Picture this: you’re at one of those parties at which everyone is vaguely hoping that everyone else is vaguely considered fashionable. In walks a music critic of some renown; it doesn’t really matter which; let’s say it’s Carl Wilson. And let’s say you end up part of the circle of conversation that pops up around Carl Wilson, and that conversation turns to the topic of this year's Album of the Year.
Now, you have nothing in particular against Carl Wilson. His book was excellent. But it has been a hard year, and you are only on your first drink, and everyone in the circle of conversation is being very careful about what they say, and on half a drink it is driving you a little crazy. People are making pronouncements on behalf of David Bowie’s Blackstar or Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Alex Anwandter’s Amiga, and others are carefully nodding along: respectable, unassailable choices. It’s the kind of discussion where only one or two people are passionately engaged, and the clear shared primary goal of the rest is not to talk about the Album of the Year, or even about music that moves them and tells them more about the world, but to avoid being thought of as hateful, ignorant jerks.
So at the first awkward pause in the conversation, you say, “Well, actually” — take a moment to pause and smile self-deprecatingly for effect, if you need to — “the album of the year is EXID’s Street.”
And then everyone stops and looks at you, with benign curiosity — and also a bit of wariness, because it has been a hard year, and one consequence of that hard year is that the space for unexpected points of view has been colonized by hateful trolls. Everyone is looking at you, including Carl Wilson, including the woman on the other side of the circle for whom Lemonade has been a balm and a stimulant both, including that group worried that you might turn out to be such a hateful troll that their own perceived hateful trollery might increase merely by association.
And this is what you’re going to say.
First of all, EXID’s Street ought to be celebrated just for being a goddamn full album by EXID.
To start: EXID is a girl group in a market embarrassingly saturated with girl groups. If you’re not already in the weeds of Korean idol pop, trust me: for every group you’ve heard about (most likely Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, or the now-defunct 2NE1) there are at least a dozen others you might not have: TWICE, Mamamoo, Sistar, Dal*Shabet, T-ARA, GFriend, Girl’s Day, Ladies’ Code, Oh My Girl, SPICA, Stellar, Lovelyz, 9Muses, Crayon Pop, Hello Venus. And that’s just listing ones who have had the luck and financial backing to stick around.
Which EXID almost didn’t have. To make a long story short, the group, despite its close work with big-name producer Shinsadong Tiger, was broke and near collapse before “Up and Down” became a hit in 2014; and “Up and Down” only became a hit months after its release, when a Hani-focused fancam of a live performance garnered millions of views. The group had, and has, quality releases — “Up and Down” is shoulder-shaking fun — but its success serves just as well as evidence of the capriciousness of the industry as its failure would have.
Korean idol pop production is also dependent on frequent promotional cycles, driven by singles, around smaller albums; since income worth talking about comes from endorsements and merchandise, not the music itself. (Dal*Shabet alone has released ten mini-albums, and only one studio album, in five years.) To release a full album, then, functions as both a vote of confidence in a group of performers who have damned well earned it, and a promotion of actual music in an industry that frequently, for all its pop skill, gets accused of putting the music last.
Street, the first full album by EXID, is also a solid album full of well-crafted, interesting songs.
Having said all that, EXID is far from the only pop group with a hard-luck story; if every hard-luck story led to a solid album, the global pop landscape would look very different. The real question is: even if the group didn’t already have your sympathy, would you still listen to Street?
Answer: yes, yes you would, because “I Know” is a complex portrayal of self-destruction in the service of a relationship, with a combination of piano and hit-the-brakes-hard electronics to match; and “No Way” opens with a shimmer that will send you back to 1997 in a hurry; and “Good” accomplishes the difficult task of marrying a narrative of romantic doldrums with an uptempo sound. Even the weaker songs on Street have their moments: “L.I.E.” is neither the best song on the album nor EXID’s best single to date (that would be “Up and Down”) and yet it still has one of LE’s best raps to date and Hani setting up the bridge: “go-oh…” and then bringing the hammer down: “…to hell.”
Look: Street even employs the time-honored padding of including a remix of the group’s previous single (“Hot Pink”) and the remix substantially improves the song, making it shorter, dreamier, and more intriguing. (It also employs the time-honored padding of remixing “L.I.E.,” but the result is much less successful.)
At this point in your exhortation, one of your listeners might object that simply being full of decent songs does not an Album of the Year make. Ah wait, you say, there is decent, and there is also witty and boppable and spatially relevant: and Street has all that, too.
Street is a solid full album that leads off with “Don’t Want a Drive.”
If you can’t understand the lyrics, “Don’t Want a Drive” is still a lovely little work, with lots of rewards: the differences in Junghwa’s and Hani’s voices adding texture to the chorus, the last-act twist that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Translated, “Don’t Want a Drive” becomes not just richer, like a lot of the songs on Street — LE’s ability to put an entire relationship into one rap is impressive by itself — but committed to a truth: of driving as stressful (it is!) and walking as the space for thought, commitment, understanding each other. It’s not hard to find pop songs that can get across emotional truths, much rarer to find pop songs committed to spatial ones. You might well be tempted to call your friends who work as complete-streets advocates and play “Don’t Want a Drive” into their phones.
Also, EXID looks really, really good performing it:
Street is a solid full album that leads off with “Don’t Want a Drive” and also includes “Cream.”
There’s a long and honorable line of songs about overt female sexuality that get part of their power from also being funny — you can almost hear in the singer’s voice her own amusement at her own desire. Because sex is ridiculous and embarrassing, and desire is funny, and sex during which you can laugh is the best sex, and the some of best songs about female desire manage to communicate this without being as overt as I’ve just been. I’m thinking of Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me,” Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My),” Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World,” Solé’s “4,5,6.” (Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” while not explicitly about sex, deserves a mention here.)
And now, also, “Cream.” It would be simply catchy if not for the over-the-top quality of LE’s lyrics: Boy you’re like cream, cream, cream, you ruin my body has to be the best Kylie Minogue lyric Minogue herself never sang. The song’s arrangement (by Shinsadong Tiger and LE) helps set up the wit of the chorus: Solji and Hani start, which is atypical for EXID, and so the listener already knows something’s up by the time Junghwa starts singing Baby, baby, I’m so high like she popped her bubble gum to do it.
One caveat: it’s possible that the wit of “Cream” is more visible to those steeped in American English slang than it is to EXID. In live performances they dance as if it’s a conventionally sexy song rather than a song that finds wit in the ridiculousness of sex. There’s a risk, in finding “Cream” funny and therefore delightful, of finding LE’s English funny, which is considerably less delightful. I recommend taking that risk, betting that LE knew what she was doing: because Kiss, baby, do me right, left, right, going down is at once nonsensical and extremely risqué by K-pop standards, and because EXID’s collective sense of humor is one of its greatest strengths.
Street is a solid full album that leads off with “Don’t Want a Drive” and also includes “Cream,” and neither of those songs are the best song on the album.
That would be “Are You Hungry?”:
The Korean title of “Are You Hungry?” is “냠냠쩝쩝”, or “Nyam Nyam Jjeop Jjeop.” Nyam and jjeop are onomatopoeic chewing sounds. There are 13 songs on Street, and one of them is built around chewing sounds.
And it gets better! The reason why Hyerin and Junghwa are the only singers on “Are You Hungry?” is that Shinsadong Tiger wrote the song especially for them. The reason Shinsadong Tiger wrote the song for them is that they are known in the group for being ridiculously loud chewers.
If there were any justice in this world, every song that has ever been played in an attempt to get the audience to relax into its own stupidity — every Crunchy Frog abomination, “Cotton Eye Joe” — would have vanished into the ether as soon as Street was released. “Are You Hungry?” is not just a fun, danceable song, but a fun, danceable, aggressively silly song born out of an affectionate in-joke. It is simultaneously well-crafted and infused with human feeling, like all the best pop songs.
Street is a solid full album with all of the above songs, performed by a group of lovable, funny women.
Here’s another thing about Korean idol pop: its performers (especially the women) are left with very little room, or incentive, to speak their minds. Not just because their companies impose controls on them, but because even small missteps come with almost comically harsh penalties. Fail to smile enough during a late-night online broadcast in the midst of a grueling schedule, and see your new single get derailed. A Snapchat with a politically insensitive tag is clearly grounds for being mocked by national newscasters. And oh, even if you follow all instructions and hold the flag the TV staff asked you to hold, be prepared to apologize anyway, as you may have set off an international incident.
Most K-pop performers thus don’t have the resources to produce anything even faintly along the lines of Lemonade. (The exception to the rule is Lee Michelle.) Their music videos will be carefully choreographed and provocative only in deliberately unprovocative ways, and the “behind-the-scenes” content churned out by their company will be more casual, goofier, but equally unthreatening. Given that, a somewhat cynical reaction to, say, the clips on the fan-run YouTube channel EXID Comedy — all 250-plus of them — is understandable.
One of the consequences of a hard year is that even doing something like watching professional performers laughing and playing around for the audience’s benefit can feel like complicity. It becomes easier and easier to suspect that one is being part of the problem, and not part of the solution, even if “the solution” is not particularly obvious. To be more concrete about it: we all have limited, and easily manipulated, attention spans: to watch women who are simply being funny — and funny toward the eventual end of making money for their company, which fails to challenge an industry which itself fails to challenge long-held norms of exploitation and misogyny — implies the question of why you are not instead putting your scarce resources towards women who can be funny but also political — “woke,” if you prefer.
It’s a fair criticism. My own answer would be that we are not yet at a point of global female safety such that EXID’s comedy doesn’t have an element of political bravery to it. The limits of political and personal expression in K-pop need to be acknowledged — and the musicians, male and female, who choose a financially risker but more creatively expressive route need to be acknowledged and supported, for that matter. But there’s still something worth celebrating in a group of women who, pressured to look glamorous to the point of stillness, are also, repeatedly, funny; and funny as a group; funny as an outgrowth of and contributor to female comradeship. You don’t have to believe that the members of EXID are each other’s constant, uncomplicated BFFs to enjoy the open-hearted quality of everybody ribbing LE, or Solji and LE shooting Hyerin and Hani mercilessly, or Solji not realizing that when you jump the selfie stick jumps with you.
And if those don’t convince you, try this:
In the space of three and a half minutes, you get: Solji dropping her microphone into the Show Champion trophy; LE bursting into tears; Hyerin and Junghwa simultaneously comforting LE and finding her super cute; Hani joining the comforting brigade by patting LE on the butt; everybody jumping up and down and shrieking; more jumping up and down, while also singing; and Hani swinging the trophy like it’s a very, very durable baby. There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic right now; these women and their pride, and their pop music, is not one of them.
Street is the album of the year, thank you for your time.
At this point, admittedly, your audience may be a little dazed, and the Lemonade fan remains unimpressed, and Carl Wilson has been pulled away to talk about Leonard Cohen. Nonetheless, you have made yourself temporarily uncomfortable for a good cause, and perhaps led some previously unenlightened soul to better pop choices. Go get yourself that second drink.