“Pain creates nothing but darkness if it stays inside me,” Epik High’s Tablo tweeted earlier this week. “I’d now like to use it to save someone.” That comment might have come in response to a fan’s praise for the rapper sharing his struggles in a new podcast launching next week, but it’s a sentiment that applies to the Korean hip-hop icons’ 10th album and closing chapter of the project they started in 2021, ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’.
- READ MORE: Epik High’s Tablo talks ‘Epik High Is Here 下, Part 2’: “I’m still exactly where I started”
Although the trio – completed by rapper Mithra Jin and producer and turntablist DJ Tukutz – have never been hesitant to broach weighty subjects in their music, this latest record takes that lens and uses it to zoom in on their inner selves more than ever before. It both broadly and precisely encapsulates the Epik High story so far, delving into the experiences that have made the group who they are today. If ‘Epik High Is Here 上, Part 1’ cast a glance at the world at large then, on its sequel, its creators turn their gaze to the mirror, with vital, staggering results.
There are ruminations on self-hatred, Tablo first shutting down his critics on the melancholy indie-rock of ‘Gray So Gray’, matter-of-factly rapping: “I hate me / More than you could ever.” It’s a theme that returns, as you might expect from the title, ‘I Hated Myself (Tablo’s Word)’, but this is no self-pitying display of angst. The rapper takes us deeper into why his attitude to himself is the way it is, and sharply explores how his relationship with God has coloured his view of himself. “I was broken on the day that He made me,” he muses over a revolving gloomy piano melody, the embers of anger and frustration still burning in his voice. “He taught me to love / How to love everyone but me, sadly.”
‘Part 2’ often feels like it’s on a search for answers and, thrillingly, it comes up with a few along the way. Although it acknowledges some of the trauma the group have been through (like the TaJinYo scandal where Tablo was accused of lying about his Stanford degrees – and, subsequently, a lot of other facts about himself), it also uses those experiences to make some conclusions about life.
On ‘Prequel’, which closes with a canny, smart outro referencing every Epik High album, the trio celebrate their ability to “turn ashes to diamonds, make gold from dust”, one line in the chorus asking those who “fuck wit’ us” to “tell me where you at”. When a distant voice replies “Right here”, it feels like an echo of strength and resilience. To be “right here” is to have made it through life’s obstacle course, despite its attempts to trip you up and knock you down.
‘Champagne’ – the breezy, optimistic closing track that samples a clip from Epik High’s first-ever performance – reinforces that idea, raising a glass to every moment that’s made the group who they are. “I did it my way / Baby, you know that I tried,” Tablo sings brightly on the chorus. “I made some mistakes / But I’m not afraid to die.” The message is clear: failures and flaws are essential parts of life; like integral pieces of one of those photos that, when you zoom in, reveals itself to be made up of many smaller images. Without them, the bigger picture would be full of gaps.
Not every moment on ‘Part 2’ deals with pain, whether that’s finding the silver lining in it or laying it out as it is. There are pretty breaks, like the simple piano waltz of instrumental track ‘Piano For Sale’, or perceptive dissections of pop culture in modern times, like on ‘Super Rare’, on which Epik High are assisted by Wonstein and pH-1. “Why you boastin’ / Your song is a meme,” Tablo raps on the latter, “I’m givin’ ‘em oceans / Fuck your streams.” For some acts, it would be unwise to pass comment on modern artistry in song form but, backed by nearly two decades of deep, meaningful art, Epik High pull off such an observation with ease.
You can find yet more evidence of the group’s creative brilliance not just in this album’s lyrics, but in its production and composition too. Lighter and more airy than ‘Part 1’, it gives us space to process the poignant subjects we’re facing up to (the gloomy piano and mournful violin of ‘I Hated Myself (Tablo’s Word)’) as well as energetic catalysts for catharsis (the rap-rock of 2021 single ‘Face ID’). In contrast to some of the sentiments captured on the record, its sounds are liberating – a move that makes those aforementioned conclusions ring out brighter and louder when they arrive.
As ‘Part 2’ comes to an end, Tablo utters one final line: “Epik High was here.” The record feels like a necessary step in the journey of moving on, but whether the next chapter from here finds the three members continuing down their path together or separately remains to be seen. Regardless of what the future holds, ‘Epik High Is Here 下 (Part 2)’ holds the power to fulfil the aim Tablo shared in his tweet. A light in the darkness and a beautifully encouraging portrait of the very essence of life, it’s an album that should be remembered for a long time to come.
- Release date: February 14
- Record label: Ours Co., Kakao Entertainment