NewJeans, the latest girl group to join HYBE’s ranks, were primed from the beginning to go against the K-pop grain. An unorthodox band name. Atypical promotion tactics. Novel musical takes on oft-attempted nostalgic callbacks. Nearly everything about the five-piece’s debut so far aims to frame them as innovative dark horses among the industry’s latest wave of superstar hopefuls.
The first step in understanding the NewJeans ethos is to dive into the meaning of their moniker. As Min Hee-jin, the chief executive of HYBE’s independent label ADOR, explained in a press release: “Pop music is a culture that is very close to our daily life, so it is like the clothes we wear everyday. Just as jeans have withstood the test of time and found popularity among many regardless of their age and gender, NewJeans aspires to become an icon of generations – one you never grow tiresome of putting on.” This lofty ambition clearly demands some degree of ingenuity, especially in a space that often prefers proven formulas and tradition. But as NewJeans prove with their new four-track record, they have what it takes.
Comprising members Hanni, Hyein, Haerin, Danielle and Minji, NewJeans were introduced to the public with zero warning – their first single and EP opener, ‘Attention’, was released on YouTube with an accompanying video well before ADOR shared any information about the members themselves. ‘Attention’ paradoxically charms by being more subdued than the approach one expects from K-pop’s fourth generation, anchoring itself on a groove and keeping its early 2000s R&B-influenced instrumentation minimal. The lack of bombast lends more focus to the heart of the song: NewJeans’ vocal ability. The palpable ease to the song’s delivery feels like a breath of fresh air.
The rest of ‘New Jeans’ continues to flesh out the group’s Y2K vision. ‘Hype Boy’ ups the ante with comparatively frenetic synths and instrumental distortions, but doesn’t divert from NewJeans’ commitment to making their voices the crux of the mini-album. Rather than invoking the slow-jam nostalgia of ‘Attention’, ‘Hype Boy’ instead invokes contemporary reimaginations of 2000s sounds with its tropical touches and future bass, but the way these elements are arranged make for a dreamy, almost hazy atmosphere. As they point out in the chorus, “’Cause I know what you like, boy / You’re my chemical hype boy / Open my eyes to see old days gone like a dream / Hype boy, all I wanna, hype boy, gonna tell ya.”
‘Hurt’ serves a lightweight interlude, a brief respite from the energy of the preceding song. This mellow track is a slow, emotionally charged offering that opts for a consistent groove and in doing so risks repetitiveness. There are no climaxes or dynamic vocal changes, only one-note grooves. ‘Hurt’ might be remarkable as a stand-alone single, but when sandwiched between songs that boast more melodic variation, it ends up falling through the cracks.
And finally we come to ‘Cookie’, an R&B-pop song with a bubbly cadence that has become the most controversial entry on the mini-album. Like the other tracks on the record, ‘Cookie’ is textured in an understated way that still appeals to a wide audience – keen ears will pick up traces of swelling synths, gentle 808 flairs and a fluttering bassline. Unfortunately, this meticulous, subtle production is paired with lyrical innuendo that can only be described as concerning when delivered by a group of 14- to 18-year-olds – some examples that listeners have flagged as distasteful are “Looking at my cookie / Do you ever smell it different? (Taste it) / What’s with a bite isn’t enough?” and “Made a little cookie / Come and take a lookie / Only at my house, come over and play”.
NewJeans’ debut effort is a project of hits and misses. It’s unreasonable, though, to expect complete perfection from a freshly debuted K-pop group. With their musical ability and the label’s bold artistic vision, NewJeans have managed to lay some solid groundwork for a bright future as trailblazers. Will they be able to build momentum and carve out a distinctive, even timeless style as they flesh out their body of work? That remains to be seen.
- Record label: ADOR/HYBE
- Release date: August 1