakdown “You better run, run, run”, “Pretty Savage” takes us back to the memory lane with what they have done with BIGBANG and 2NE1, making the song a recycled version utilizing the old elements.

There are 3 crossover collaborations in this album, with the support of big names in music: Selena Gomez, Cardi B, and David Guetta, “The Album” secures its spot in the playlist of non-Blinks and simultaneously hitting the radio stations in English-speaking countries. However, these songs fail to escape their utter banality as the girl group is drown in the venture of captivating today’s American pop music taste — which is poles apart from South Korea’s. Starting off with “Ice Cream” — a song written by the Ariana Grande herself and the team making her Grammy-nominated record “thank u, next”. With the support from Selena Gomez, who adapted the sweetened whispery vocal into this bubblegum pop track, it can’t escape the cliché being “upbeat nonsense” — in the words of Hugh McIntyre from Forbes. “Ice Cream” sounds like a B-side of Ariana’s “Sweetener” as one of their thrown-away attempts to make the record sounds campier. If track 1 and 3 mirror each other with short-lived chutzpah and trap-filled melodies, “Bet You Wanna” is another tooth-rotting sugary collaboration that strongly reflects “Ice Cream”, however, with a strong potential in the pre-chorus sung by Jennie. However, with outdated gawkiness in the production, “Bet You Wanna” reminisces us the doo-wop era of Meghan Trainor or any Disney stars circa-2015. Cardi B’s rap verse is completely lost among the lines with poorly written rhymes and disconnected with BLACKPINK’s polished verses (at least they tried!) in the track.

The third single, as well as the title track of “The Album”, “Lovesick Girls” — an EDM collaboration with the world-famous David Guetta once again enhanced the cliché that Western producers have been imagining and stereotyping about K-pop. With tropical-fused and acoustic guitar sound echoing every area of the song, BLACKPINK made another attempt to stay in the lane of old pop methods. Nobody listens to tropical house unless it’s 2016, let’s keep in mind that part! The production of the song itself somehow has made it the cookie-cutter and become that unforgettable title track which can’t stand the test of time. The positive experience in this track is the bridge performed by Rosé, who made a progress in her vocal expression, depicting a tear-jerking phase of a rom-com chick flick.

Eventually, an outstanding point for “The Album” appears, like the opening hand of heaven, “Crazy Over You”. Yes! We are (and we should be) crazy over this song! The sonic experiences of the track is a holler from the futuristic, bionic path that BLACKPINK should have followed for this album after years of repeating their safe-but-successful moves. “Crazy Over You” is a loose bandage that covers up the clunky collaborations above. The juxtapositions of the vocals do justice for what we have been expected with more varieties in how they handle the notes over the airy hip-hop slash air instrument chorus. This song is also a good example of “5 songs into one” — a distinctive aspect of K-pop that we have witnessed from the very beginning, with Girls’ Generation’s “I Got a Boy” or 2NE1’s “Can’t Nobody”.

The album comes to a very quick ending with “Love To Hate Me” and “You Never Know”. With “Love To Hate Me”, “neutrality” is the word that we can use to describe this song. It had quite a few strong points here and there within the track with sharp hooks that capture the attention from beginning to end. However, with the mass release of bangers every day in the market, “Love To Hate Me” failed to stand on its own without the backup of the other tracks in the album. If you want a good and sweet moment, this song can represent it for a short period before something else takes over. The album closer “You Never Know” is the closest to a ballad in this party hosted by these four girls. Following the “after-party momentum” that is familiar in today’s pop record, “You Never Know” can be seen as an underwhelming-and-undercooked Red Velvet’s “Psycho” montage trapped in the list of the album’s forgettable tracks. To talk about the good point of “You Never Know”, it should be the heartfelt performances in the members’ vocals. Other than that, I believe they can do better with slower tracks.

Overall, BLACKPINK’s debut album is a slick and polished mixture of the hard and the soft, just like the two colors that represent them. They give exactly what the Blinks want: full-of- personality catchy pop tracks with various loving messages. However, after 4 years of thriving in the Korean and international industry, they could have kept in mind the fact that they also have to cater the crowds who do not belong to their highly-populated followings by putting out something to keep their sounds and images fresh and captivating, and “The Album” is far from that.

The length of the album is something that is worth the debate. The pop feast started strong with top-notched hit potentials but dims into the limelight of blasé, making it short but not sweet (like they wanted the songs to be) and lack of cohesion or connections. A “playlist” is a better word for this situation, I believe. The record is something that has been cooked through many hands of pop masters and scientists, trying to maximize and sometimes, elevate the old ideas or simply, the “old pop”. Unfortunately, their attempts turned out to be a mashup of recycled and oppressive sounds of four girls trying to finding their voices and a team of producers striving to innovate by adding flux of disconnected layers throughout the album.

And that leads to the fact that “The Album” struggled on the fine line between “time-capsule” and dated.

Check out “The Album" by BLACKPINK if you haven't!

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