Lee Hyori released her sixth album Black earlier this week and the feedback has been pretty negative. Over on Netizenbuzz, where she usually gets positive comments, most people have complained that Black is too depressing and not commercial enough. When I listened myself, I was surprised to discover that Hyori had actually made a pop album – she’d just made American pop, not Korean.
American pop is going through a bit of a dark, experimental phase right now. Many artists have done away with big, glossy hooks for a more downbeat, urban sound that borrows heavily from alternative music (or at least, what constituted as alternative before it became mainstream). Halsey and Selena Gomez are two pop princesses who have found success with this sound in 2017, and if they’d recorded many of the tracks from Black they’d be getting decent reviews from a tonne of hipster rags like Pitchfork (Pitchdork) and Noisey (Boise).
This hook-less stuff usually drives me crazy and makes me glad to be a K-pop fan where pop music is still POP. But like anything, this genre can still be good with the right execution, and Hyori definitely gets it right with a lot of the cuts from Black.
The album’s cinematic title track isn’t just the best cut, it’s a career highlight for Hyori. Co-produced by the songstress herself, “Black” blends western acoustics and bluesy, rock guitars over a slow stomp. Around the chorus, the beat lurches and whiplashes, almost like dubstep. It’s unlike anything else in mainstream K-pop. I think of it a bit like Miley Cyrus doing an experimental country record, or a DJ remixing an alt-country artist for a soundtrack. It really sounds like it belongs in Black Snake Moan.
Black is pretty front-loaded, so the best stuff appears early around the title track. “White Snake,” with its hypnotic Indian instrumentation and distorted electronica, is as seductive as it is foreboding. And Hyori lightens up a little on “Unknown Track,” which is sweet and groovy and has a gorgeous little synthpop breakdown on the bridge.
There’s also a few missteps on the album. The island-flavoured “Love Me” is cute but too generic compared to the album’s edgier moments, and the two piano ballads, “Rain Down” and “Diamond,” are completely out of place next to all the experimental pop. Everything else is strong individually, but it starts to become samey by the end. Hyori could’ve cut this down to five tracks and released a perfect EP.
Despite some flaws, this is still a pretty incredible comeback. “Black” is already up there as one of my favourite K-pop songs of the year, and like I said at the start, this album would be really well-received in the States. Hyori’s flopping on the charts right now, but it’s just because she released her album in the wrong country!