Over the last year, music’s escapist capabilities have become more important than ever, offering a route out of a world that has been ravaged by the pandemic. Much like how Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ captured our imaginations and transformed rooms into a disco wonderland, Chung Ha’s debut album ‘Querencia’ whisks us away to another universe – one where impeccable pop bangers replace the blues of quarantines and lockdowns.
‘Querencia’ might have the same effect as Lipa’s acclaimed second album, but it takes its own path getting there. There are no mirrorball-flecked sounds of the ’70s here, but a globe-trotting trip through a melting pot of sounds and influences. We might not be able to travel far from our front doors right now, but one of K-pop’s most in-demand stars is helping us hop from continent to continent, country to country in our heads.
An important part of Chung Ha’s travel itinerary is Latin America. There are the sounds of Latin genres dotted throughout the record, which itself takes its title from the Spanish word for “a place where one finds peace of mind” or can be their authentic self. Her voyage takes in the salsa swings of ‘Masquerade’ to the reggaeton rhythms of ‘Demente’, aided by Puerto Rican rapper Guaynaa. The latter marks the first Latin and K-pop collaboration for a female Korean soloist and highlights Chung Ha’s refusal to be pinned down or limited by boundaries – either geographical or genre – meshing Korean, Spanish and the dancehall-derived beats into an infectious, vibrant cut.
Elsewhere, the singer takes us to the Caribbean with the Calypso undertones of ‘Stay Tonight’ and to the Spanish Isles with ‘Bother Me’, a house-infused track that would be perfect for partying in the Balearics. There are hints, too, of America’s EDM scene, Afrobeat, European synth-pop and, of course, Korean balladry.
Much like she cruises through the eclectic sounds of the world, Chung Ha also traverses many moods. Sometimes she’s offering comfort, as on the soft acoustic strums of ‘BYULHARANG (160504 + 170607)’. The track is named after her fandom, with the dates referring to both her debut with girl group I.O.I and, a year later, as a solo artist. “It’s OK not to be fine,” she sings at the start of the song, later exalting her subject “the light shining so bright in my heart.”
At other times, she’s empowered and confident. On title track ‘Bicycle’ – the most outrageously brilliant banger of the year so far – she wields the titular two-wheeler as a sultry euphemism. “I know what you like / Sit back and watch me ride,” teases the self-proclaimed “baddest queen”. The addictive bounce of ‘Dream Of You’, a collab with Moroccan-Dutch DJ R3HAB, picks up that thread shortly after with Chung Ha locked in a flirtatious bout with a potential partner. “All night long, I’ll keep you so turned on,” she promises assertively, before dropping her final offer: “I got whiskey, I got gin and lingerie.”
Later, on the dreamy ‘X’, she takes a different approach to self-assurance and treads into a world of timeless, Lana Del Rey-style indie-pop. It tells the story of having to rebuild yourself after being brought down by betrayal by others and coming out stronger than ever. “The scars of you that followed me like a ghost / Filled up clean with new flesh like nothing ever happened,” she sings, moving on from those who hurt her.
The record is split into four sides, each ushered in by a bite-sized instrumental, most of which shudder out of the speakers like an electric shock for the eardrums. ‘Noble’, the album’s opener, buzzes through echoing beats and industrial noise, while ‘Savage’ takes us into the pumping sounds of a club and ‘Unknown’ delves deeper into the night with a skittering breakbeat. Each is an attention-grabbing palette cleanser – important for an album that boasts 16 full-length tracks in the streaming world’s age of short attention spans.
While ‘Querencia’ is, for the most part, an album that commands your attention with every note, there are some moments that don’t quite pack the same punch. ‘All Night Long’, a glossy R&B slow jam is pretty but meanders to its finish line, while the shimmering pop of ‘Come N Goes’ does as its title suggests, without making a lasting impression.
After a series of near-flawless singles and EPs, expectations for Chung Ha’s debut album were understandably high. With ‘Querencia’, the 25-year-old singer goes far beyond those hopes, producing a record that bursts with energy and excellence. If its title refers to a place where you can be your true self, then this album reflects its creator as a curious, confident and passionate artist whose songs help make the world feel that little bit bigger again.
- Release date: February 15
- Record label: MNH Entertainment/88rising