Having spent the majority oIKONRETURNf their promotion time overseas, and with only 1 full album and 2 singles released, it’s easy to forget that iKon has already been around for a little more than 2 years. In contrast to the other groups that debuted alongside them, however, such as Seventeen, Monsta X, and Day6, iKon’s dearth of musical content sticks out like a sore thumb. And despite insider rumors that their 2017 comeback, New Kids: Begin, was to be the first of a series of comebacks for iKon, much like labelmate Winner’s ill-fated EXIT series, no follow-ups were released, and we were left with the reductive “Bling Bling” and “B-Day”, alongside an arguably pointless change of stage names for 4 of iKON’s members.

That being said, iKon’s Return couldn’t have come at a better time. Return, whilst by no means perfect, has iKon making the effort to address the criticisms they’ve received for their music since their debut, starting with their title track, “Love Scenario”.

I’ll be honest. I was preparing for the worst when I heard that Millenium, a young YG Entertainment trainee and producer who composed the frankly unimaginative “Bling Bling” along with B.I., would be behind this release. I’ve had my fair share of problems with iKon’s previous comeback, from the instrumental to the verses and melody, and hearing that iKon was doubling down with the same producer did not set my heart at ease.

“Love Scenario” thus came as a pleasant surprise. The song describes one determinedly looking on the bright side after an amicable split, and everything — from the lyrics, the better line distribution, the laid-back delivery and the minimalist production — works in the song’s favor. Bobby’s verse in particular encapsulates the song’s idea very nicely.

I’m not really okay

Going through this break up

Today was our yesterday and now there’s no tomorrow

It hurts but if we dragged it out more, it would’ve become a scar

I loved you and I was loved, so that’s good enough for me.

01282018_seoulbeats_ikon_2Though I did feel that it felt lacking in payoff (especially for a title track), and the cynic in me feels like this is an over-correction on iKon’s part after the public’s lukewarm response to “Bling Bling”, it is on the whole a welcome improvement. The instrumental adds and subtracts elements when needed — cowbells at one point, deafening bass in another — keeping it from sounding one-note, and it all helps to bring out iKon’s personality and charm. All in all, it’s probably iKon’s strongest  title track yet.

The rest of the album follows this trend of light-hearted, quirky self-improvement. One of my biggest problems with iKon’s music are the vocalists’ lack of differentiable vocal colors. Barring Ju-ne, whose delightfully rich baritone is easy to discern, a casual listener would be hard-pressed to tell who’s who amongst the other 4 vocalists Jay, Song, Chan, and DK. The problem is exacerbated by iKon’s less-than-stellar track record of unequal line distribution, with Jay and Ju-ne inevitably taking up more lines as main vocalists, leaving the other 3 to make do with what’s left.

Return makes a good effort to address this problem. “Hug Me”, penned by Tablo, is probably the best example of this, making the best of the nuanced differences in iKon’s voices.  For once, DKs shines with his frail falsetto taking center stage alongside Ju-ne’s, as iKon mulls over conflicted feelings as an old flame finally moves on with another lover, all the while wistfully asking for a hug. When the hug finally takes place in the bridge, Chan and Song deliver their verses with familiar restraint against a suddenly stripped-back instrumental. It’s both the unorthodox line distribution and the stellar songwriting that makes “Hug Me” one of the stronger B-sides in Return.

Just once, before you go back to him

Let me hug you

Just enough that we won’t grow distant

Just enough that I won’t be left with high hopes.

“Beautiful” is Return’s most upbeat song, and one can see why iKon chose to promote it alongside “Love Scenario”: the track is effortlessly fun and feel-good, and retains enough charm to make it unmistakably an iKon track. The subject of the song is predictable with such a title, but the lyrics are jam-packed with references to iKon’s earlier works, B.I carries the group forward with an infectious energy throughout, Ju-ne delights every time he croons ‘I’m feeling so good’, and Song comes out with a high note near the end that I’m honestly surprised he’s capable of. It’s a definite highlight of Return.

The album’s closer, “Don’t Forget”, caused controversy early on when people pointed out how the whistles in the beginning seemed familiar to the opening chords of Winner’s “Fool”, but the similarities stop there. As the obligatory ballad of the album, I can’t really find fault with it, even if the subject matter of ‘don’t forget me’ seems overdone. The instrumental builds nicely as the song progresses, keeping the song from becoming boring, and every member steps up bringing their best vocals to the table. I must give special mention to B.I, whom — up till that point — I honestly didn’t believe was capable of singing without keeping the grating quality that often accompanied his raps, but he actually possesses a remarkably smooth falsetto. It’s another very welcome surprise.

On the other hand, I’m on the fence behind “One and Only”, B.I’s solo effort. I liked his lyrics, tongue-in-cheek, inflammatory and recklessly confident, with the repeated proclamation that he’s the ‘dotdae’ — a Korean expression that refers to the last cigarette in the packet, typically the one that brings out the most satisfaction when smoked — in South Korea’s rap scene. I even liked the reference to Lil Wayne’s characteristic lighter flick in the introduction which, given the lyrics to the song, is actually remarkably fitting. This song is undoubtedly B.I at his peak as a lyricist, and in one surprising moment he even took the time to rebuff criticisms levied towards him after “Bling Bling” failed to do well on the charts.

My way — If I was supposed to live and die for the charts

I wouldn’t be making music anyways

Those meant for success will make it

Those who weren’t don’t stand a chance.

My only problem with this track is the instrumental. B.I’s rapping style is already sharp and acerbic. With the cluttered and chaotic instrumental, it wears down on you more quickly than usual. Maybe this was the intentional effect, but I can’t help but think that a cleaner, less busy instrumental would let us have a better focus on B.I’s every word.

01282018_seoulbeats_ikonSimilarly, “Everything” starts out well, but quickly descends into a generic, EDM drop that doesn’t do the song any favors. Perhaps iKon was trying to spice things up a little, and switch up their overall sound, but once you quickly get over the sheer unexpectedness of iKon and EDM, the drop feels lazy and uninspired. There’s so much promise in this track when it began that was quickly dashed once iKon seemed content to let the instrumental take over in the chorus. Return could have done without this track, to be honest.

One can argue that iKon’s 180° in concept after their previous comeback didn’t do well on the charts is proof that they’re playing it safe, and sticking to what works, but it would be remiss to simply dismiss the clear improvements iKon has made in Return since Welcome Back, such as the better line distribution, improved vocals, and songs that finally display much of iKon’s personality and charm.

Is there room for improvement? Definitely. Listening to “Jerk” and “Best Friends”, one gets the suspicion that resident composer B.I doesn’t know how to utilize Chan beyond giving him half of Song’s lines. iKon’s shtick for having every member sing together at the end of each song gets old pretty fast. But as a sophomore album, Return is pretty damn good, and I hope that iKon continues to improve with each release.

(YouTube [1][2], Images via YG Entertainment)