Anyone familiar with Itzy knows that if there is one thing that strings their brash, myriad, and often unpredictable songs and styles together, it is their core message: be who you are, no matter how strange or different.

This has given rise to a consistently delightful slew of MVs, from “Dalla Dalla” to “Not Shy,” where, in the midst of exacting choreographies and in-your-face visuals, it is the group’s empowering message that stands out and sticks around. But perhaps for fear of sounding too repetitive or disingenuous, Itzy have gone a different path in their latest outing. Instead of being themselves, they sing about… not being themselves.

In “Mafia in the Morning,” Itzy take on the role of the elusive mafia, a reference to a popular game in South Korea where the players have to identify who the “mafia” or imposter is before it’s too late. As evidenced by the minimalist beat and patent leather suits, “Mafia in the Morning” is Itzy’s take on the trendy trap sound and edgier side of the girl crush concept.

Unfortunately, it’s also a muddled attempt at deviation that ironically leaves the group in more or less the same mainstream company they have been warning against from the start. Here, the girls contradict their own advice to be different, conforming instead to trends and hide in vague, clichéd ideas about being “bad.” While parts of the MV are commendable, namely the powerful choreography and self-referential design, it is ultimately a misfire that calls into question Itzy’s own artistic voice and identity.

To set up the thuggish mood, “Mafia in the Morning” begins with a gunshot. A sinister staccato rhythm follows, and from there, we see the tricks the girls have been up to. Ryujin hides in plain sight among mannequins, Yeji performs a particularly impressive escape act, and Yuna doubles as an assassin and actress. Chaeryeong and Lia dress up in deceptively sweet outfits in the first half of the MV, only to transform into menacing versions of themselves later on.

In between these scenes, we see the group perform as a whole, first in belt-and-chain wrapped black suits, then in pristine, military-inspired white uniforms. They taunt their lover in song and threaten to “steal [his] heart like a caper movie.” They mock him, and presumably us, the audience, for not recognizing them in broad daylight, and proceed to revel in their ability to be masters of disguise.

If the goal was to completely hide the girls to the point of anonymity, then it’s a job well done—Itzy are completely unrecognizable in this MV. “Mafia in the Morning” is sleek and sharp to be sure, but also stripped of the excess, joy, and playfulness that made their past work so addictive and watchable. The pop and rock inflections that underlined their youthfulness and zeal in past songs are, here, replaced with flat trap beats, talky rap, and so-so hooks. The reigning style and sound of the MV are not only very common in the world of K-pop; they have already been done in numerously better ways.

Moreover, though loaded with delightful metaphors (the comparisons made to foxes and wolves, a staple in the mafia game, are admittedly fun), the lyrics don’t do much to reveal the Itzy we’ve come to know and love. Where is the brazen insistence to be different, icy, oneself, and not shy? Why do they, all of a sudden, want to disappear into the crowd?

Fans bristled at the group’s shift from self- to romantic love in “Not Shy,” but at least Itzy remained at the center of that narrative. They are moving forward with the relationship, regardless of how their lover feels. “Mafia in the Morning” feels like a vaguer, watered-down version of that story, only now concept takes center stage. And now, they would prefer to hide their feelings, because it is apparently more exciting that way—at least that’s what the lyrics say; their unsmiling faces seem to be saying a different thing. The message is baffling at best, and contradictory at worst.

To be fair, the MV has its brilliant moments. The sleight of hand scenes mentioned above are amusing (albeit way too short), and they tie in well with the mafia/detective concept. The choreography and energy that buoys it are as sharp, dynamic, and intoxicating as ever.

Most promisingly, there seems to be a faint but notable attempt at self-reference through their clothes. On closer inspection, Yuna’s neon gown and Chaeryeong’s plaid getup are near replicas of their costumes in “Wannabe,” while Yeji’s feathered wrap is reminiscent of her overcoat in “Dalla Dalla.” Ryujin’s cow print outfit is a call back to their Western motif in “Not Shy,” while Lia’s floral dress resembles the wallpaper of the room she defaces in “Wannabe.”

It’s more of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail, given that the MV is too busy showing us Itzy’s newfound toughness through dance shots and close-ups. But one could make the case that the group is trying to make an implicit statement about their identity through their clothes. By bringing back these looks while claiming to be mafias, they could be declaring that they will always be unknowable. Getting to know Itzy—or, in fact, stanning them—could be an endless “guess who?” game.

Unfortunately, the uncharacteristically self-serious and monotonous tone of the MV doesn’t give this possible read any chance to thrive. Like most good things here, they are buried in fierce but vacant bravado.

The very idea of being mafias also feels like a cop-out for the group, a cheap answer to a question that is becoming increasingly urgent as they move past their rookie status: Who exactly are Itzy? Beyond the sweet (and very welcome) calls for self-love and acceptance, who is this “self” they speak of?

For a while, it was the inability to pin them down that had defined them. Their bratty, me-me-me attitude was infectious, and it made them nearly peerless in a sea of 4th gen girl groups that seemed to fit the either/or categories of schoolgirl and girl crush.

However, “Mafia in the Morning” inevitably pits them against more consistent and well-executed iterations of the latter concept. It’s hard now not to compare them to groups like Black Pink and Everglow, whereas previously, they were only going against themselves.

According to Yeji, JYP wanted to show the girls’ “growth” through “Mafia in the Morning,” hence the deviation from their usual style. But ironically, the MV appears to have stunted their development as artists. If anything, it further exposes the company’s more mainstream aspirations for Itzy, which started becoming apparent in their last album.  

That said, “Mafia in the Morning” is not completely bad work—at the very least, the minimalist setup and melody drew attention to their stellar choreography and individual charisma. It is just oddly and frustratingly misplaced in Itzy’s overall brand and body of work. It feels like a surrender of sorts, an announcement that Itzy are here to join the race, even though they have been doing so well playing their own game.

(YouTube. The Korea Times. Images via JYP Entertainment.)