4Minute: Crazy (2015; Cube Entertainment)
Essential Potential: While never quite at the level of Girls’ Generation or 2NE1, 4Minute have nonethless retained default status as one of the banner girl groups in K-pop, in part due to member (and former Wonder Girl) HyunA’s solo success. Their latest is being billed as “4Minute revamped,” whatever that means.
That South Korean girl group 4Minute started 2015 with a self-conscious “revamp” of their brand isn’t surprising; this kind of manoeuvre is seen often in the landscape of K-pop. Just as the recent evolutionary timeline of the region’s popular music represents a condensed version of that of its western influence, the artists on the scene progress their narratives quickly by launching “mini-album” campaigns several times a year that emphasize their awareness of whatever given genre might be in trend. For 4Minute especially, this tact always seems arbitrary; ever since their most high profile member, HyunA, started to find success as a solo artist (and with her 2011 single “Bubble Pop” and its sex-bomb music video, become something of an ambassador to the K-pop world at large), the group has struggled to find a compelling identity, rarely sounding as cutting edge as their high profile would suggest and often faring worse than groups with virtually none of the name recognition. But with this new campaign, 4Minute instantly garnered attention by leading off with a ballad, an unusual move for them. And while Crazy, their sixth mini-album, doesn’t represent any huge departure, it does remain true to that initial impression of being a release with the potential to reshape opinion about the group. Unsurprisingly, it accomplishes this by co-opting two of the most progressive aesthetic tendencies in K-pop right now, which aren’t all that different from each other anyway: The hip-hop swagger of recent HyunA singles like last year’s “Red,” and the genre mix-and-match facility of 2014's most talked-about K-pop full-length, 2NE1's Crush. 4Minute may lack the diversity of vocal talent that can be claimed by K-pop’s reigning girl group, but their latest effort steals from all the right sources and compliments its expertly curated sound with whip-smart craft.
Dive-bombing opener “Crazy” hurtles itself through boom-bap verses, club-ready EDM breaks and the strange snake-charmer effects of its chorus — the first real banger of 2015. 4Minute’s label, Cube Entertainment, is promoting the song as a show of pointed disinterest in pandering to male, idol-obsessive fans (a feat accomplished, I guess, by making trap music). Even more successful is “Stop at the First Verse,” which does accommodate 4Minute’s pop audience some by pairing its all-rapped verses with an angelic, hopscotching chorus that sounds like “Superbass” sung by a five-strong phalanx of divas. This kind of organized schizophrenia dominates Crazy, but the aforementioned ballad, “Cold Rain,” remains a highlight. Saved for the end of this concise six song set, its soft-rock plushness provides a perfect come-down from the preceding spiky hybridized electro-pop, and still finds room for a rap verse and a busy piano melody. The girls’ vocals are braided together but leant just enough individual character by the track’s deft mix to keep from sounding too homogenized, an effect similar to that deployed on Fifth Harmony’s just-released Reflection. Tag-teaming vocals have always been 4Minute’s secret weapon, but they haven’t been deployed this well in ages, and more even than Crazy’s daring genre experimentation, its the group’s ability to reclaim their distinctive voice on this mini-album that makes it an early standout for K-pop in 2015.