Chung Ha’s evolution from a pop princess to a balanced, comprehensive solo artist in the past few years has been one of K-pop’s most satisfying evolutionary arcs. Since she struck out on her own, she’s shown she can skip between polar opposite concepts with fluid ease and adaptability but still retain the core mysterious image that she has crafted. Whether sexy or shy, brazen or coy, dark or flowery, Chung Ha commands attention and complete control over the element of surprise – you’d love to know what she’s thinking, but besides the scraps of information she doles out to keep us hooked, you’ve got nothing.
That’s why ‘Bare & Rare, Pt. 1’ comes as a bit of a surprise: because of how forthcoming it is in some places. Its eight songs inspire a flurry of emotions in the listener, even if they don’t land perfectly in some places or prompt doubts about the musical approach.
Take ‘Louder’, for example. On the catchy pop track – laden with bouncy beats and twinkling effects – Chung Ha encourages listeners to stop apologising for the space they take up and start owning their strength. But instead of fulfilling its potential as a power-packed, motivational anthem, ‘Louder’ comes off as a watered-down summer song. Despite the clear optimistic intent, the song’s treatment does it injustice. ‘Love Me Out Loud’ also suffers from a tried and tested pop formula, although it somewhat makes up for it lyrically and on the chorus, where Chung Ha flexes her vocal chops over heavy drums.
If you’re looking for your ‘cruising down the highway next to a sprawling ocean’ track for the summer, ‘California Dream’ does deliver. While it’s an easy listen, it’s not exactly memorable, despite the nod to Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ on the vocals in the post-chorus. The experimental flair and some creative expansion notwithstanding, both ‘Louder’ and ‘California Dream’ seem like outliers from Chung Ha’s meticulously crafted body of work.
In that sense, the fresh title track ‘Sparkling’ fares much better. As Chung Ha sings about the exhilarating push and pull of love, she remakes retro pop with a modernised flavor. Classic synths and reverberating drums merge with guitar riffs and are chopped together with rap arrangements, eventually bursting into a delightfully catchy whistling on the chorus.
But it’s when Chung Ha slips into a more mature persona – one we saw on tracks like ‘Gotta Go’ and ‘Killing Me’ – that the album truly shines. This is the Chung Ha you fell in love with and it’s where ‘Bare & Rare’ truly lives up to its title. The phrase ‘femme fatale’ doesn’t begin to capture this character. She is that woman: complex, confident but not arrogant, determined, a little cruel, but steadfast. She is a swirling mass of anger, ambition, love, lust, desire, freedom, and danger. ‘Bare & Rare’ doles out glimpses of this woman in measured doses – diving into and detangling her emotions one by one – and it’s in those moments it truly shines.
The album’s opener ‘XXXX’, for example, opens with Chung Ha muttering “fuck“. Over heavy bass and slow, powerful beats, she declares war: “don’t hesitate, hit me harder, I’ll show you everything, ‘cause I’m a fighter.” Here, she’s run out of fucks to give. She’s tired, angry, cornered and, therefore, dangerous.
This tar of emotions oozes something uglier on ‘Crazy Like You’, her collaboration with BIBI. “I’m sick and tired of everything, so annoyed / Psychopathic, oh, I want you dead, I’m irritated, what do you want? / Now I’m an alcoholic every day,” she sings over a slow, dark arrangement which springs between her vocals and BIBI’s smooth rap. A cursory glance at the lyrics may give the impression Chung Ha is lashing out at something outside of her, but a deeper listen leaves listeners with the chilling realisation that this battle is internal.
Chung Ha adopts a very human approach to this: she turns it into armor for the world to see and fear on ‘Nuh-uh’, before licking her wounds in private on ‘Good Night My Princess’. Starting off with an almost traditional instrumentation, ‘Nuh-uh’ quickly launches into groovy beats as she revels in her power and magnetism. This comes to a head in the chorus, where the groove becomes choppy and almost frenetic as she claims that she’s “bad, bad, for the history, good, God, I’m a masterpiece.”
Behind this power, however, is a very sobering and human outlook, evident in ‘Good Night My Princess’, the album’s only balladic track and its best song. A poignant guitar arrangement locks hands with her soft vocals and climbs steadily, building in emotion and intensity. It’s a surprisingly vulnerable moment on an album so otherwise self-assured and candid, but Chung Ha has always been ready to turn her weaker moments into cornerstones of her journey.
In particular, ‘Good Night My Princess’ seems like a companion track to her song ‘X (No Flowers On The Path I’ve Taken)’. While the latter reminded Chung Ha of the struggles her mother faced while raising her in a foreign country, the former is about her own journey. These parallel stories leave listeners with the assurance just as her mother made it, Chung Ha will too.
- Release date: July 11, 2022
- Record label: MNH Entertainment/88rising