In an industry so unvaryingly focused on youth like K-pop, it’s refreshing to see outliers. As the field enters its third decade since the debut of Seo Taiji and Boys – widely considered the progenitors of it all – so do many of its most renowned artists, showing that age is nothing but a number when it comes to crafting music and art.
Sunye is one of them. While her name might not be instantly recognisable for newer K-pop fans, the 32-year-old holds legendary status as the leader and main vocalist of Wonder Girls, JYP Entertainment’s first girl group. From their debut in 2007 until their disbandment a decade later, the Wonder Girls had idols like HyunA and Sunmi in the lineup and built a legacy of retro-pop hits such as ‘Nobody’, ‘So Hot’ and ‘Tell Me’.
Sunye, however, only stayed in the group until 2013. At only 23 years old, she halted promotions to get married and later stated that she had retired from the entertainment industry. She had three kids and focused on missionary work until 2018, when it was announced that she would return to the stage after signing with Polaris Entertainment. What followed were a string of special singles and a participation on tvN’s 2022 reality show Mama The Idol, focused on former idols who left their careers to become mothers.
After her successful appearance in the show, Sunye signed to Polaris’s subsidiary, Blockberry Creative. Now, five months later, she has made her long-awaited, official return with her first solo EP, ‘Genuine’. On the mysterious titular track, she eggs herself on: “You ready for the show? Show it now.” The declaration, coupled with a resounding bassline, gives the track a welcome sense of anticipation. What could possibly come from a veteran idol who has spent so many years away from the spotlight?
Instead of offering a satisfying answer, ‘Genuine,’ as an album, feels more like an appetiser. Title track ‘Just a Dancer’ is a definite highlight, with Sunye’s delicate vocals and the same dark synths of the opening track, pushing and pulling the listener. But it fails to climax into something catchier and more befitting Sunye’s talents – watching how she commands the cameras in its music video, it’s clear that she is anything but just a dancer.
Sunye is not merely a singer either, and she soars in the last two tracks of the album, ‘Now I Fly’ and ‘Best Thing’. The former is a freedom-seeking ballad that brings back themes from ‘Just a Dancer’ and ‘Genuine’: breaking free, flying on your own and overcoming your fears, although in a more unremarkable fashion. On the other hand, ‘Best Thing’ is so saccharine it bears on overwhelming. The only song that Sunye didn’t co-write lyrics for, it’s a simple coffee shop love song, and stands out from the subtle vulnerability of the other tracks.
Standing right between these two opposing sides of ‘Genuine’ is the pre-release ‘Glass Heart.’ Its soft restraint and vivid lyrical imagery eases the transition between them, bridging emotion and sensitivity in the right measures. ‘Glass Heart’ strikes a balance that makes one wonder how much Sunye had to go through to release this album and bravely walk once ore under the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. While ‘Genuine’ stumbles at times into generic territory, it is cohesive and promising, giving us a glimpse of a hopefully bright new chapter for Sunye – one that is genuinely hers.
- Release date: July 26
- Record label: Blockberry Creative