Lee Hi – ‘4 ONLY’ review: a long-waited, soulful homecoming from one of K-pop’s most elite

This vocal powerhouse steps up to the plate, vocally and creatively, with her first record under AOMG as she looks beyond her soulful roots

In interviews following her move to AOMG, Lee Hi had opened up about her growing participation in the production process of her own music. “The only difference is that I’m being more hands-on and checking a lot of details; I’m tailoring it to fit myself,” the singer enthused to Forbes last year. “I’m feeling a happy sort of pressure about it that I’m checking the details on everything.”

The singer further explained in a 2020 interview with Marie Claire Korea that prior to her moving over to AOMG, she would “get a good song, sing it well, put on a good performance” before ultimately moving on to the next project handed to her. “But now, I can contact artists that I want to work with and enjoy a more natural production process,” she added.

Her much heavier involvement in the production process certainly shines through on her long-awaited third studio album, ‘4 ONLY’. The record, which marks her first full-length album under AOMG, is a 10-track effort that marks a new era in her career through an exploration of music genres and styles that redefine her identity as one of K-pop’s most powerful soul singers.

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‘4 ONLY’ opens with ‘Savior’, a gentle track that relies on Lee Hi’s vocals to maintain the song’s tender groove. The song does a good job of expressing the sentimentality of the lyrics (My saviour, did the one above send you to me? / I had a sad dream with you in my arms, oh-oh / I could tell from the moment I met you / That you are the saviour that has come to ruin me) through its production, pairing Hi’s rich vocals with jazz-inspired piano and percussion.

‘Savior’ also marks another collaboration with fellow ex-YG Entertainment artist B.I, whom she has previously collaborated with in 2019 on ‘No One’ and earlier this year on ‘Daydream’ from the former iKON member’s debut solo album ‘Waterfall’. Although his vocals are utilised sparingly – he only appears briefly for a rap verse during the bridge – it’s his bars that gives the otherwise muted track some contrast.

For the most part, ‘4 ONLY’ marks Lee Hi’s return to the soulful R&B that defined her debut album ‘First Love’, all while highlighting her hand at producing and composing tracks that play to her strengths as a vocalist. One such example is ‘Safety Zone’, where its smooth beat, combined with the singer’s effortless transition between melodic vocals and rap-like bridges, builds an unforgettable, almost intimate soundscape. Then there’s ‘What Is Love?’ – where Lee Hi works frequent collaborator Code Kunst – which is the most reminiscent of her ‘Seoulite’ days.

Beyond reconnecting with the soulful sounds of her youth, Lee Hi also delves into her sensual, sultry side on ‘4 ONLY’. ‘Intentions’ utilises blues elements and acoustic instrumentals to create a powerful, captivating track. This, combined with powerful lyrics (“Why do men try to teach young women? / ‘Those clothes are weird, this suits you’ / But I just want your love”), which were penned by ‘Holo’ writer Ahn Shin-ae, allows Lee Hi’s velvety, passionate vocals to shine.

Although songs about complicated relationships are nothing new from Lee Hi, , on ‘H.S.K.T.’, she takes the “head, shoulders, knees and toes” rhyme from childhood and turns it into a soulful, sensual weapon. Lee Hi uses it to build a groovy atmosphere, one that’s largely driven forward by her gorgeous lower register and Wonstein’s smooth rapping. It’s a collaboration that makes the most out of both artists, truly allowing both of their vocal strengths to shine through.

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But ‘4 Only’ isn’t without its more energetic cuts. The record’s title track, ‘Red Lipstick’, sees Lee Hi dip her toes in the retro trend dominating more recent K-pop comebacks, pairing her soulful vocals with funky synths from the early-’90s and a splash of disco for good measure. Throw in Yoon Mirae’s rapid-fire performance and tie everything up with a deceptively simple hook, and you have a sure-fire – if not a little safe – hit on your hands.

On the other retro-inspired ‘4 ONLY’ track, ‘Bye’, Lee Hi plays around with her vocal prowess. Here, the vocalist effortlessly transitions from a lower, more rhythmic register to a melodic falsetto, which lends an ethereal dimension to the track. Combined with GRAY and Dax’s catchy composition, ‘Bye’ demonstrates just how well Lee Hi knows all the nooks and crannies of her wide-ranging voice and, more importantly, how to utilise it to fit every sound and vibe..

On the flip side, there’s the experimental ‘Waterride’, a refreshingly playful track that features some of the most biting lyrics found on the album – penned by Ahn, of course: “Are these words hard to get through or are you dumb? / I don’t know if you understood my words”. It is, by far, the strongest display of Lee Hi’s unique vocal colour in ‘4 ONLY’ – one that highlights the vocalist’s ability to ride out a beat, yet allowing her to showcase her full range thanks to its heavy swing music influence.

The final tracks on ‘4 ONLY’ meanwhile tap into Lee Hi’s more romantic sentiments. ‘Darling’, a self-written track co-composed with Bronze, sees Hi’s svelte vocals elevated and given an almost dramatic dimension with the help of gospel-esque piano. The track also provides a seamless transition into closing track ‘Only’, a soft, heartfelt ballad reminiscent of her classic 2016 single ‘Breathe’. Lee Hi’s breathy, soft vocals create a dreamy soundscape that recounts the story of enduring love (“A love like this would make even the most immature dream come true / Now I believe”).

Although five years may feel like too long a wait for new music, Lee Hi makes it all worth it by producing a cohesive record that not only stays true to her roots, but one that allows her to explore genres that strengthen her identity as one of K-pop’s strongest vocalists. It’s unsurprising that ‘4 ONLY’ leans towards R&B and soul – those sounds have so far defined who Lee Hi is as an artist – but the rest of the record gives listeners a clear glimpse at what the vocalist has to offer for next. And hopefully, we won’t have to wait another five years to see that happen.

Details

lee hi 4 only red lipstick review savior b.i ikon
  • Release date: September 9
  • Record label: AOMG
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