Heavens be praised, f(x) and their management has finally narrowed on a sound that works for them. After some serious floundering – with the 90s recycled feel of “La Cha Ta” and the flaccid Chu~, along with “NU ABO” – f(x) finally found the bass-filled, sing-speak style that, for better or worse, has brought them commercial success.
In many ways, “Electric Shock” encapsulates what has emerged, after much trial and error, as the quintessential f(x) single. It’s edgy and catchy, characterized by a thumping, bass-driven beat – the same, I might add, that filled our ears in “NU ABO”, “Pinocchio/Danger“, and “Hot Summer” – and devoid of the traditional melody-driven tropes that we’re used to hearing in K-pop. The lyrics, as per previous f(x) releases, are delivered in Sprechgesang style (German for the sing-speak method of delivery that’s often used in musicals), except for the Luna/Krystal/Sulli solo right before the chorus. And finally, a subtle, yet most crucial detail that describes “the f(x)” single is the energy of the track – this is hot weather music. Don’t believe me? Last year, around this time f(x) had a double-header of hits with “Pinocchio/Danger” in April and then “Hot Summer” a few months later in June. Trust me – most of the f(x) releases we’ll see in the future will be summer, bass-filled releases.
f(x)’s management rightly deserves credit for sticking to a winning formula, especially after a commercially disastrous debut. However, nothing new is happening. f(x) has found their niche, but they’re not building or growing their sound. It’s one thing to find a so-called “winning formula”, but the recipe for musical success also calls for variation and creativity – to “own” your sound, so to speak. If anything, I half-expected to hear a dubstep drop in “Electric Shock” – this is the one K-pop group that could most easily incorporate dubstep into their existing musical palette. A detail of note – rapper Amber gets some singing time on this track, and she’s not half bad, although it’s hard to tell because her voice has been run through the full SM effects rack. If you weren’t paying attention, it’d be hard to distinguish her voice from that of fellow members Krystal or Sulli.
Net Assessment: Catchy, but if you’ve already heard “Hot Summer” and “Danger”, don’t brace yourself for anything earth-shatteringly new.
“Jet” is the other track that f(x) has decided to quasi-promote by performing it before “Electric Shock”. And in a certain way, it’s a defensible decision. ”Jet” has a catchy hook, with plenty of aegyo lines like, “I’m pretty, am I cute?/Are my chubby legs like a baby?/I’m all over Seoul Tokyo, Paris, New York/Such a busy schedule, flash over here, snap over there/Just like a butterfly“. But of course, the nonsensical chorus, is what destroys it – “Let’s Fly High! Fly! I want to go to the land of the stars/Let’s take the blue jet, pilot/Oh my God, I have fallen for you/I keep falling, automatically wow“. There’s a lot I could say about the sheer idiocy of these lyrics, but for brevity’s sake, I’m just going to say that these lyrics rival only those of T-ara in its flagrant abuse of the English language and general incoherence. And Amber’s rap – beginning with the cringe-worthy shout, “Just like a butterfly” before the chorus, and then after the chorus, “Boy, we fly higher and faster, this only gets better/Boy, we fly higher and faster, this gonna be so killa“, was, and still is, downright embarrassing to listen to. As a native English speaker from the United States, you just don’t say that. Ever.
Net Assessment: Cutesy-catchy if you don’t understand Korean. Be prepared for some very awkward English raps from Amber, though.
“Zig Zag“, whose title sounds like it could be that of a T-ara single, is similar to “Electric Shock” in its amelodic, rhythm-and-bass driven core. Featuring Hitchhiker, the producer responsible for tweaking “Pinocchio” for a Korean audience (“Pinocchio” was a remake of Kristine Elezaj‘s “Razor“), this song has the same kind of sassy weirdness – almost Middle Eastern – in the chorus that’s unmistakably f(x).
Net Assessment: Classic f(x) in its delivery and left-field weirdness. Not for those fans who are only into f(x) for its members.
One thing I will draw attention to is the fact that the SM Entertainment of late seems to be making a more conscious effort to push the “underloved” members of its groups into the spotlight (e.g. Donghae and Eunhyuk with “Oppa, Oppa“; Taetiseo with “Twinkle“). Whether the result of a shift in management at the top (they’ve realized that they can generate more income if more members are popular), or perhaps part of a long-term strategy already in place, in this mini, we see an Amber-Luna-Krystal track placed halfway through. And I’m delighted to report that ”Beautiful Stranger“ is great pop music, in every sense of the word (and similar in feel to SHINee‘s “The Reason” on their latest EP).
Everything about it, from the intro to the chorus, works beautifully, in part because of the sharp contrast between the strong melodic theme of “Beautiful Stranger”, and the lack thereof on all the songs that precede it on this mini. Luna, as usual, assumes her role as the backbone of this track – though Krystal is a fair singer. But music aside, the biggest draw of this track was the opportunity to see Amber’s rap talents, up close and personal. Even for a rapper, Amber gets a shockingly low amount of exposure, especially in a group the size of f(x).
Overall, though – and I say this with a heavy heart, because I do like Amber – Amber lacks one of the key components that make or break rappers – a compelling vocal presence. Yes, her method of delivery is unique – but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Of course, this matters less because she’s an idol group rapper – there are other considerations that become important, like appearance and image. But from the perspective of rap – it’s all about delivering your personal charisma – qualities which are usually – but not always – visual or physical (perhaps your height, since most rappers are tall, or force of personality), and translating them into their auditory analogues is no mean feat. At the very minimum, for pop-rap, a latent, implied ferocity needs to underpins the delivery. Amber’s delivery seems forced and off – faults that one wouldn’t be able to discern in the three or four seconds she gets in other songs, but come through clearly in this song. Though her tone is reminiscent of another famous ex-pat – T a.k.a Tasha a.k.a Yoon Mirae (gah, the lady has so many names) – Amber “spits” every line at the same intensity. She does that in lieu of the easy swag and flip-of-a-switch, cut-a-bitch confidence that characterizes creme de la creme rappers like CL and the above-mentioned reigning queen of Korean hip-hop. There are few, if any, dynamics in her delivery.
Net Assessment: A hidden gem on this mini. Definitely worth a listen – you’ll get to hear f(x)’s pop chops.
“Love Hate” is an interesting track. It’s got a great chord progression there that’s hard to tease out, but it’s there. The build is fabulous, and then … and then … the chorus is a disappointment. Songs like Usher‘s “Climax” work beautifully because they manage to manipulate the tension and anticipation throughout the song, without losing their interest even after the anticipated release fails to come. I wanted to love this song because of the build, but the chorus is what destroyed it – the members yelling, “I hate you, I love you, my heart keeps changing/I love you, I hate you, the clock hand goes back and forth/Isn’t love and hate the same thing anyway?”
This wasn’t the right song to experiment with tension and release, SM.
Net Assessment: A great intro and build, but the chorus fails to seal the deal on what could have been a great song.
“Let’s Try” is the final track on this mini. The beginning, with its slow build and intimate closeness, might fool you into thinking it’s a ballad. And then then drums come in, and you begin to suspect that you’ve been hoodwinked – and then the chorus drops, and suddenly it’s as if the curtains have been pulled back. Yep, you’ve been fooled – this is summertime reggae – or at least, the closest you’ll get to it in K-pop.
Net Assessment: It’s a fun listen for the car, especially if you’re driving to the beach. Ya man – K-pop reggae.