I have reviewed NMIXX’s music before. Contrasting with (G)-ILDE’s dark themes and BLACKPINK’s balanced approach to the musical world and its palette of human emotions, NMIXX is unflinchingly positive. The opening song samples the folk tune ‘Frère Jacques’, with both cheek and respect for the original. The whole approach of K-Pop these days feels like how Bach sampled themes over which he would improvise — or how early Kanye West sampled soul songs as the bases for his hip hop tracks. And while NMIXX’s music in 2022 was substantially influenced by jazz, this new EP ‘expérgo’ is more deeply influenced by hip hop. I like this move, for this reason NMIXX has the edge over (G)-ILDE for me at the moment. BLACKPINK remain the reigning champions for their deep embrace of hip hop, both positively and negatively. This deep synthesis is functionally a balance. But it is marvellous to witness. When the market of music is embraced for what it is — a Darwinian competition for power — some truly great art can be made. (G)-ILDE acknowledges this implicitly in its sadness, representing the loss of positivity and embrace of darker emotions like lust and revenge. But NMIXX seems to not known anything is lost. This is perhaps more concerning — but it is also more enjoyable.
The puzzle BLACKPINK finds is one of legitimating itself in the West. NMIXX may have provided a piece of that puzzle. ‘Just Did It’ follows on the equally bright ‘Young-Dumb, Stupid’, ‘Love Me Like This’, and ‘PAXXWORD’ by deepening the hip hop emphasis. ‘Love Me Like This’ echoes R&B of Rihanna’s Anti era in the second half of the chorus, with synths that also echo the Sheezus album by Lily Allen. This pattern is repeated on ‘Just Did It’, which sneaks a hip hop chorus after a pop build-up. The pop side is shown as the false side, the one the public ‘wants’. But the chorus is want it *needs*. This is epitomised in a recent song by Lil Uzi Vert called ‘Just Wanna Rock’, where Uzi repeatedly says, ‘This ain’t what you want’. I think hip hop is in a downhill spiral right now as it becomes increasingly popularised. But K-Pop is going in the opposite direction — heading towards hip hop just as it is stereotyped as being pop-focused. While J-Pop is founded on a jazz and rock influence, K-Pop plays with heavier rock and hip hop sounds, with a simpler, punchier approach to the overall sonic loundscape — hence its commercial viability worldwide.
I deeply critique the influence of romanticism on western music. But in K-Pop, love is the foundation of power — while in western pop, love is where power stops. The West is consumed by endings; but in South Korea, there is the hope for new beginnings. Perhaps this hope is indeed manufactured, as pop in the early 2000s was. Britney Spears was contained by the music industry much like K-Pop stars are alleged to be. The truth of the matter will be revealed in time — and the theme of freedom runs through both works. Torn between pop and hip hop, NMIXX, (G)-ILDE, and BLACKPINK are tasked with making an impact on a man’s world — the biggest K-Pop band and hailed successors to PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ moment of truly global music, namely BTS, has been temporarily suspended so that its members can join the Korean army for a while before returning, Elvis-style, to take the world by storm. In the meantime, other groups must take the stage. But I am not impressed by these other groups. The male musicians in particular crave recognition, but the female musicians have considerably more masculinity — to employ Billie Eilish’s use of the term in her BBC interview — in their approach, rejecting opinion and singing and rapping as if they were in the shower. This is what music should be; not vein attention-seeking.
In pop, the boundaries between male and female collapse — a collapse which works for the female groups, but not for the male groups. Hip hop is stereotypically male-dominated, while pop is stereotypically female-driven, even if the men pretend to have nearly as much influence as Britney Spears or Lady Gaga. The last man to have that level of influence was Michael Jackson, who opened the way for hip hop and the fusion of the genres happening today. Lalisa Manobal from Blackpink is ambitious on a level that surpasses both her band members but also the music industry as a whole. ‘Money’ echoes Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and ‘Power’ in equal measure — indeed, I have done vocal covers of each. But what is happening to music today? NMIXX have made a competent record, but this is superficial hip hop. It is the positive side of the dialectic in which NF offers a negative counterpart, resisting industry hegemony on songs like ‘HOPE’ and ‘MOTTO’ from his upcoming LP, you guessed it, ‘HOPE’. But ‘CLOUDS’ was so much more promising — and so is BLACKPINK’s music in the past so much more interesting that what pop music is delivering today.
I feel a sense of dismay. There is a lot of good music on this EP, but I don’t think music is heading in a great direction. We cannot just make good music. We have to surpass the greats and make something new. We have to give Wambop a distinctive identity — but to give this new genre that identity, we must draw on hip hop at its peak. Think about how Yeezus changed the world — after all, this is why Lily Allen named her album Sheezus. Say what you want about him, but Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, has a vision that is lacking in the music industry today. And until we find that vision again, we will — as an industry, but more importantly as a human community — be, to quote Ye’s greatest song from the critically renowned album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, ‘lost in the world’.
In the meantime, however, the inspiration of albums like expérgo and HOPE will get me through the coming winter, masked as a summer.
The last songs on a K-Pop EP are always some of my favourite. This reminds me of similarly short albums such as ye in the 2010s. Like ye, and unlike conventional western pop, or post-rock and-jazz tracks (for what is western pop but a refusal to embrace the best of hip hop?), this EP concludes with the love that initiated the pursuit of power in the middle, or at least the allusion to the BLACKPINK-style pursuit. ‘By Gosh’ is a sweet, if somewhat forgettable, song that precedes the second capitalised song on the album, ‘HOME’. The Yeezus-softened synths open this track. ‘I don’t wanna go home’, the chorus goes, echoing the themes of loss and longing from Ye’s classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There is something of Twice’s music in NMIXX’s. But there is also some BLACKPINK, which is also influencing Twice.
The truth is that BLACKPINK achieved what no-one else could: create a Destiny’s Child for hip hop, and introduce a new Beyoncé — or Michael Jackson, to take the Jackson 5 analogy. Lalisa Manobal’s ‘Lalisa’ has an ambitious chaos lacking elsewhere, and ‘Money’ has a focused energy that is truly hip hop’. But of course, don’t we all ‘wanna go home’? Alas, until we feel ready to leave, we can never truly achieve our dreams. In the meantime, this is fine. For the title of the EP made me think, ‘exit from the ego’, and that is exactly where we are. The old identity of music is collapsing, and it has already been collapsed.
In Hegel’s dialectic, there is a thesis, which proposes, and antithesis, which opposes, and lastly a synthesis, which seems to bring together the best of both worlds. In our century, there was an opening ‘thesis’, the rock- and jazz-influenced pop of the 2000s. Then hip hop came to a climax with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, opening with the question: ‘Can we get much higher?’ The 2010s were the reaction to this climax, and represented a steady decline. The 2020s seem triumphal in comparison, but we have no reason to be so happy. This ‘synthesis’ is a false and misleading trope that masks a false thesis under the guide of an equally false antithesis. The true antithesis has been lost, and so has the possibility of a synthesis which truly moves beyond the false positivity of the original thesis. Hip hop has as its core a negative critique of luxury, masked as a positive display of it. But over time this has been overthrown by a display of negativity, with a core of positivity about the system we live in. The political radicalism of hip hop has been lost, and so has the artistic substantiality which replaced it.
In K-Pop, there is the hope of a new beginning — not because pop is the answer to the crisis of artistic music genres, but because hip hop has come to an end, and a new genre is waiting to be born. In this new beginning, hip hop will emerge as a potential opponent to the dominant pop forms. Young Miko’s seems to represent this possibility on startling tracks like ‘Riri’ and ‘Lisa’, as well as synthesising strands of divergence in the culture as a whole. Miko is in hip hop what Billie Eilish was in pop — but Miko dives head first into hip hop, embracing the potency and subversion that that entails. Hip hop completed its transformation into pop music with Eilish, while Miko is bringing hip hop around the world. This vertical and horizontal expansion of hip hop will be its downfall. A new genre will emerge, as hip hop did, from a regional context. K-Pop is unlikely to be that context. But it may well be a trigger for it.
Sometimes SoundCloud rap is posited as a possible location for new music, but I am doubtful. I think the new genre will come from somewhere other than ‘the internet’, broadly conceived. The music industry itself was going through a peak in record sales around 2000 after the last peak of 1980, and today is a similar peak — distributed among a large number of artists who feel they are not getting their fair share. This will precipitate another class war in the music industry which leads sales to decline and a new era of technological innovation and creative destruction to begin. Then a new artist can emerge, as Michael Jackson did in the 1980s with Thriller and Bad and Kanye West did in the 2000s with College Dropout and Graduation, to usher in the transition between the two musical paradigms. The vinyl and CD eras are over now — the nostalgia merely proves that. But so is the streaming era. Its triumph is the cause of its decline.
And so, in the triumphal music of K-Pop, we see the seeds of the coming darkness — and while it is important to enjoy it while it lasts, we must beware what is to come, and be ready for it. To adapt is to survive — and NMIXX’s escape from its old ego, shedding old skin to create new musical life, is a fitting way to consider how new music can be made in 2023. Jisoo from BLACKPINK is releasing new music at the end of this month — her first outing as a solo artist. Lisa’s ‘Money’ still charts around the world, and it is unclear if BLACKPINK will stay together as a group for much longer — the ‘seven-year rule’ in K-Pop suggests a break-up is imminent, but I am unclear. ‘Playing With Fire’ music video meditated on themes of abuse, and being held back. BLACKPINK members, especially Lisa, seem to remain in that position of not fulfilling their full potential as individual artists in their own right.
And while attention is diverted to Jisoo and other K-Pop groups, Lisa remains ‘slept on’ as an artist — similar to the ways in which it was inconceivable for Michael Jackson to make an album like Thriller before 1982, or how Kanye was once seen as a producer and not also as a rapper, designer, and potential political candidate. It is hard for musicians with ambition to be held back — either they do too much, or too little. Artists have this dilemma in this century. Most music I hear doesn’t come close. And while NMIXX’s expérgo is not going to be an EP for the ages, it is potentially inspiration for artists to believe in themselves as we once did, and rediscover the hope that each generation must find for itself. To face our fears is a test of hope, and that test is yet to come. I am not a fan of unbridled negativity or positivity — I do think balance is best, but I also know that the balance must come with the flow of time. It cannot be forced. The escape from the ego, and the birth of a new future, is a similar art of flow. Let the music begin.
You know what else the album title reminds me of? The Freudian concept of ‘superego’. If jazz comes from the id and pop from the superego, perhaps hip hop can play the balancing ego role. In this way BLACKPINK balances between (G)-ILDE’s emphasis on the id and NMIXX’s emphasis on the superego. But this album also promises a return to the ego through a return to love. And yet, some of the chorus suggests a BLACKPINK idea of power being authentic, too. For the love of power — or the power of love? It is conventional to emphasise the latter. But what if the former could also be good? What if the antithesis were true, and the thesis were false, and the synthesis needed to represent that inversion of conventional understanding? I do not have all the answers. I do have questioning — which is, perhaps, where all philosophical artistry begins. Music may be the key to this puzzle. For now, I’m excited for what comes next in the journey. Here we go …
A last thought: Sometimes, something can be false, but it must be embraced in order to find what is true. The positivity may be an illusion, but it is one that must be embraced in order to lift the mask and see the truth beyond. We have seen the truth before — but to see it again, we must be prepared to let the old truth go, in order to let the new cycle begin. I think now is the time to try, and see what happens next.