The four boys of M.I.B recently returned to the Korean hip hop scene with their latest single, “Only Hard For Me,” a smooth-sounding track featuring Kang Nam‘s gorgeous vocals and impressively executed raps from the rest of the group–especially for rookies. The release of their EP, Illusion, was originally planned for the end of March but due to an unexpected and tragic fire that ended up causing the deaths of three of M.I.B’s stylists, the boys respectfully took some time off. I’m glad to see that they’re back, however, with music that is better than ever.

When dealing with hip hop in Korea, it seems like most groups either go underground or venture onstage, which means that they are “competing” with the sugarcoated tracks of popular K-pop groups. As a result, many people don’t notice hip hop groups because they don’t play up the “sparkle and pizzazz” factor nearly as much as normal K-pop groups, and instead rely more on the quality of the music they put out. Unfortunately for those people, some of the best contemporary Korean music I’ve heard comes from those hip hop artists.

M.I.B (which stands for Most Incredible Busters, if you didn’t know) debuted in October 2011 with their first single, “G.D.M” (Girls, Dreams, Money). If you ignore the questionable group name and debut song title, it was pretty obvious that the boys were talented as rappers. Their first full-length album, Most Incredible Busters, included eleven tracks that were almost all upbeat hip hop songs, including solo tracks from each of the four members. So it came as something of a surprise when M.I.B took on a softer approach to hip hop by emphasizing instrumentals, vocals, and artfully-written raps with Illusion, instead of recording a sequel single to “G.D.M” about expensive cars and bars.

Illusion opens with “Dutch Pay,” a slower track with a catchy beat featuring Hafsa‘s vocals. This song was a clear sign that this mini-album wasn’t going to be as electronic as M.I.B’s previous projects had been. The raps were clean and had a great flow to them, and the verses were broken up with the chorus in between them. Overall, “Dutch Pay” displayed the boys’ musical growth while still retaining that fun, energetic sound that echoes in each of the boys’ tracks. I would have wanted to hear Kang Nam’s vocals stand out a little more in this song, but because the raps were truly well-written and executed without a hitch, I’m willing to let the slight lack of breathtakingly awesome vocals go.

The second song on Illusion is “Only Hard For Me,” which I would call a stylized ballad (think “Blue” by Big Bang — slow, but still absorbing and full of hip hop elements). And I’ve got to hand it to Jungle Entertainment on this one — “Only Hard For Me” showcased the talents of each member without overwhelming us with fast-paced raps or overly-electronized vocals.

Not only was the music video shot tastefully, the track that M.I.B chose to promote was one of the best on Illusion. Usually, for some strange reason, K-pop groups don’t choose to promote the strongest track on their mini-album, but “Only Hard For Me” was a solid track that really stood out on the mini-album. The contrast created between the slower raps of 5zic, Cream, and SIMS and Kang Nam’s verses was actually quite balanced, despite the fact that M.I.B is a rapper-heavy group. The meshing of acoustic guitar chords and an electric guitar solo at the beginning of “Only Hard For Me” also gripped my attention when I listened to the song for the first time. A simple piano melody in the background also focused most of the attention on the boys instead of making the track messy and confusing to listen to. The only confusing part of “Only Hard For Me” was the English — I couldn’t even decipher some of what they were saying at times. “Only Hard For Me” is a track that any fan of a more relaxed style of hip hop could listen for days on end.

M.I.B released a single album earlier this year for “Celebrate,” a trendy-sounding rap-heavy track that has the electronic qualities featured in their earlier pieces. They included it on Illusion, with two new versions of the song, one being a Konrad OldMoney remix and the other being a dubstep one.

While I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Celebrate” as a song, I appreciated the fact that both the remixes were different from each other and the original track. Most K-pop groups use remixes on a mini-album as filler tracks by just slowing down the original track a little bit and adding a few new elements. The mixing for these two remixes was done really nicely and it was pretty obvious that M.I.B wasn’t trying to create filler tracks with their remixes. While the Konrad OldMoney remix stood out to me because it brought a fresh new sound to the song, I decided that I liked the original track the most. Dubstep slowed the song down a little and it just didn’t have the same punch. However, the dubstep in the remix wasn’t overwhelming and still let the raps and verses shine through, something that I really enjoyed.

Konrad OldMoney did a second remix for Illusion with M.I.B’s debut track, “G.D.M.” The remix was done well and sounded very smooth, but the electronic aspects and new elements that were added in the process of mixing overwhelmed the original song. However, the remix did sound a lot more hip hop-esque than some of the other tracks on Illusion, while still maintaining a trendy feel overall that would appeal to a number of fans. The addition of Tiger JK and Bizzy also brought a new spin to “G.D.M,” but at this point I just can’t bring myself to like that song, no matter how nicely it is presented to me.

M.I.B closes Illusion with “Falling Flowers,” another slow track. It opens with a soft piano melody and some questionable English lyrics, but you have to give Kang Nam an ‘A’ for effort. The strange English pronunciation is harder to ignore in this one because the chorus is completely in English, but the raps are once again flawless. While I wouldn’t say that “Falling Flowers” is as strong of a track as “Only Hard For Me,” the two have very similar styles.

M.I.B’s transition from a hip hop-tending-to-sound-more-electronic style to slower hip hop tracks with more focus on vocals and instrumentals was a genius move. I’d love to see them explore sounds like the ones they expressed in “Only Hard For Me” and “Falling Flowers” more, because they have the potential to record some amazing hip hop ballads. With Kang Nam’s voice and the rapping prowess of the rest of the group, M.I.B gets the best of both worlds. Even though these boys are still newcomers in the realm of K-pop (or K-hip hop), it’s safe to say that we can expect them to stick around for a while, as they are clearly very talented. As long as M.I.B doesn’t lose the direction that they are currently heading in, who knows how high this group can climb?

Overall Rating: 4.2/5

(Jungle Entertainment, CJ E&M Music)