Sometimes, unremarkable individual elements can come together to form a whole that is surprisingly original. That is exactly the case with Kim Wooseok’s “Sugar”. On their own, the vaguely suggestive lyrics, twinkly production, and sweetly eccentric visuals of “Sugar” wouldn’t stand out in a sea of furtively seductive, bubblegum, and cutesy K-pop releases respectively. Combine these elements though, plus an unexpected dash of sophistication, and what you get is a pleasantly atypical comeback.
At the start of “Sugar”, Kim Wooseok strolls into a rose-colored lounge, the first of many abundantly pink sets. He spends the rest of the MV performing a positively precious dance routine and gazing softly into the camera, often adorned with glitter. He also plays a variety of games. Some are relatively straight-forward, such as messing around with radio equipment and taking selfies like a proper millennial. Others are more unusual, most notably when multiple identical Kim Wooseoks man a bright yellow stall that serves multi-colored balls instead of food.
Even with its occasional peculiar touches, viewers could be forgiven for finding “Sugar” to be a totally conventional MV on first viewing. However, when approached with a more critical eye, “Sugar” proves to be filled with thoughtful and counterintuitive details. It is this multitude of tiny choices which allow the MV to transcend its stereotypically adorable base design and become something cleverly flirtatious.
One of the main parts of “Sugar” which deserves a second look is Kim Wooseok’s performance. It is true that his bearing is gentle and his gaze wide-eyed, but does that automatically make him naive? A rushed judgement might lead to an affirmative answer, but wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny.
When “Sugar” is watched without preconceptions based off the song’s sparkly sound, it is obvious that Kim Wooseok’s eyes aren’t big with innocence, they’re big with mischief. There’s a reason that the MV’s closing shot is of him winking. “Sugar” is full of light-hearted games and he’s the game master. Throughout the MV, he fearlessly holds the camera’s gaze. That’s not because he’s guileless though, but rather because he’s confident.
It is also interesting that in an MV for such a bright track, Kim Wooseok doesn’t fully smile once. There are definitely a couple of pouts and a handful of smirks, yet no grin in sight. This gives him a slightly tsundere style that in turn pushes “Sugar” towards an intriguingly suave brand of playfulness.
Kim Wooseok deserves a lot of credit for so clearly communicating this unique persona. His performance skills attest to his years of idol experience as a member of Up10tion. The MV’s direction also does an excellent job of highlighting his acting, editing complimentary scenes so that side by side, they create a cohesive emotional picture.
For another example of the MV’s subtly smart decisions, let’s examine the aforementioned generous use of pink. Pink is indeed everywhere in “Sugar”: on walls, clothes, frosted cakes, and confetti, not to mention atop Kim Wooseok’s head as his comeback hair color. But rather than paint “Sugar” magenta, hot pink, or watermelon, the MV embraces pastel pinks like blush and rose. These colors have beige undertones and more elegant connotations than their neon cousins. By choosing these shades, the MV’s affection for pink actually serves as a calming influence on its exuberant imagery, as opposed to sending it further down the path towards childishness.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with taking an artistic trip to younger, more carefree times. However, given the suggestive lyrical content of “Sugar”, that would be a wildly inappropriate choice in this instance. “Sugar” focuses on the sensory side of romantic attraction:
Set your gaze on me and touch
Woah, please let me feel it as much as I want
Cause I got the sugar
To give it more meaning, spice lips
Our intense feeling lingering around the lips
Very special and sweet things
The track’s light-hearted yet somewhat roguishly flirty lyrics pair well with the self-possessed adorableness of its MV. Still, given the juvenile quality that simmers in the corners of “Sugar”, there are moments when a tonal disaster threatens. For instance, when Kim Wooseok whisper sings “Right, tasty, yum, yum, Ready, tasty, yum, yum” while dragging a comically large bundle of balloons, “Sugar” risks slipping from sweetly sensual territory into a land of silliness and sleaziness. The lyric “A different you that only I know, like a child you’ll end up whining and wanting” also feels questionable.
For the most part though, “Sugar” avoids the many pitfalls that could have sunk it. It is a release that is impressive when considered on its own merits, but becomes even more so within the context of Kim Wooseok’s burgeoning solo career.
He rose to public prominence as a contestant on 2019’s Produce X 101, finishing second and becoming part of X1, only for that group to be sent to an early grave by the Produce series vote rigging scandal. When he returned home to Top Media, the company made the potentially risky decision to focus its efforts on establishing Kim Wooseok and fellow Up10tion member and Produce X 101 standout Lee Jinhyuk as soloists. Top Media committed to this path so strongly that neither Kim Wooseok nor Lee Jin-hyuk have participated in Up10tion activities since their time on Produce X 101.
Whatever you think about the soundness of this strategy, “Sugar” proves that at least creatively, Kim Wooseok is on a promising path as a soloist. The song, which he helped write and compose, wildly differs from his intense and unabashedly sexual debut “Red Moon”, yet also compliments that effort with its shared examination of physical attraction. Indeed, “Sugar” has been framed as a direct sequel to “Red Moon”, with each track part of an ongoing album series about the various manifestations of desire.
“Sugar” is a smart sophomore release for Kim Wooseok, simultaneously creating cohesion in his discography and giving him a chance to show his versatility. More importantly, it’s a good song, with a delightful and distinctive MV as the cherry on top. “Sugar” is also a breath of fresh air among K-pop’s overwhelmingly angst-filled depictions of love. Sometimes it is good to be reminded that romance can, and in fact should, be fun.