If there is one group in SM Entertainment that you could count on to deliver in their albums, it’s f(x). Although their first album, Pinocchio, isn’t talked about often, their second and third records, Pink Tape and Red Light, are considered some of the most memorable albums of their respective year.
The hipster aesthetic group is now a foursome, with Sulli officially leaving the group earlier this year. It gave fans concern over the fate of f(x), the seemingly perpetually neglected group in the current roster of SM groups.
After all, the group is now in its sixth year promoting and they don’t have an official fandom name or a concert (although this is now being rectified). At the same time, Red Velvet — a group that has been regarded as a combination of SNSD and f(x) — have seemingly been given the almost bratty and quirky sound that is f(x)’s signature.
It’s because of these reasons that the announced fourth album of f(x), aptly titled 4 Walls, became highly anticipated. Given that f(x) have been consistent in delivering solid albums with a slowly maturing sound, just how would the newest album hold up?
Long story short, even if SM Entertainment is often accused of leaving f(x) in the back burner, one can never find any atrocious fault with the people in charge of producing f(x)’s albums. This continues to hold true because 4 Walls continues the legacy of f(x) consistently having one of the most memorable albums every year.
So let’s get into this, shall we?[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4j7Umwfx60Q]
The album starts with title track, “4 Walls.” Almost immediately, one can already hear that this is different from all their previous title tracks. In fact, it’s almost as if someone at SM Entertainment remembered that SHINee and f(x) are brother-sister groups and that it would be a good idea to have them follow their aesthetic older brothers.
But while “4 Walls” sounds similar to “View” — and share composers in LDN Noise — there are enough little differences that it isn’t a copy. “4 Walls” is easily more airy and moody than “View,” which in turn had more of a kick and energy compared to “4 Walls.” If there is confusion, that is probably because there are few examples of the deep house genre in mainstream K-pop, with “View” being the only well-known comparison one can really make.
Let’s also get this out of the way: this sounds nothing like the perfectly good supposed demo that had been making the rounds in the lead up to the album. In fact, the “4 Walls” we get is a different beast altogether. It achieves this laid back intensity as the song progresses and manages to have this without the usual heavy bass drop or shift in chords that one can find in usual K-pop songs. One can even say that it’s almost like “Shadow,” a perennial fan favorite from Pink Tape, was used as a foundation or inspiration for the song.
The second track is “Glitter,” a song that fits the ‘love it or hate it’ category to a tee. Some people may find the song to be a grower; some might rather not listen to it at all. Even after more than several listens, I find myself in the latter camp. It is probably the weakest song in the whole album.
“Glitter” becomes messy in several parts, albeit an organized mess because the composer obviously knew where the song was going. It’s because of this that it sounds like the song should have been in Pink Tape instead. The chorus and bridge are probably the saving graces of the song, along with Amber’s vocals.
“Déjà vu” is one of the strongest tracks in the album and is sweet without being sugary. The track is similar to several old-school f(x) songs. Despite this, it is an upgraded version of their earlier sound. It is mature with a steady a beat all throughout, without the bratty vocals that defined their earlier sound. A highlight and unexpected twist in the song is from 1:53 to 2:08. The producers take out all the prominent beats, leaving only the vocals and the video game background-like beat. It then steadily brings back the main beat smoothly and without causing the listener to be distracted.
The next track is “X” which is yet another strong track. Like “4 Walls,” it has a laid back intensity. The difference is “X” plays with you, pulling you in and then pushing you away with a bat of the hand. The small details added in the chorus mixes up the sound without detracting from the overall feel of the song or completely changing the track. And unlike several other tracks where Victoria’s voice can sometimes be out of place, it is not the case here at all; her voice, along with Amber’s, grounds the song and provides a solid contrast between Luna’s lilt and Krystal’s soft tone.
Next is “Rude Love,” which is my personal favorite. The sound makes it very easy to imagine this being played in ’90s themed dance halls.
It’s hard to really point out just why the track is so memorable. It’s so very f(x) but different to most of their discography. It’s mature with an absence of bratty or breathy vocals. It has a steady, but exciting, rise and fall. Even Victoria is strong in the song, playing along with the other member’s perfectly. And the way they sung “rude” in such a playfully passionate manner? It makes me focus every single time on the song and nothing else. When this song comes on, nothing else matters.
If “4 Walls” to “Rude Love” were all songs that can be aptly described as songs that one can easily relax to and chill, but all the while building up the beat and pace, then the second half of the album is, for the most part, different. And this shift in pace is stable in building to the climax of the album — meaning that it doesn’t give you whiplash as it shifts.
“Diamond” is a surprise change in pace after five songs of laid-back tunes and it all starts off perfectly with Luna’s almost seductive vocals. This is also probably destined to be another fan favorite. The song sounds like an upgrade of a song off Red Light without reverting back to bratty territory, yet still keeping that f(x) sound.
If there is one thing to note: “Diamone” is where it hits you just how good Amber’s rapping is for this album. However, can someone please implement a ban on the words “swagger,” “like,” and “Jagger” — in any combination. It’s 2015. Someone make it stop.
And a strong candidate for collaboration you never expected to happen is “Traveler” featuring Block B’s Zico. The instrumental of the track is probably one of my favorites from the album – it made me sit up and listen to every single beat from start to finish. The contrast between the light and melodic delivery of f(x) with the gentle intensity of Zico’s raps makes the song memorable. The almost stilted stop and go vocals added excitement to a song that could have easily gone into boring territory in the hands of any other group.
With lyrics like “Papi! Let’s go, ‘cause I kinda like it,” there’s no real doubt just what “Papi” is about. The song is an example of messy but fun. Victoria’s playful tone really gets its time to shine. No doubt that any crowd would be excited and dancing along whenever this song is played; and we should fully expect f(x) to perform this in concert, since the beat offers a wild ride for the listener.
The penultimate song is “Cash Me Out,” AKA that song that almost became a title song. Since “Cash Me Out” dates back to 2013, it’s fair to be worried if the song would even work out in 2015. While one can easily see this song in Pink Tape, it doesn’t sound as outdated as it could have been. It appears as if there were miniscule adjustments so that the song would not be completely out of place. Out of all the songs in the album, this is the most old-school, pre-Pink Tape f(x) and for obvious reasons.
“When I’m Alone” brings everything to a slow yet passionate fall from the climax of the album. It was composed by Carly Rae Jepsen and is supposedly one of her favorite songs, but had to be cut from her latest album, Emotion, due to the track being about masturbation. As someone who loved Emotion, this was the track I was the most excited for. Would it be like “Boy Problems” or “LA Hallucinations,” or would it be more in line with slower jams such as “Gimmie Love?”
“When I’m Alone” decidedly fits in the latter category and is probably even better than some of the other songs that made it into Emotion. So thanks, Carly, for throwing the song away because now it’s in the capable hands of f(x). Krystal’s delicate vocals shine, and it adds another layer of intimacy that makes the track almost unique. And make no mistake; the song still alludes to masturbation, although in a more careful, poetic, yet intimate manner.
“When I’m Alone” is closest to “Shadow” and “Butterfly.” One can even imagine the three songs played one after another in concert, with their tender and ethereal instrumentals keeping the crowd from being bored with slower songs. Because that is one thing f(x) rarely does – those soaring or typical ballads are not f(x)’s sound. Instead, it is these tender and delicate songs that continue their sound but does it in a different way. And what better way to close out the album then with the one such track.
4 Walls gives the group a complete holy trinity of albums — a rarity in K-pop where not every album is so consistent at showing maturity and growth while keeping the group’s sound and identity.
In taking notes while listening to the album several times, I somehow wrote this very fitting description of f(x)’s albums. Pinocchio is like a baby; it was a long wait for that first album and when it dropped, people were just happy that they finally had their own. Pink Tape is like a child, especially since the album as a whole showed some progression and growing up in terms of sound, all while keeping that bratty and feisty tone f(x) songs tend to have.
Thus, Red Light is the rebellious teenage years with the experimentation of sound that either hit the mark or missed it slightly. Fittingly, 4 Walls is like a young adult – f(x), while still facing uncertainty, are more confident in their identity. The production team worked with this and created an album that is mature from f(x), in terms of sound and lyrics.
While it does have a slow start, listeners can easily find themselves immersed in the almost manic dream-like sounds of 4 Walls.
(Sources: Osen, Twitter, YouTube; Images via SM Entertainment)