A gift that never stops giving, ONF returned this week with City of ONF, a repackaged album of ONF: MY NAME, which they released earlier this year. In addition to the original ten tracks, three new songs were released in this album, including “Ugly Dance”, the group’s latest chart-topping title track.

Composed by Monotree’s founder Hwang Hyun, who has been responsible for all of the group’s title tracks since debut, “Ugly Dance” starts off bombastically, although this quickly gives way to a simpler hip-hop beat that sets the mood for the rest of the track. ONF welcome listeners to the world that they’ve created and the song’s clever lyrics demonstrate how this world proves to be different – free from cookie-cutter love songs and self-censorship that is all too common in the K-pop world. The variety of ways the short refrain “1 and 2 and 3 and” is repeated throughout the song is refreshing, and you never really know where the track is going. At times soaring, at times minimal and rhythmic, its colourful instrumentation is an absolute delight. While its extreme dynamic changes run the risk of being jarring, especially when there are sudden changes in moods, “Ugly Dance” is definitely full of surprises.

As a cherry on top, “Ugly Dance”‘s iconic introduction is reminiscent of the powerful acapella opening of “Beautiful Beautiful”, the title track of the previous album. This song netted ONF their first music show win, and for good reason. Just like a buffet, there is something for everyone – a catchy chorus, plenty of hard-hitting intense raps, a variety of voices and tones that go extremely well together, beautiful harmonies and astounding ad-libs. The acapella sections sprinkled throughout the song also add a lot of vibrance and are effective bookmarks for the different sections of the track. All in all, it is an eye-opening and memorable track that demonstrates the multifaceted potential of ONF as a group, and the wonderful synergy that they have together. An English version of this song is also included at the end of this album.

In another ingenious instance of connectivity, “The Dreamer”, a new addition to the album, is a polar opposite of “The Realist”, both of which were created by GDLO (also from Monotree). While they share similar soundscapes (i.e the outro of “The Dreamer” flows perfectly into the intro of “The Realist”) they could not be more different in musical style. “The Realist” is grungy and dramatic, and in line with its lyrics, it feels a little like being stuck in a recurring nightmare, and the echoes employed here are effective in creating this dreamscape. That being said, there is a focus on the light beyond the darkness in the nightmare, and an overwhelming desire to hold onto that glimpse of reality and stay rooted. The members convey this desperation well through their voices, particularly in the more emotive choruses, but the mood abruptly shifts in the last thirty seconds of the song. Its outro feels more like a teaser for a completely new song, which is definitely surprising, but also more confusing, although this was partially addressed with “The Dreamer”, which seems to pick up from this outro.

Musically speaking, “The Dreamer” is much lighter and happier, and the whole melody is set in a higher register. Lyrically, however, this song bears many similarities to its counterpart, as both describe the difficulties of life, the importance of dreaming, and the joy of just feeling alive.

Is the moment when dreams come true the happiest? No

I’m happy even now that my dreams are fluttering in my heart

“The Dreamer” is both relatable and uplifting and MK‘s extraordinarily high ad-libs really stand out here, amidst the beautiful tenors of all the vocalists. While Wyatt‘s light-hearted rap verse is at a much lower register than the vocal sections, it blends in nicely and does not detract from the vibe of the song.

Unfortunately, the track mixing is much less seamless in “I.T.I.L.U”, the only traditional ballad of this album. While there is appropriately simple instrumentation to show off ONF’s vocal chops, their voices are undermined by the echo effect applied throughout the track. Even though E-Tion and Hyojin go all out with their rich vocals in the choruses, it would have been even more impactful if listeners got to hear more of their raw and naturally glorious voices. Wyatt’s deep rap here is especially refreshing because it sounds sufficiently grounded compared to the rest. Criticisms aside, the gradual build-up of this song is wonderfully done, and the strings in the bridge, coupled with Hyojin’s fantastic high notes elevate this ballad into a truly powerful one. It was a lovely touch, to have the members take turns repeating the phrase “forever” as they closed off the song – the sincerity of their words was well and truly conveyed.

The vocal abilities of ONF’s members, particularly the ON team (comprising Hyojin, E-Tion and MK), continue to be on display with “Temperature”, a Nopari composition. A song filled with Christmasy and warm winter vibes, it is a magical treat for the ears because of its rich texture and the beautiful harmonies that run throughout the song. This track is definitely best enjoyed with earpieces, to capture the lovely split sound as well as the countless intricate details that make up this song. For one, the higher and lower registers are both well-covered, and the subtle bass notes add so much depth and balance to the track, even though they are easy to miss. The ON team’s fantastic vocal performance is well complemented with the jazz guitar which features prominently here – it pretty much has a life of its own and serves up some delicious riffs at unexpected parts of the track.

“Feedback”, another work of Nopari’s, showcases more of her unique musical style and her expertise in creating light, impactful tracks. Its lilting intro is attention-catching, and its reappearance as an interlude in the bridge is extremely welcome. The synthesiser is used masterfully to create fairy-like instrumentation, while unconventional percussion is employed to great effect, resulting in an utterly enjoyable track that highlights the strengths of each member. Befitting of a song titled “Feedback”, a delightful call and answer section is also present in its choruses – just one of many small joys that await listeners at each turn.

Jazzy elements stand out in “My Genesis” as well, a track that ambitiously incorporates multiple music genres to differing levels of success. The last of the three new songs for this album, it adds a lot of colour and is one of the more experimental pieces in this endeavour. With a triumphant blast of the trumpet, this rollercoaster of a track kicks off, beginning with some good old-fashioned rock beats and guitar riffs. The pre-choruses however, with the jazz piano in the background, are pitch-perfect and are easily the best parts of the song. Tonal whiplash is experienced every time the pre-chorus transits into the hard-hitting and slightly disorienting choruses, however, but it is definitely a valiant effort, considering the mishmash of genres here. Who would have thought that a flashy electric guitar solo could exist in the same song as a jazzy double bass? If this is not pushing the bounds of K-pop, I do not know what is. Also, placing Wyatt’s delightfully deep voice right after that fantastic double bass interlude? A master move.

“On You” stands out from the rest of the album for a completely different reason. This laid-back, feel-good song, in which members get to show off their versatility, is a much-needed interlude to balance an otherwise dramatic and extremely dynamic album. Taking on roles that they usually do not take on, and showcasing their unique raps and beats, ONF prove their identity as a group of multitalented performers. MK for instance, raps a whole verse with the confidence and tone of a main rapper, but demonstrates his soulful singing in the bridge, just a few verses later. J-US and U absolutely kill it in the high choruses, even though they are not strictly part of the vocal subunit. This versatility gives ONF (and their loyal producers) the freedom to experiment and to try out all sorts of styles – no matter how crazy or demanding the concept, this group will be more than able to pull it off.

Heading right back into the theatrics of City of ONF, “Secret Triangle” is packed full with the overpowering charisma of the OFF team (comprising J-US, U and Wyatt) Dubbed the “performance team”, they get their chance to shine in this EDM track which features a self-choreographed dance, strong vocals, powerful raps, and an extremely addictive beat. While the drop is expected, it somehow manages to be executed in a very fresh way. The end of this track is especially enjoyable as the beat continues to intensify rather than return to the chorus, concluding the song on an exciting high.

ONF are as much fun as they are intense, and “Trip Advisor” is the epitome of that. For listeners who are stuck at home due to the pandemic, ONF take them around the world in this track, which members MK and Wyatt helped to compose. It simultaneously captures the restlessness of being in quarantine while embodying the excitement of being outside and exploring new scenes, even if these adventures ultimately occur within the confines of our bedrooms. A perfect jam for boring afternoons, “Trip Advisor” is the type of colourful musical fantasy that belongs in our heads, but ONF remarkably actualised this in a track that is truly fun.

To the left, to the right, roll all over the place
From Shanghai to Dubai and back
It feels like I’m in the middle of a sea
When I row the bed like a boat

Witty lyrics are also a charm of “My Name Is”, a fun and bright track in which the six members literally introduce themselves. Featuring a guitar instrumental by acclaimed musician Jukjae, each member takes a verse to share their personalities with the world. Diving into details such as their personal nicknames, who they want to be close with in the team and whose fashion sense is the best, “My Name Is” is a refreshing and ingenious way for ONF to endear themselves to their fans, and to make their name known among the general public.

That being said, with the stunning performances they display in this mammoth of an album, and the distinctive musical identity they own, there is no way their name will not be known. I cannot wait to see what else this group has in store.

(Youtube [1][2]. Images via WM Entertainment.)