For anyone who’s been following K-pop for some time now, I think we can agree that there is no shortage of grievances we have with one agency in particular. We’re talking about an agency riddled with more scandals than Kerry Washington, an agency masochistically referred to as “the dungeon” by its fans, an agency that’s obsessed with churning out survival shows when their newest groups have scarcely touched the ground, an agency whose music output is so dismal in quantity, they’ve even resorted to repackaging and selling an album with no update in its music.
We’re talking about YG Entertainment.
And though it may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, none of these things really grinds my gears as much as Yang Hyun-suk’s incessant need to promote his artists as “the next Big Bang“, “the next 2NE1” and particularly “the next G-Dragon“. I understand where he’s coming from, but the strategy of attracting more fans by comparing his newer artists to his more established ones is remarkably short-sighted: pointing out a newer artist’s similarities to another also serves to throw their own deficiencies in sharp relief. If he tells me that B.I. is the next G-Dragon, I’ll probably agree his production chops can stack up against him, but I’ll also notice how he pales in almost anything else. Would it not be better to simply let us find things to appreciate about our favorite artists without comparing them to anyone else?
Conversely, despite not being hailed as the next somebody, Mino has quickly grown to be one of my favorite artists, and all I could notice were his strong points: his charisma, his voice, his technical ability, and his face. I’d go so far as to make the comparison myself, and say that there’s an argument to be made that Mino is the next G-Dragon. Not in production skills, mind, but in their musical versatility. Despite not having the largest of discographies, Winner have always taken care to change it up and showcase new sides of themselves, and no one has displayed these qualities better than Mino: in his flow, in his lyrics, in his vocal inflections, everything he has done be it by himself or with Winner has served to indicate his remarkable potential, potential I hoped would be properly harnessed and displayed in a solo debut.
Wish granted. XX just falls short of being perfect, but it’s still a very impressive work.
The fittingly titled opening track, “Trigger”, begins with an absolutely disgusting bassline, and Mino comes off surprisingly menacing with his guttural rap glazed with autotune. I love everything about this track: the melody switches it up on a whim, Mino’s delivery and flow is impeccable, the wordplay is dizzying, and it’s full of his trademark swagger. “Trigger” is brimming with audacity, with Mino taunting those who diminish his success, and dismissing his contemporaries.
Rock the Mic, uh, I’ve got the baton
Next Generation’s Icon
Everyone’s disqualified except for me
His confidence borders on sacrilege, even comparing his written verses to those within the Bible. At one point he extends the metaphor further, telling his listeners to rip out the controversial verse he made on Show Me The Money, in which he tells females to spread their legs like they’re at the gynecologist.
If I put together all the lyrics that I wrote
It’s the Holy Bible
The Verse 3 sermon on July 10, 2015
Rip it and Repent
And though chorus’ simple repetition of “This song is the trigger” sounds like a letdown on the first listen, realizing that the first two Korean syllables of “Trigger”, shibal, is also a derogatory curse makes it a whole lot better. All in all, it’s a fantastic opener, and bodes very well for XX as a whole.
After getting inoffensive tropical house from Bobby’s solo debut, I was admittedly intrigued when Mino announced his title track “Fiance” to be “trot hip-hop”; less so when the teaser snippet played on New Journey to the West sounded like the standard, run-of-the-mill, YG rap banger. But when the final product was released, I was very pleased with how “Fiance” turned out. It’s chock-full of metaphors and references, the delivery is simply superb — I love how his voice abruptly goes high in the lines “You’re friendly to others but chic towards me” — and the drop into the massive chorus was just so, so satisfying, people probably felt me cheese from the next room.
And for all my grievances with him, I have to admit Yang Hyun-suk’s idea to sample Kim Tae-hee’s 1969 hit, “Soyang River Girl”, was a stroke of genius, especially when you consider “Fiance’s” Korean title is a similarly archaic term to refer to a woman. Knowing the meaning behind the sampled song adds another layer of depth to the already stellar track: “Soyang River Girl” is about a woman waiting at the Soyang River for her lover to return, remembering the promise he made. Conversely, in the context of “Fiance”, Mino is searching for a woman where no such promise was made, and he does seem to realize this in the chorus, but chooses to keep searching for her as well.
My Woman, I’ve realized now
Woman, my blue bird.
Hide well, my lady
I can see your hair, where are you?
The only nitpick I have with “Fiance” is that rhyming “Dystopia” with “Utopia” is just lazy as hell, but I grasp at straws: “Fiance” is a fantastic track, and easily one of Mino’s best.
I can’t be the only one who thought that Yoo Byung-jae’s contribution to “Hope” was going to be a skit of some sort, was I? The act of sampling comedians within hip-hop was nothing new — just this year, Nas sampled Richard Pryor on “Cops Shot the Kid”, and Kanye West sampled Adele Givens on the maddeningly catchy “I Love It” — but was relatively unexplored within Korean hip-hop. Given Mino’s lyrical history, as well as Byung-jae’s raunchy proclivities in his own work, I was half-hoping to hear an erotic skit akin to Anderson Paak’s “Headlow” from his latest album, Oxnard.
So I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed when Byung-jae started singing. Rather competently, if I may add. If “Fiance” was the successor to “Body”, then “Hope” is arguably the successor to “Turn Off The Lights” from EveryD4y. But whilst Mino was resisting the urge to have sexual relations with a woman he’s sleeping with on the latter, “Hope” has Mino and Byung-jae in the exact opposite situation: they want to sleep with a woman at least once. Very badly. To say that this song earns its 18+ rating would be putting it lightly: either Mino really is that sexually frustrated, or he’s just a really amazing storyteller. I’m leaning towards both, because I refuse to believe one can conjure such erotic imagery without being in a similarly torrid state of mind. Just his opening lines imagining the woman wiggling over his thighs have me reeling from the gall of it all.
Once again, Mino’s delivery forays into the unexpected, his voice taking a crescendo into something wonderful near the end of his first verse. And Mino’s metaphor to describe how he only needs one sexual encounter with this woman to make her his just perfectly encapsulates his writing style.
Like a middle school student drawing a line on his desk,
Of course, if you cross that line, it’s mine.
The raunchy metaphors continue on “O2”. After a garbled vocoder intro of “I need Oxygen” akin to that of “Special Night”, Mino declares himself to be a balloon in need of air, and a woman his oxygen tank, asking her to blow him up, to use her “red respirator” on him. As you can probably imagine, the song completely fails at subtlety, and though the sunny instrumental is nothing to write home about, Mino manages to make it work with his vivid imagery of kissing a woman.
Woo, your lip balm smells like peaches
Woo, shall I have a taste?
Your hair is like a black curtain
And between the strands I can see light seep out
I will admit, though, that I can’t make heads or tails of Mino’s odd line of swimming in “milk colored drool”. Several ideas do come into mind, each naughtier than the last, but perhaps certain things are best kept in our imagination.
Mercifully, not everything on “XX” is a lesson in erotica. Fresh off her feature in The Great Seungri, YGX signee Blue.D returns on Mino’s “Um”. Though the repetitive spacey production begins to get annoying, the lovely keys on the song’s bridge helps save the song from being merely average. The instrumental actually compliments Blue.D’s airy voice very well whilst she and Mino paint a picture of a couple falling out of love. Mino even lampshades this, incorporating it into his lyrics to further the idea that what he once loved about this woman now annoys him.
Your voice, once like a crystal marble
Now, even the nasal sound of it bothers me
Only now I see it.
In-house producers CHOICE37 and Future Bounce each get a shoutout on the tracks “Agree” and “Rocket” respectively, and though they do sound similar on the first few listens, you’ll quickly realize each track has Mino flexing his lyrical chops to their greatest extent.
“Rocket” is an apt title, for the song is all about Mino’s stratospheric success, and how he’ll always go higher. Mino rides the beat as smooth as fine whisky, until his first “ppyung” gives way to a frenzied, cluttered instrumental drop for the chorus. Even amidst all the boasting and showboating, you have to admire how Mino ensures that astronomical metaphors, wordplay, and references are bountiful on this track.
Suck on Apollo
Still going to Andromeda
Unlike feeble dudes, Armstrong (I’m strong)
Gravity may drag me but you antis can’t
Though “Rocket” does briefly touch on the subject, “Agree” is where Mino addresses all of his sasaengs in a blistering, no-holds-barred fashion. As he describes unpleasant situations with fans who invade his privacy, Mino’s honesty is brutal, and I honestly can’t remember the last time anyone ever talked about this subject in such detail. Hearing him candidly discuss the sasaengs who buy information from airline companies at breakneck speed was yet another watershed moment from XX: the album really just keeps getting better.
The one sitting next to me on a plane is not a fan
I hear they pay money to airlines to buy info
At departure gates, war of 200mm cameras break out
Privacy, Panic Disorder, I trade them
“Her” is the obligatory ballad of every album, but Mino fully owns the song and makes it his. Ballads always walk a fine-line between boring and overly dramatic, and Mino straddles it perfectly: the flutterings of the electric keyboard keeps listeners of the subdued track from losing interest, elements are added one by one, until layers upon layers of Mino’s autotuned voice kick in for a stunning chorus. Just as you thought you’ve heard everything, Mino ups the ante with a falsetto that I’m surprised anyone — let alone he — could reach. It’s the cherry on the cake, it’s the final surprise, it just knocks my socks off.
On XX, Mino has achieved what some of his seniors are still struggling with many years into their career: he’s created a lane for himself, capitalizing and building on the themes of his previous works, and thus cemented his place as an artist. I’ve always thought that a great artist should possess some key selling points, drive, as well as a healthy dose of self-awareness, and Mino checks all of these boxes on XX. Full of surprises, full of charisma, full of innuendos, XX was worth the wait, and is undoubtedly one of the best albums I’ve heard all year. If he keeps this up, there’s no doubt that in a few years time, Yang Hyun-suk will market some unlucky trainee as the next Song Mino.