As their new song title suggests, Aespa is taking things to the next level, and perhaps even to another world — quite literally. Following a highly anticipated and record-breaking debut with “Black Mamba,” the SM Entertainment rookie girl group is back with their third single and first official comeback, “Next Level.” The track, which is a remake of the song of the same name from the Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw original soundtrack, along with its futuristic and multi-layered MV, serve to build upon Aespa’s unique and growing storyline as well as firmly solidify their concept as a group. 

Despite the fact that the virtual hybrid group’s first official comeback is not their own original song, Aespa’s MV for their reimagined version of “Next Level” places itself front and center as an alluring and convincing next piece in the puzzle that is the Aespa universe, or rather, the SM Culture Universe (coined “SMCU” by SM Entertainment chairman Lee Soo-man) as a whole. According to Lee, Aespa are the first stage in the company’s project to bring entertainment and storytelling into the future via “cultural technology,” and will eventually see their storylines cross over with those of other SM groups, including EXO, Red Velvet, and NCT

As for Aespa’s own plotline, the MV for “Next Level” serves as an important stepping stone and next chapter in building upon the narrative already set up in the “Black Mamba” MV as well as the recently released SM Culture Universe video entitled “ep1. Black Mamba,” which details the group’s origin story. To recap, Aespa (stylized as æspa) is comprised of four members — Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning — who all exist in the real world but also have digital avatar counterparts (known as “aes”) that exist in a virtual world that are created from data uploaded to social media and the internet.

In “ep.1 Black Mamba,” the connection between humans and their ae versions is teased and explained somewhat further, and each of the Aespa members are shown interacting and spending time with their ae counterparts (known as “REKALL”). About halfway through the video, the aes begin glitching and Ningning questions to a hologram professor, “What if ae gets hacked?” It appears that that is exactly what happens next, as the aes suddenly disappear and a “SYNKOUT” in which humans are no longer able to communicate with their digital counterparts occurs, all seemingly at the hands of a mysterious figure — the Black Mamba.

This then explains what occurs in the “Black Mamba” MV, which in turn sets the scene for the next stage in Aespa’s story that takes place in “Next Level.” In “Black Mamba,” which presumably takes place after the events in the origin story video, the real-world members are revealed to be separated from their aes, as the MV features scenes of them trying but failing to communicate with their digital counterparts via “SYNK,” the tool that normally allows them to communicate with one another. The members sing from a flower laden, purple-hued, digitally saturated landscape of a “Black Mamba” that is located in a place called “KWANGYA” and is disrupting their ability to be with their aes.

Later in the MV, Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning all continuously appear in a dark, colorful yet apocalyptic train that a CGI snake representing the Black Mamba was previously shown slithering through at the beginning of the video. According to SM Entertainment, in “Next Level,” the members’ quest continues as they travel to “KWANGYA” “to find the ‘Black Mamba’ that disrupted the connection between aespa and the avatar ‘ae’ and left the world in chaos.” 

Without the extensive world-building that already occurred in both Aespa’s debut MV and especially in their more recent SMCU video, it would have been completely plausible for “Next Level” to fail to convince viewers that the group’s concept and fictional storyline could truly work and have longevity. However, “Next Level” leans heavily enough into building on the Aespa universe and creating a common throughline through cohesive and informative visuals, cinematography, and lyrics so as to solidify the group’s concept and be even more convincing that this “culture universe” can and just might work.  

Musically, “Next Level” feels much more like a backdrop to the futuristic, CGI-filled visuals of its accompanying music video, rather than the song itself serving as the MV’s main focal point. The track opens with an electronic, synth-heavy tune layered underneath a heavy beat and rapping by Karina and Giselle amidst a view of a stone-colored, CGI cityscape, followed by the four members dancing while donning silver-accented, all-white and all-black outfits and interspersed shots of spacecraft and outer space. The song sonically continues along with its video game-esque, beat-heavy tune, with the members repeating “I’m on the next level.”

About a third of the way through, the track then suddenly switches to a more lighthearted, sing-songy tone. Here, the music video shifts in setting and visuals, placing the four members on a rugged, Mars-like terrain splashed with a bright yet muddled multi-colored sky. The song then returns to its original, electronic sound, again showcasing scenes of the members sitting in spacecraft and dancing on a stage made to look like as though it’s inside a spaceship. Later, “Next Level” once again makes a musical shift, landing on a jazzy breakdown accompanied by a total change in visuals and even plot, signaled first by a shot of the AI “Naevis,” a still somewhat unknown character in Aespa’s story, then scenes of a new, darker city skyline and the real-world members dancing to the musical breakdown with their ae counterparts at some points glitching over them and dancing in their place.  

While the song itself seems somewhat disconnected from the group and the video in the sense that the choice of remaking a song from a Fast & Furious movie feels unnecessary, especially for a first official comeback, it does serve to push Aespa’s storyline as visualized in the MV further along and create a cohesive and alluring plot. In addition to “Next Level”’s futuristic sounds to accompany the video’s futuristic visuals, the song’s lyrics are also flooded with terminology from Aespa’s lore and storyline. For example, the lyric “I walk to KWANGYA” at the beginning of the MV explains that the space-like setting they are traveling to or within is presumably Kwangya, where the Black Mamba is located.

The lyrics provide additional hints to the settings displayed in the MV and what might be next in Aespa’s story, as when the breakdown happens later in the song and the visual backdrop changes to a dark, lit-up CGI city skyline different from the one seen in the beginning Winter sings, “Come on! Show me the way to KOSMO, yeah.” This serves as another hint for what might happen next or is already happening in Aespa’s lore and within the culture universe, as the group may have to travel to or is already in a new destination known as “KOSMO” to reach and find ae-Aespa. The members also rap and sing of “Naevis,” the mysterious and still relatively unknown AI figure who flashes on the screen when the breakdown begins and who can supposedly open the “P.O.S.”, allowing the real-world members to once again meet their aes (according to the song’s lyrics). Following mention of Naevis’s ability to open a portal allowing Aespa to reconnect with the aes, the aes appear for the first time in the MV, glitching between the members dancing during the song’s jazz break. 

Another aspect of “Next Level” that serves to add to the overall world-building of Aespa’s storyline is its CGI-heavy visuals. While for many other groups such a degree of CGI could feel overdone, “Next Level”’s CGI, including its Star Wars-like skyscrapers and racer pods, space ships, oversized snakes, and even the ae avatars themselves, are all the more necessary for the group’s concept to even work. Many of the MV’s CGI moments also include small easter eggs hinting at tidbits of information likely relevant to both the past and future of Aespa’s story. At certain moments, the CGI backdrop is so visually convincing (though still obviously not real) that the members themselves blend seamlessly into it. To top it off, the ae counterparts are more seamlessly edited into the MV in comparison to in “Black Mamba,” as the editing and CGI makes the transition between Aespa and ae-Aespa performing the song’s choreography incredible smooth and at times almost not even noticeable. However, while the CGI and visuals are truly the draw in terms of capturing audiences and hinting at what’s next in Aespa’s storyline, there are still moments where the CGI can be visually overpowering, sometimes putting the members in the background even though they are at the forefront of the screen. 

In addition to the mere connection in narrative between the “Black Mamba” and “Next Level” MVs, “Next Level” also cultivates another strong visual connection to its predecessor, and therefore the group’s overall storyline and concept, via its cinematography. This is even more specifically seen in the MV’s cinematography during choreography scenes — the way the camera moves around and pans on the members’ and their moves uses the exact same tactics as seen in “Black Mamba.” While this partially has to do with Aespa’s already unique choreography, which often features slow then sudden, exaggerated body movements (like when the members sit back onto their heels with one leg stretched out in “Black Mamba”), it also has to do with how the camera pans on those slow then sudden movements. The camera will often pan slowly onto a members face, then suddenly down at a lower angle when the choreography switches to them being lower to the ground. This choreography-specific cinematography serves as a fresh motif and bridges and strong connection between both the “Next Level” and “Black Mamba” MVs, reinforcing Aespa’s own unique brand and futuristic group concept. 

Overall, while much can still be speculated based on the sheer level of visual stimuli and loaded lyrics of “Next Level,” this music video particularly cements Aespa’s (and thus SM’s) “culture universe” concept, even amidst the backdrop of a somewhat sonically disjointed track. Although “Next Level”’s visuals, CGI, and cinematography are placed both at the forefront of the MV while the members and song are pushed to the back, they serve as an important stage in the lore-building that has to occur in order for Aespa’s concept to work — and it does.

The heavy CGI and focus on visuals, while certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, place the focus more on the storyline and even the virtual, ae-Aespa members, which makes sense for the group and what they have coming next, as it is necessary to cement their concept and convince viewers that it’s worth sticking around for. Aespa may be sticking to the classic, SME sound, but fans who are already invested in the four-piece group’s storyline will be hooked on “Next Level” to find out what’s “next” in the quest for the Black Mamba and for the SMCU as a whole. 

(Korea Portal: [1][2], SM Entertainment: [1][2][3], YouTube: [1][2][3]. Images via SM Entertainment.)