Welcome to the inaugural issue of WWLT, or What We’re Listening To, which features mini music analyses that provide context and introduce readers to K-pop music that may be new-to-them.
This issue features tracks from EXO, TVXQ, Jeon Somi, CL, Jonghyun X Youngbae, VIXX, Red Velvet, SEVENTEEN, SF9 and 2AM from contributors who are members of the K-pop music research accelerator, HWAITING! (managed by KPK: Kpop Kollective).
EXO, “Stronger,” Ex’Act (2016)
Crystal S. Anderson
EXO follows in the footsteps of large groups at SM Entertainment, including Super Junior and Girls’ Generation. In addition to the creation of sub-units (EXO-K and EXO-M; EXO-CBX) several members embarked on solo careers, including D.O, Baekhyun, Lay and Suho. The group is known for its impressive choreography to upbeat, rhythm-driven dance tracks. “Stronger” appears on the 2016 album, Ex’Act, which was repackaged as Lotto later that year. Ex’Act was released after Exodus (2015), which included “Call Me Baby”, and Love Me Right, which was released the same year with the title song as the promo track. Agnes Shin, Chung Joo-hee, Lee Joo-hyung, Andreas Oberg, Gustav Karlstrom wrote the lyrics and Karlstrom, Lee, Oberg composed the music. “Stronger” departs from EXO’s uptempo tracks by showcasing vocals accompanied only by a piano at a slower pace. The piano creates sparse instrumentation without electronic songs, which makes the vocals shine even more. Relying on members Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and D.O., the track showcases their individual vocal talents as well as their harmonization, traversing the gamut of the vocal range and using various vocalists to punctuate the vocal performance of others. The structure of the song is also non-traditional, diverging from a straight verse-chorus arrangement. This track offers a different side of the group, showing vocal versatility as an additional element to their dance repertoire.
EXO. “Stronger.” YouTube. 8 Nov 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuDhioEWnMI (29 Oct 2021)
TVXQ, “Tri-Angle,” Tri-Angle (2004)
N. Lina Anuar
After debuting with the song Hug on Boxing Day 2003, then 5-member group TVXQ from SM Entertainment released Tri-Angle from their first studio album The Way U Are in 2004. The music video of this song emulated the aesthetics of visual-Kei like elaborate hairstyles and makeup (Throwback Thoughts, 2019), which one could trace back to the times of glam rock of KISS and David Bowie.
The song credits SM Entertainment’s in-house songwriter Yoo Young-jin as composer, lyricist and arranger; with Groovie K having a hand in the composition as well. While the entire album is labeled as Kpop, dance, contemporary R&B and teen pop, Tri-Angle sampled Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor (Hallyu Reviews, 2021), and is heard as the hook and an overlay in the chorus.
This song is built on the typical pop song structure of verse-chorus-bridge which could be labeled as K-pop. However, it features a mishmash of other styles that includes classical nuances heard by the small string orchestra, sounds of grunge/punk rock through the guitar effects of distortion and overdrive in the bridge, and the powerhouse pop vocals of BoA, dubbed as the Queen of Kpop.
Tri-Angle was really a representation of SM’s hottest artists in the early millennium of TVXQ, BoA and TraxX, who unfortunately now is a defunct-rock group creating a trifecta of collaborations of their time.
Car Door Guy’s Girl. (2019, April 18). Throwback thoughts: Tri-angle- TVXQ (ft. Boa and TRAX). https://cardoorguysgirl.wordpress.com/2019/04/18/throwback-thoughts-tri-angle-tvxq-ft-boa-and-trax/.
Hallyureviews. (2021, February 14). Song of the moment: TVXQ – tri-angle (with Boa, TRAX). https://hallyureviews.wordpress.com/2021/02/17/song-of-the-moment-tvxq-tri-angle-with-boa-trax/.
TVXQ! 동방신기 ‘tri-angle (extended ver.) (feat. Boa & Trax)’ MV. YouTube. (2009, November 23). https://youtu.be/GM8wZRaHXTg.
Jeon Somi, “XOXO,” XOXO (2021)
Somi was an aspirant in Sixteen, the 2015 Mnet competition show that produced JYP girl-group Twice. She earned first-place a year later in another Mnet show, Produce 101 (Season One) and debuted with I.O.I., which disbanded in 2017. Two years later, Somi released her solo debut “Birthday.”
Her fourth single “XOXO” was released in October 2021, the title track to her first full-length album with lyrics by Teddy, Danny Chung, Vince, Somi, and Kush. Teddy also composed the music alongside Pink Sweats, Pacific, and 24 who also handled the arrangement. Like “Birthday,” previous singles “What You Waiting For” and “Dumb Dumb,” and almost every song on her full-length, “XOXO” showcases Somi’s signature bright bubblegum sound.
“XOXO” is especially anthemic, centered on the hook-filled chorus that opens the song, with layers of chanted vocals over muted arpeggios and sparse beats sounding almost too large, too insistent. This effect is tastefully capped by how Somi sings “hoo-hoo” after each chant of “XOXO!”—soaring high above the wall of sound, creating an opening in the song that both verse and pre-chorus fill, making the chorus hit harder. The effect is unexpectedly reminiscent of “Where Is My Mind?” by American alt-rock group the Pixies. I can’t imagine Somi’s next single sounding larger than “XOXO”; the bigger impact might be in swerving towards an unexpectedly understated sound.
Jeon Somi. “XOXO.” YouTube. 29 Oct 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8kqPkEXP_E (08 Nov 2021)
Pixies. “Where Is My Mind?” YouTube. 21 Feb 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49FB9hhoO6c (08 Nov 2021)
Somi. “Birthday.” YouTube. 13 Jun 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDJ4ct59NC4 (08 Nov 2021)
Somi. “Dumb Dumb.” YouTube. 02 Aug 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg2uF3R_Ozo (08 Nov 2021)
Somi. “What You Waiting For.” YouTube. 22 Jul 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBYyAQ99ZFI (08 Nov 2021).
CL, “SPICY”—ALPHA (2021)
Hannah Lee Otto
CL, known for her rapping, edgy unconventional styling, and melismatic vocals, perhaps represents an anomaly of the K-pop and entertainment industry: a post girlband veteran to go solo by severing ties with a big-name entertainment company, forging her own way through richly diverse collaborations and friendships across the industry and across the world—ranging from Diplo, ReQuest Dance Crew, Method Man, and ReQuest Dance Crew, to name a few. The diversity of CL’s collaborations and talents seem to reflect her diverse background, growing up in Korea, Japan, and schooling in France prior to her landing a spot in Kpop girl group 2NE1 in 2014 (Myers, 2021). Considered a pioneering Kpop female group, 2NE1’s tomboyish and punk attitude countered the image of cutesy girliness typical to Kpop at the time (Lee, 2021). CL’s independent projects reflect a continuation of 2NE1’s edge on her own terms, evolving her I AM THE BEST anthem swagger to self-reflective and self-empowering tracks in her truly independent full-length ALPHA (Kwak, 2021). ALPHA emerges after years of efforts in becoming an independent K-pop artist, formally leaving YG Entertainment in 2019, working a move stateside with Scooter Braun, and now under her own label, Very Cherry Record (Myers, 2021). ALPHA is CL’s first full-length album, following a train of collaborations, singles, and a mini album since going solo in 2014.
SPICY opens ALPHA with John Malkovich asking for “that sauce that is spicy made in Korea” and chanting “energy, power, chemistry” looping in his meditative voice in the background. CL answers the request for spicy with a battle-like rap declaring herself as the alpha, proud of her Korean spice, a metaphor that is sweeping culture worldwide. With a catchy beat and staccato, straightforward lyrics delivered over John Malkovich’s meditative echo, the song provides an accessible entry into the album and the signature CL attitude.
CL. “SPICY.” YouTube. 24 August 2021. https://youtu.be/QMwJtMJLXE0
Kwak, Kristine. “CL Reintroduces Herself as the ‘Alpha.’ Rolling Stone, 20 Oct. 2021,
Lee, Christine. “Review: On ALPHA, CL finishes what she started.” NPR, 27 Oct. 2021,
Accessed 8 Nov 2021.
Myers, Owen. “K-Pop Queen CL on making her indie comeback: ‘My album is like me writing a
book.’” Billboard, 16 Jan. 2021, https://www.billboard.com/music/pop/cl-new-album-alpha-interview-k-pop-comeback-9510948/
Jonghyun x Youngbae, “It Must be Autumn” (2015)
Kim Jonghyun, the main vocalist of SHINee, was also known as an extremely talented songwriter. A hidden gem from his discography is “It Must be Autumn” (also translated as “I guess now it’s the fall”), which debuted as a single on the Mnet show Monthly Live Connection. Featuring guest vocals from Go Youngbae (lead vocalist of the band SORAN), the song is co-written and co-composed by Jonghyun and Youngbae, with the arrangement done by Youngbae, Seo Myeon-ho, Lee Tae-wook, and Pyon Yoo-il. This is a delicate acoustic track that perfectly captures the sentiment of autumn.
The song opens with a simple guitar melody that would form the backbone for the rest of the track. As if letting listeners into a secret, the acoustic strumming combined with Jonghyun and Youngbae’s quiet vocals immediately set the tone for an intimate late night conversation. Lyrically, it is about receiving a random call from an ex-lover who has moved on long ago, and then mentally falling apart like autumn leaves. It is easy to slip into the territory of ambient coffee shop music here, but a steady percussion beat arrives just in time for the second verse to give it a much-needed depth. Jonghyun’s soft, airy vocals and Youngbae’s warm, gentle timbre complement each other extremely well as their gorgeous harmonies flutter into the bridge, where the song finally flourishes – in its own subdued fashion. The bass ripples, the keyboard tiptoes, and the catalytic moment comes, ironically, when the narrator admits that “today, too, I am still standing here,” stuck in memories of the past. And so the track ends with the same restrained energy it started with, completely unable to move on.
Jonghyun x Youngbae. “It Must be Autumn.” YouTube. 29 October 2015. https://youtu.be/neftAitSVw8?t=127 (9 November 2021).
VIXX, “Fantasy,” Hades (2016)
No strangers to fantastic, other-worldly, or supernatural ideas, VIXX, the heralded “Concept Kings” of K-pop, announced the year-long project, VIXX 2016 Conception Trilogy. Each album in 2016 had a different concept based on a Greek deity, beginning with Zelos and the title track “Dynamite,” Hades and “Fantasy,” and ending with Kratos and “The Closer.” The Trilogy follows a man in his attempt to win over his love and the “fate” or “ruin” that befalls him. In “Fantasy,” the mortal man, N, has lost his love to Leo, someone in the underworld.
Produced by the LA-based production team, Devinne Channel’s Kei Lim and Ryan Kim, “Fantasy” begins with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” establishing the dark concept of Hades and the Underworld alongside Ravi’s deep and raspy tone in contrast to Leo’s falsetto. As soon as the introduction moves to the first verse, Ken’s mid-range vocal is underscored with not-so-subtle bass and snapping that resembles a clock ticking. There is a quick transition to Leo’s higher tone and the introduction of a rolling hi-hat that is all meant to showcase the main character losing his sanity as time progresses. By the time the pre-chorus and its marching drum begins, the energy and harmony have risen to an anxious heartbeat with the added string instruments in the chorus. There is a whiplash at the second verse, but that energy continues to build until the music stops suddenly and Moonlight Sonata plays again as a soft reprise even though the character has met a tragic end and not the fantasy he once imagined. In the end, all that is left is the admittance of defeat, “It’s all my fantasy.”
VIXX. “Fantasy.” YouTube. 14 August 2016. https://youtu.be/IuaRdAozUI0 (08 November 2021)
Red Velvet, “Knock on Wood,” Queendom (2021)
Luisa do Amaral
Red Velvet debuted in 2014 with the promise to bring together the elements that distinguished their predecessors, Girls’ Generation and f(x). One’s magical, sunny mass-appeal, and the other’s more experimental edge – through the fresh “Red” and the luscious “Velvet” concepts. Celebrating their seventh anniversary, the group made their first official release since ‘The ReVe Festival’ Finale (2019) with the six-track mini album Queendom (2021), released in August. The record includes the electro-punk track “Knock on Wood,” a B-side that uses a magical motif to compare the anxious desire for requited affections akin to casting a little spell (Yun, 2021).
The track is credited to duo Moonshine (Jonatan Gusmark and Ludvig Evers), Cazzi Opeia and Ellen Berg, who have worked together in previous RV tracks such as the B-side “In & Out” (2019) and the title track “Peek-A-Boo” (2017). The Korean lyrics were written by Seo Ji-Eum from Jam Factory. “Knock on Wood” opens with bewitching wobbly synths; enchanting ad-libs and vocals are layered over little finger snaps, squelches and glassy sounds (Daly, 2021) for an eerie feeling that heightens the magical element. The lyrics switch between anxiously hopeful confessions and spells, with each member adding to the atmosphere. Irene’s and Yeri’s lines are playful, mischievous – complementing Seulgi’s honey-glazed uneasiness, as well as Joy’s innocent sweetness and Wendy’s buoyant brightness, whose voices lead the pre-chorus into the chorus. The more distressed undertones of the song are resolved at the whimsical bridge, and the fairytale-like story ends with a modified chorus that expresses the assurance of getting the desired outcome. All the red flavors are there, but with the otherworldly magical edge that Red Velvet carried on from the sweet witchcraft of f(x).
Red Velvet. “Knock on Wood.” YouTube. 16 Aug 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHINkx2So0s (8 Nov 2021)
Yun, Sanggeun 윤상근. “레드벨벳, ‘Queendom’으로 전할 감각적 음악 세계..위트 더한다” [Red Velvet to deliver a sensory music world through ‘Queendom’.. with increased wit]. 스타뉴스 STARNEWS, 9 Aug, 2021, https://entertain.naver.com/read?oid=108&aid=0002979163 Accessed 8 Nov, 2021.
Daly, Rhian. “Red Velvet – ‘Queendom’ review: a safe but sometimes spellbinding return from SM’s ruling girl group” NME, 18 Aug. 2021, https://www.nme.com/reviews/album/red-velvet-queendom-review-3022231. Accessed 7 Nov. 2021.
SEVENTEEN, “Ready To Love,” Your Choice (2021)
Tan Puay Shuang
Being given the title of ‘self-producing idols’, SEVENTEEN is best known not only for their entertaining presence on variety shows, but also for being actively involved in various aspects of their comeback productions since debut. While one could visibly tell that the group’s music has drastically evolved and matured with time, not many were prepared to learn that the song-writing credits of their eighth mini-album Your Choice would include “hitman” Bang Sihyuk, the founder of HYBE Corporation that has just acquired their label Pledis Entertainment last year. Apart from him, the song also introduced the participation of Danke, Kyler Niko, Wonderkid, Christoffer Semelius, and H.Kenneth, some of which would be familiar to fans of other HYBE artists like TXT and ENHYPEN.
Your Choice was released as the second part to SEVENTEEN’s yearlong project “The Power of ‘Love’”. Its title track “Ready To Love” features a prominent electric guitar and an anthemic chorus, which combined with the typical EDM beats forms an upbeat dance track that sings about the emotions of someone who has fallen in love with a friend (Chakraborty, 2021). Besides departing from the retro vibes that they have featured in their previous mini albums, Heng:garæ and Semicolon, the song also stands out for the amount of English being used in their lyrics. Despite the high energy and optimistic lyrics, the song eludes a somewhat melancholic tone, and the adlibs done by the members hold equal importance as the main melody, with the choreography during the last chorus specially made to highlight Seungkwan’s voice towards the end of the final chorus.
HYBE LABELS. “SEVENTEEN (세븐틴) ‘Ready to love’ Official MV.” YouTube. 18 Jun 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4ffQuYFfY8 (8 Nov 2021).
SEVENTEEN. “[Choreography Video] SEVENTEEN(세븐틴) – Ready to love.” YouTube. 20 Jun 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxWowt5Oc9Y (8 Nov 2021).
Chakraborty, Riddhi. “Seventeen Get Ready to Risk Everything in ‘Ready to Love’.” Rolling Stone India. 18 Jun 2021. https://rollingstoneindia.com/seventeen-get-ready-to-risk-everything-in-ready-to-love/ (8 Nov 2021).
SF9, “Hey Hi Bye,” Turn Over (2021)
Vitoria F. Doretto
SF9 (shortened from Sensational Feeling 9) is the first dance boy group formed by FNC Entertainment. Known for their dynamic stage presence and experimental sound, and following their contract renovation, the nine members released on July 5, 2021, their ninth mini-album, Turn Over, with “Tear Drop” as the title track. The album follows their participation in Kingdom: Legendary War, where “Believer” was released as their final round song (which also appears on this album). The mini-album is the last part of the “9lory” series, which conveys their narrative world. In it, they show their willingness to pioneer fate on its own without yielding to what was already set.
“Hey Hi Bye” is the last track with synth-brass-laden and peppy beats. The lyrics are written by Han Sung Ho (한성호),Young Bin (영빈), Zuho (주호), and Hwiyoung (SF9s lead rapper). The composers are Han Sung Ho (한성호), Park Soo Suk (박수석), Bong Won Seok (봉원석), Moon Kim, and Tiyon TC Mack, and the arrangement was made by Park Soo Suk and Bong Won Seok. It is a fun track with a captivating mix of retro influences and a synth-like filter that adds to the instrumental – and their voices are capable of staying above it all, which is surprising. The track wraps up the album with a sweet tone, as its last verses are “Can’t nobody, can’t nobody love you like me/ Hey, hiya, bye.” Its first live stage was at the “2021 SF9 Online Fan Meeting ‘Reply FANTASY‘” (Laure, 2021).
에셒구. [SF9] Hey Hi Bye 응답하라 판타지 210815 팬미팅. YouTube. 16 Aug 2021. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i37Tw6310dc (9 Nov. 2021).
Laure. Exclusive Review: SF9 Cheerfully Spends Time At “2021 SF9 Online Fan Meeting ‘Reply FANTASY'”. Kpopmag, 17 Aug 2021. http://www.kpopmap.com/exclusive-review-sf9-cheerfully-spends-time-at-2021-sf9-online-fan-meeting-reply-fantasy (9 Nov. 2021).
2AM, “Should’ve known” (가까이 있어서 몰랐어), Ballad 21 F/W (2021)
After 7 years, 2AM released its first, long-awaited EP after their hiatus that began in 2013 on November 1. Formed as a part of One Day, a project of JYP Entertainment in 2008, members Jinwoon, Changmin, Jo Kwon, and Seulong broke off to form 2AM. They quickly became known as the ballad-idol quartet, different from their One Day counterparts, 2PM. each bring different vocal styles elements to their ballads. Park Jin-young of JYP Entertainment as well as “hitman” bang, or Bang Si-hyuk, and now the chairman of HYBE, were both frequent producers and songwriters for the group.
“Should’ve known” is their first of two title tracks on 2AM’s new EP, Ballad 21 F/W, written and composed by “Hitman” Bang, and arranged by Megatone and Score. The song starts with a simple piano harmony as Jinwoon starts the song in an almost-hushed voice, Seulong ushers in the bridge, and builds a gradual crescendo as Jo Kwon and Changmin’s voices carry the crescendo into the chorus with soaring high notes, evoking the emotion of the lyrics charged with regret of a lost love. The third bridge highlights 2AM’s frequent harmonizing, a signature characteristic in their songs.
A unique aspect of the music video is that it tells the first part of a story that the second title song’s music video continues. Starring One Day counterpart, 2PM’s Junho and Kim So-hyun, re-enact the story the lyrics tell in Should’ve known, and second title song No good in good-bye (잘 가라니).
2am – 가까이 있어서 몰랐어 (Should′ve known) MV. YouTube. 1 Nov 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5NyZsDz0oI (10 Nov 2021).
WWLT Vol. 1, No. 1 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.