After much anticipation, four EPs, and a release delay, Chungha has released her much-anticipated debut album, Querencia. As much as I adore Chungha, which is a lot, the rollout for this project could not help but inspire doubts. When an album has five pre-released songs out of a whopping 21 and is conveniently split into four EP-like sections, the fear that this was songs for four separate projects shoved together for streaming numbers reared its head.
However, Querencia is most certainly not that. It has four distinct sections, each with its own theme and sound, but forms a whole that surpasses the parts and makes for a unique listen. A Spanish concept originating from bull-fighting, a querencia is a thing someone draws strength from. The four sections — Noble, Savage, Unknown, and Pleasures — are the four things that Chungha uses to feel safe and secure, and Querencia is a look at Chungha’s relationship with these qualities, and ultimately, herself.
Querencia opens with “Side A (Noble)”. Sonically, it draws from Latin sounds and reggaetón. This is most noticeable on “Bicycle” and “Masquerade” which feature noticeable Latin-inspired beats and production. The section also leans towards a darker tone, which fits the theme. “Noble” is Chungha’s perception of herself, someone feminine but confident and authoritative. The tracks place her voices quite near to the front of the mix, with “Masquerade” and “Flying on Faith” allowing her to flaunt her technical and emotive ranges. In the first three tracks, it is made clear that she holds all the power in her relationships. “Flying On Faith” highlights this best as it is a line in the sand about refusing to allow a boyfriend to treat her as the lesser half of their relationship. The image is clear — she does not bend for anyone. Then comes “Luce Sicut Stellae”, a song that is bright, with a more stable beat. Here, she lets her walls come down and simply enjoys being in a relationship with someone.
Then comes “Side B (Savage)”. This is a showcase for Chungha’s mean streak. The intro is rougher and more aggressive, before leading into four synth-driven pieces. The juxtaposition and name of the section draw to mind Megan Thee Stallion’s hit “Savage” and its hook of “classy, bougie, rachet”, which sums this up nicely. The production is undeniably classy, from the elegant futurism of “Stay Tonight” to the cold, heavily processed “Bother Me”. But underneath the class is Chungha at her most vicious, from the cold dismissal of a man who might love her to the sharp threat of “don’t make me dream of you”. The self-portrait she creates is someone who wants who she wants, when she wants, on her terms, and you’d better prove yourself worthy or she will unhesitatingly toss you aside. Yet, it ends on “Chill”. “Chill” lacks the deft mixing of the previous three tracks and has some very rubbery synths, but it also shows her as bored with the isolation caused by her nastiness, and taking a rare night to be open and enjoy having someone else around.
After that, it is on to “Side C (Unknown)”, specifically unknown men. Over three duets, which return to the Latin sounds, we get the image of Chungha as someone who does not do long-term relationships. “Play” and “Demente” drive home that what she likes is the mystery and excitement of someone new, their reggaeton beats as a good background for the back and forth she engages in. The switch to a softer bossa nova beat for “Lemon”, a romantic ode to falling in love, allows this to extend to those first few weeks or months when the honeymoon period is still in full force. She likes the beginnings — excitement, intrigue, teasing, shiny new romance — but shows no interest beyond that. Until “Byulharang (160504 +170607)”, that is. Here, it suddenly shifts to an acoustic guitar to back a dazzlingly soulful piece about the satisfaction of having someone who has been there for you and truly knows you.
That flows nicely into “Side D (Pleasures)”. While easy to assume these pleasures are all based on the physical, the larger theme is any pleasure that other people can give you. Yes, “All Night Long” is a slow, drawn-out sex jam that just builds and builds before coming to head. But then take “X”, a mournful piece about an ex who treated Chungha badly, but also gives her that satisfying moment of knowing he’s out there and watching her be fabulous on TV. Or “Everybody Has”, a pretty ballad about being able to break down because you have someone to catch you and help you up. This section feels the most honest, likely due to using more organic instrumentation, and the gravitas Chungha has throughout. Then comes “Comes N Goes”, a delicate 80s synth number that spells out her core belief — people do not stay. They may make you happy while they’re around, but people will naturally ebb and flow into and out of your life.
Querencia is a fascinating project because, despite the length, there are not any true songs that can be considered filler. Some are stronger than others — “Flying on Faith”, “Stay Tonight”, “Byulharang (160504 +170607)” and “Comes N Goes” are the standouts — but each track is needed to give Querencia its rhythm. An intro highlighting the quality that makes Chungha feel strong, three songs extolling that virtue, and then a rebuttal. It all paints Chungha as someone who is aware not only of her coping mechanisms, but the weaknesses therein.
She knows perfectly well that her attitude leaves her alone and isolated because she refuses to let people in, and she clearly enjoys it when she does, so why doesn’t she? Well, as “Comes N Goes” details, she does not trust anyone to stick around. She is icy, mean, and does not let relationships develop because the consequences of those are easier to deal with than letting someone in and getting hurt when they inevitably leave her. She chooses to be noble, savage, and pursue the unknown because that is the pain she can deal with when it goes wrong.
The only true weakness in Querencia is the intro tracks and epilogue. A recurring theme in Chungha’s discography is that her intro tracks are terrible and these are no exceptions. “Sides A, B,” and “D” sound like the backing music from three very strange perfume ads, while “Side C” is a horrifying mishmash of bloops and video game noises that is best described as an aural stroke. They all fail to convey the quality they are named after, none of them match the sounds of their respective sections, and they are just unpleasant to listen to. They really serve no purpose beyond bloating the run time and the tracklist, and given that Querencia is over an hour-long, shaving off five minutes and five tracks would have been the better choice.
Querencia is a fascinating debut album. Carefully assembled, with a wide variety of influences and genres, yet always sounding like Chungha. It serves as her mission statement, a clear portrait of herself on her own terms, for better or worse. While it does falter in places, Querencia has ambition and sincerity that elevate it beyond a mere collection of 21 songs.
(Images Via 88Rising, YouTube)