Just two months after their 1st full album My Name, ONF are back with a repackaged album. While this might be a standard affair for a K-pop group, this quick return with new music is uncharacteristic for ONF, who averages at around one comeback a year. This was how it had been like since their debut in 2017, and it had stunted their popularity in their earlier days.

After a triumphant display of their capabilities on Road to Kingdom last year, runner-ups ONF finally gained a comfortable momentum and a significant rise in popularity. However, rather than becoming confined by their own success on the show, ONF have stayed fiercely loyal to the musical identity even through a continued streak of genre and trend-defying releases, from the reggae and future bass EDM influence of “Sukhumvit Swimming” to funk-house meets acapella in the group’s latest effort “Beautiful Beautiful“.

The latter quietly made waves domestically, setting many impressive records generally unheard of for younger boy groups such as a top 10 Gaon Digital Chart debut and a roof hit on Korean music streaming platform. All of this eventually earned ONF a long-overdue 1st music show win amid stiff chart competition. Riding off the unprecedented success of “Beautiful Beautiful”, ONF’s return with “Ugly Dance” teased yet another unexplored sound for the group — a hip-hop sound and the use of an 808 bass line. While both songs have opposing titles, both are also grounded by the same empowering message of finding freedom through being unapologetically you.

The video opens in suspense, and viewers are taken back to the same green screen virtual city setting in “Beautiful Beautiful”. Machines whirl by and lights flicker, before finally revealing the main subject of the scene — six still robots. As the music kicks off, one robot lights up and comes to life through dance, before commanding a now-larger crowd of robots to move along to the beat. This scene does not last for long, and viewers are sucked into the internal system of the main robot through a sharp cut and zoom. The words ‘Confirm Identity: Ugly Dance’ flash by quickly before a dramatic cut to the logo for the album “City of ONF”.

Confirming the relationship between both songs, “Ugly Dance” begins with the familiar hook from its predecessor, but with a remix that features a glorious and surprising harp.

In the meantime, stomping feet are gathered in a circle before the camera pans out to reveal ONF as the choreography sequence kicks off. Hyojin mouths along to the electronic voice that counts off ‘1 and 2 and 3’ and the song reveals itself as a hip hop track even as it powers through a singalong, anthemic chorus. Incorporating hip-hop into K-pop is an age-old approach, but many of such boy group songs meander with more lethargy than attitude or fall for the trap of beats swallowing melody.

Helmed once again by the ever-reliable Hwang Hyun of Monotree, “Ugly Dance” immediately showcases the make-and-break importance of arrangement and production, masterfully maintaining the track’s engaging energy through quips of a funky guitar, generous usage of strings, luscious unison vocals in the choruses and unexpected rhythm switches.

For a track that is grounded on hip hop, raps do not feature prominently. As opposed to a full verse, main rapper Wyatt instead complements the track’s bass line through creatively delivered lines sprinkled through the song. His reassured delivery has always focused more strongly on rhythm and melody, and it is a style and approach that has not only found its place in ONF’s music but manages to strengthen the group’s overall identity.

The song is also further heightened by its cathartic and dramatic bridge, where MK and Hyojin’s beautiful tones are maximised and the harp from the intro makes its well-welcomed return.

As the follow-up from the blockbuster extravagance of a music video for “Beautiful Beautiful”, comparisons are inevitable. After the initial switch in setting, the remainder of the music video for “Ugly Dance” is shot in the same set, which is a noticeable and awkward drop in the budget especially considering the group’s track record with visual treats in their music videos.

To the production crew’s credit, the video was well done within the constraints of a significantly shorter timeline and a much obviously lower budget — the video quality is sharp, the lighting was well chosen and edited and the members are shot flatteringly. The set, though plain, manages to still fit itself cohesively in the group’s elaborate music video universe storyline in terms of its futuristic aesthetic.

Though not everyone will be a fan of the erratic movements that are produced by the use of robotic camera arms throughout the music video, the three-dimensional effect created added some dynamics to an otherwise unchanging video and allowed for the choreography to be viewed in plenty of different angles.

The editing team also did a seamless job with the switches between the costumes, even as the members unexpectedly transform into the robot suits in the second chorus. Switching between the two main costume changes, a full-white and full-black ensemble, make the transitions between both sets of outfits more distinct, but the specific choice of outfits are also significant.

Reminiscent of 1st generation K-pop idols back in the 90s, the full-white outfits feature ‘outdated’ hairstyles, bandanas dangling from their waists and baggy, ill-fitting clothing. School uniforms are associated with a period of time of carefree youth, and the black outfits are inspired by gakuran, a style of uniforms that were more commonly worn by South Korean students in the 70s.

This contrast between the new and old is also explored in other aspects of “Ugly Dance”. Complementing the intentional disconnect between outfits that are no longer trendy against a futuristic set, the track and choreography itself harmonise carefree, groovy old school hip hop with modern elements of polished K-pop dance and music.

It is also interesting to note that while an 808 has a huge presence and influence in popular music, this was not always the case, and its use was initially met with criticism and it was an invention that was deemed a commercial failure. Coincidence or not, it is a nice added touch to the track’s overall message, which encourages the subversion of trends, letting go of stereotypes and carving your own path to success.

Can you slow down the tempo a bit? It’s too fast for everyone
I won’t follow the ghost of trends
Sick of love songs, it’s all the same
There are too many fatally charming idols
Let’s do something new, we always try going on new paths
Because nothing in the world is easy anyway

Where its video lacks in a variety of sets and visual spectacles, “Ugly Dance” takes a stripped-back approach to focus on what matters. Closer to a high-budget performance video, the mostly empty box video forces viewers to focus only on the members’ skills, something ONF have much to boast about.

Though the group has a balanced and strong lineup in terms of vocals, rap and dance, what makes them continuously convincing and entertaining to watch is particularly, the group’s purposeful approach to performances. ONF adapt skillfully depending on the mood of the song, and prove here that they have managed to find a sweet spot of being well-rehearsed while still retaining their individual quirks and colours as performers.

Contrary to its misleading name, there is nothing ugly about the choreography for “Ugly Dance”, which boasts a dynamic display of floorwork and satisfying formation changes.

Just as the lyrics of the song say, ONF let loose and simply perform to the music, never letting the complexity of the song’s choreography overshadow them as the performers. Even as they power through the choreography with the necessary groove and finesse, ONF’s facial expressions remain playful, engaged, but never overdone, and the camera even catches main dancer U breaking into a natural smile in the back as he dances.

The members are clearly enjoying themselves, and so viewers feel the infectious need to move along with them, be it by getting up to dance or just by tapping their feet. As the music video reaches the end, the members’ perform with an increased celebratory mood. In the final cut, the lights go off and the words on the screen imply that the entire dance sequence was a video recording.

“Ugly Dance” is a triumphant follow-up to the success of” Beautiful Beautiful” because it took its own advice. Rather than playing it safe with a proven success formula, it only references “Beautiful Beautiful”, but otherwise takes on a life of its own musically, exploring new ground for the group’s already diverse discography. More than just cocky lip service or unwarranted bravado, the confident lyrics of “Ugly Dance” is particularly meaningful for a group like ONF, whose path to success has been painfully gradual, especially after considering the member’s long average training time of around 5 years.

While their journey to the top hasn’t been the smoothest or most glamorous, ONF finally tasted success by bravely trusting their strengths and never losing themselves. With “Ugly Dance”, ONF walk the talk and encourage everyone else to do the same. You might not get there immediately, but if you free yourself of worries to focus on being the best version of yourself, you’ll be ugly dancing your way to the top.

(YouTube [1] [2]. Lyric Translation via Popgasa. Images via WM Entertainment.)