In the 20 months since they debuted, SM Entertainment’s latest girl group aespa have secured their status as one of the most interesting, fast-rising new prospects in K-pop. That’s in part thanks to their concept – a leap into the metaverse, complete with avatar versions (or “æs”) of the four members. But it’s the songs, like the strutting ‘Next Level’, that have really pushed them to their viral moments which have become catalysts for the big achievements in their story so far, like performing on Coachella’s main stage or making an appearance at the United Nations.
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The tracklist for their second mini-album ‘Girls’ seems to suggest we’ve arrived at a key point in the group’s story, one where they could be about to soar lightyears ahead into bona fide stardom. As well as five new songs, it also adds on their debut song ‘Black Mamba’, their remake of Yoo Young-jin’s R&B ballad ‘Forever’, and their cover of S.E.S.’s ‘Dreams Come True’. All have been shared before, their previous arrivals heralded with much fuss, but their addition here – and ‘Next Level’’s absence – hints that their label wanted to call focus back to them before they move too far forward.
If ‘Girls’ is a bid for superstar status, though, it sometimes plays it too safe – inclusion of past releases included. There’s nothing here that demands the same intense grip on your attention as ‘Next Level’ did, even if the songs themselves are good. The title track adds grinding rock riffs to the palette, balancing out its polished pop parts with crunch and edge, but it lacks a powerful hook to lift it up to iconic territory. aespa come closest in the chorus when the four women send out a clarion call – “Follow me (bow down) / Watch me (my skill) / You will get surprised (say wow) / We coming” – but it lacks the punch it needs to really make an impact.
Rather than stick with the formula that’s worked so far, this new mini-album shows off fresh approaches in aespa’s music. ‘Lingo’ mixes flashes of country into their futuristic pop, blasts of Wild West-worthy harmonica piercing through a more typical arrangement. Not all of their new takes are as fun or feel like they move the group’s sound forward, though. ‘Life’s Too Short’ – which appears twice, once in Korean and again in English – strips away the curveball compositions aespa have become known for in favour of a pretty but safe guitar-led pop track, while ‘ICU’ is similarly nice – sweet and bright, but ultimately bland.
“Follow me, come and get illusion,” aespa sing on ‘Illusion’, the best song on this record. It purrs through minimal, shadowy verses before hitting a hypnotically lowkey refrain. “Getting bigger, delicious / Bigger and bigger, fire / Feeding on attention and growing up” – it’s a chorus that could describe the future-facing group’s own ascent up the ladder of success, if only the second half of ‘Girls’ didn’t send them back down again. It’s commendable that aespa are not resting on their laurels or churning out sound-a-likes of what’s worked before, but this project doesn’t showcase the spark that made them special in the first place. Here’s hoping they rediscover it before their next release.
- Label: SM Entertainment
- Release date: July 8, 2022