It’s been a long while since we last heard from Lee Hyori. Following the release of Monochrome back in 2013, Lee Hyori took a major step out of the spotlight. She relocated from Seoul to Jeju Island with her husband, became a devout animal rights activist, and shared her thoughts about conservation, the environment, and simple living through her blog.

Given the long hiatus, it’s safe to say many were excited when Hyori announced her return this summer with a new album, Black. With new passions, and new scenery, Hyori has returned to the K-pop scene to make statements, and that’s exactly what the MVs for “Seoul” and “Black” do. Though instead of attempting grand political or socio cultural statements, Lee Hyori chooses instead to make statements about herself, comparing who she once was with who she is now.

Beginning with the pre-release MV “Seoul,” Lee Hyori presents the stark contrast between city and country life. “Seoul” serves as a critical opening to this comeback, and an excellent foreshadowing of the kind of introspection the rest of the album explores. As Hyori herself explained on JTBC‘s Newsroom, there was a heaviness in her heart when she lived in Seoul — a darkness she felt she carried when she lived in the city that contrasts the life she now leads in Jeju — that helped inspire her to write the song “Seoul.”

I turned and went far away, yeah
But when I close my eyes, I remember it
I look back when longing washes over me, yeah
But it’s too late to go back

“Seoul”, lyrically, reads like a poem, and this reflects in the tone of the song itself. Hypnotic and repetitive, “Seoul” is Lee Hyori stripped down, allowing her raw thoughts — contradictory and vulnerable as they are — to break through. There’s no doubt of the autobiographical nature of the track, she was once the “little star “under the grey sky, “pitiful” in her captivity to city life. Lee Hyori escaped Seoul, her life there in the city that “twinkles,” in favor of different song and different life.

The track is no doubt a critique, but it’s not necessarily a critique of the city itself, as proven by the almost disillusioned longing in the single word chorus. Instead, “Seoul” is a moment of Lee Hyori looking back on who she was when she lived in Seoul, questioning if she’ll ever be able to return to the city where “we drop our eloquence in order to live.”

The MV expresses this tension beautifully, and ultimately provides an answer to the question of her return. Hyori takes a literal step out of the spotlight of the city, and into the sunlight of the country. It opens in Seoul at night, with Lee Hyori jogging before she comes to an abrupt halt. She’s soon transported to the daylight and open nature of Jeju, where she sheds the running jacket and dances freely in a clearing.

The MV is nothing short of marvelous; immaculate in its editing, and captivating in its narrative. The transitions between the night time of the city, and daylight of the country are seamless, but still manage to express the stark difference between Lee Hyori’s darker life in the city, and the liberation that came with moving away. The constraints of city life are shown through time-lapse shots of Hyori seemingly frozen in place, trapped behind glass panels. These shots are then put against scenes with the open spaces of nature, of Hyori dancing freely on the edge of a pond, touching the bark of a tree and not a glass encasing.

Light plays a huge role in carrying the narrative, with Lee Hyori dancing in both locations but in starkly contrasting light schemes. In the city, headlights shine directly on her on her in the night, putting all the focus on her, forcing her to lift her hand to block out the high beams. Whereas in the country shots, it is not only Lee Hyori lit up, but the entire landscape around her; she is merely a part of the illuminated scene, not the entire focus of it. This is then highlighted by the wide-pans and frames of the country that allow Lee Hyori to be small within the landscape, compared to the much tighter shots of Lee Hyori in the city.

The transitions between the two locations heighten the dichotomy of Lee Hyori’s persona, and build the narrative to the climax when Hyori returns to Seoul in the daylight, takes up space on the roof, and dances just as freely as she had in forest under the sun. It’s her way of saying that with this comeback, Seoul isn’t a trap anymore, she has freedom in it, command over herself, and ultimately can embrace the space — express herself — in a way that she wasn’t able to before.

The track ends abruptly with the rap portion seemingly unfinished; there is no final chorus, or a tying up of loose musical ends. Rather, the track stops in place — much like Hyori had in the introductory shots — and we see Lee Hyori sitting on the edge of a high rise building before we’re taken back to her in the Seoul street. Lee Hyori zips up that same running jacket she once shed, before continuing to run. She’s back, and she’s definitely changed along the way, but Hyori’s reconciled the part of herself she hated in Seoul, and is ready to move forward.

If “Seoul” serves as the opening to Lee Hyori’s new direction and mindset, then “Black” stands as a stronger statement and re-affirmation of desire to be herself. In it, Lee Hyori is just as introspective, lamenting how she became someone she isn’t, and someone who she no longer wants to be.

I dyed my hair to deny myself

The red lipstick hid my pursed lips

The thing that shook behind the colored lens

It was me who didn’t want to be me

After years of hiding behind an image of herself, Lee Hyori desires to go back to the beginning, and back to black: black hair and dark eyes. She wants to be an “ordinary girl who is fearless today” and dance freely. These lyrics are brought to life in the MV that opens with Lee Hyori waking up in the desert sun rocking a pink wig and silver-sequined dress. She sheds her artificial exterior and changes into flannel and jeans, before embarking on a journey for water.

The desert drought undoubtedly stands as symbol of her own agency, dried up and scarce when she’s presenting a pink-wigged and dolled-up image that isn’t true to herself. She searches for water in the beginning of the MV lethargic, and in many ways unfulfilled. That is, until she encounters the stray dog, who inspires her to play in the desert sun, and dance freely in the black clothes the lyrics long for.

Lee Hyori is a known animal rights activist — a passion that only intensified in her time away from the spotlight — and it’s no surprise that the stray dog she takes home ends up discovering an untapped water line just as she’s about to put on the artificial pink wig; providing her the lifeline she needs, and saving her from another day of dolling herself up to be someone she is not.

There is a slight catch with the presentation of Hyori’s desire to return to the beginning. Firstly, “Black” is for all intents and purposes an EDM-infused country song, with the thematic filming even following her to an American desert. It’s strikingly out of character given her discography, which was probably what she wanted. However, there are elements that — while they strive for raw authenticity, or maybe boho-chic – skirt the line to appropriative. Lee Hyori is careful, never fully crossing the line, but still, she’s sure to raise some eyebrows with the imagery on screen.

Slight eyebrow raising aside, what Lee Hyori’s really gifted us with these two MVs is an affirmation of herself. Her time away from the spotlight has provided her a period of introspection, which has translated into remarkable creativity. In “Black” and “Seoul” Lee Hyori confronts the image the world has of her — the image she once had of herself — and takes a step away from it. She doesn’t deny her past, nor who she once was, and instead looks at how those experiences in Seoul, in colored lenses and dyed hair, caused her to stray from who she really is.

Black as album, and the two MVs it birthed, stand as a estimate to Lee Hyori’s new perspective on life. Aesthetically, musically, and lyrically, they’re both such a departure from the Lee Hyori audiences once knew and loved. Yet, they’re so genuine and raw in their vulnerability. She deliately toes the line between saying ‘this is the real Lee Hyori,’ and saying ‘this is who I am now’ — which is an incredibly difficult balance to strike.

Because of this authenticity of expression Lee Hyori is sharing musically and lyrically, her dancing also is completely new. In both MVs, she dances freely — almost to the point where none of the shots feel choreographed. Instead, we watch Lee Hyori embrace the music as she feels it; she rolls in the grass, spins in the desert sun, and lets the emotions the tracks she’s helped write flow through her. It’s truly a moving sight, and it feels as though we’re watching a Lee Hyori freed of herself and her preconceived image.

Ultimately, what we’ve gotten out of these two MVs is a pure Lee Hyori as she understands herself at thirty-eight. “Seoul” and “Black” aren’t a reboot, nor a re-branding, but rather a reaffirmation of self. Lee Hyori’s never shied away from presenting critique in her music, but these two releases stand as almost a critique of herself and how she came to be someone she didn’t want to be before re-discovering who she is. Listening or watching, you can feel how important these tracks are to her, like they’re a letter of her own thoughts being shared with the world through the simplistic visuals of nature and deeply personal symbolism. Fairly, the new sound might not be everyone’s musical cup of tea — especially for some long time fans — but it’s the direction Lee Hyori wants to take. That reclaiming of her musical identity after years of feeling like she didn’t have full agency, deserves a lot of respect.

“Black” and “Seoul” mark  a new musical direction for Lee Hyori, and they feel like a celebration of Lee Hyori’s new-found, but long desired freedom; creative freedom, musical freedom, and most importantly, a reconciling of herself with the person she once was.

(YouTube. Korea Herald [1] [2], Yonhap. Images via Kiwi Entertainment. Translations via Pop!Gasa.)