I am not sure what you were expecting when Akdong Musician (AkMu) revealed the tracklist of A-list collaborations they had lined up for Next Episode, but I was certainly not expecting this.

First off, AkMu has a distinct musical style that has served them very well in their career so far – we have heartbreaking ballads like “How can I love the heartbreak, you’re the one I love”, youthful energetic pieces like “200%” and thought-provoking songs like “Melted”. Next, each of the chart-topping artists that AkMu has invited to be part of this album also have their unique and well-defined musical styles — leaving listeners with no idea what to expect from these collaborations.

In some cases, however, the dream collaborations that emerged do turn out as expected. In fact, they end up perfectly suited to each featured artist’s colour, reflecting Chanhyuk‘s outstanding ability to write diverse songs for musicians of all kinds. “Bench”, featuring Zion. T, is a male-centric duet, with Suhyun chiming in on rare harmonies. A soft hip-hop song filled with relaxing chill vibes, it is also very light in its instrumentation. “Waking up early in the morning on a bench I’m forgetting everything” — just like its lyrics suggest, this song feels like a complete release of the cares and concerns from the night before, no matter how painful the heartbreak.

“Next Episode”, featuring Choi Jung Hoon of Jannabi, is another male-centric duet. The song is comforting, just as the indie band’s songs normally are, and its lyrics cut to the heart, especially since they are conveyed in such a muted and slice-of-life manner. The song depicts an ongoing conversation between a mother and son, presented in Choi Jung Hoon’s warm voice accompanied by classic band instrumentation.

The reason why I need to receive love from everyone
To be praised by everyone
To beg for attention from everyone
I no longer know it

The child initially longs for popularity and to be liked by those around him, but as he grows older, he realises that he no longer knows why he is chasing all of this attention. At the end of the day, he only wants to live happily with those who genuinely love and care for him. It is a journey of maturity that many of us can relate with, and it is probably poignant for AkMu themselves, who entered the music industry as young teenagers who have grown immensely along the way.

Suhyun returns to the spotlight in her duet with Begin Again Season 4 alumnus Crush, “Stupid Love Song”. An acoustic track infused with R&B feels and Crush’s smooth vocals, this song falls on the typical side of the spectrum in this album of surprises, but it is an enjoyable collaboration nonetheless. Suhyun and Crush’s harmonies are lovely, and this track feels quite meta in the way it describes how singers sing “stupid” love songs to commemorate and get over their ex-lovers. Regardless of how great the relationship was, or the many memories shared, “you are not in this song right now” so “you live your life”, a message well delivered in its beautiful animated MV.

Composer/arranger/guitarist/bassist/drummer/multi-talented musician Jukjae worked on this track together with Chanhyuk, following his participation in their previous album “Sailing”. He was also a member of Begin Again Season 4, demonstrating wonderful chemistry with Suhyun and Crush. Listeners truly benefit when these musical geniuses collaborate and thankfully for us, Jukjae also helped to create “Everest”, featuring Sam Kim.

Mount Everest is employed here as a metaphor for a seemingly unreachable place, a place near the sky where the dreamers are and where legends float. The question “who climbs the mountain” is asked repeatedly, and as the instrumentation builds, so do the dreams and aspirations of the protagonist.

Rather than just hearing news of other people conquering it, the protagonist sets out to conquer it for themselves. The escalation of the rhythmic acoustic song into an empowering anthem is truly something to behold, with the timely introduction of the electric guitar. Both Sam Kim and Suhyun have wide ranges and are fully capable of realising the different dynamics of this song – this track definitely gets more addictive the more you listen to it.

“Tictoc tictoc tictoc” featuring the rapper Beenzino uses alliteration in an unexpected way. Rather than literally use “tick tock” as many other songs have done, the Korean version of tictoc is used instead. The whole chorus literal;y goes “jjaekkak jjaekkak jjaekkak,” giving this song a delightfully rhythmic feel. Percussion instruments are used to great effect here, expounding on the metaphor of a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode. To accommodate Beenzino’s style of rapping, Chanhyuk and Suhyun also deliberately sing in a more laid-back fashion, which is ironic considering its lyrics.

While AkMu has showcased a variety of sounds through this blockbuster of an album, the true surprises (and thus highlights?) of this album are undoubtedly its first two tracks. “Hey kid, close your eyes”, featuring Lee Sun-hee, was a pre-release for this album, accompanied by a haunting MV of children at war.

The track contains many retro and modern elements, creating a sound that is creepy and funky at the same time. The synth in the intro is especially prominent here, and its unsettling unresolved melody lines are reminiscent of their 2020 single, “Happening”. Chanhyuk definitely showcases his prowess as a producer here, and the way he seamlessly incorporates Lee Sun-hee’s beautifully sweet voice into the track is a feat to behold. In particular, the bridge she powers through is goosebump-inducing, and the whole song is simply a work of art.

Hey kid, close your eyes
Hang in there just a bit although it’s suffocating
Because here on the battlefield
Once your ears stop ringing
There’s gonna be screaming

AkMu has always been great at covering deep and difficult topics through their music, beginning from their debut with “Melted”. As musicians who debuted as teenagers and are now in their twenties, the duo looks at the harsh realities of this world through the lens of children, making the inevitable loss of their innocence even more heart-wrenching.

AkMu makes listeners reflect on the state of the world we are living in through their releases, and “Hey kid” accomplishes this to perfection. As this song depicts, this cutthroat world filled with competition in every aspect of life spares no one, not even children. It is a sombre reality, but AkMu reminds us that there are people who are always willing to help each other out, that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

A similar sentiment of hope is conveyed in the expectation-defying climax of the album: “Nakka” featuring IU. This title track is a risky venture for both artists, something that they acknowledged when AkMu guested on IU’s Palette recently. In IU’s words: “Is this really the type of music that we should sing together? Don’t you think it’s not what people expect to hear?” Her sentiment is understandable, after all, I too was very taken aback the first time I listened to this song.

Outstanding from its acapella introduction, this track is very much led by the bass, both rhythmically and melodically. Its instrumentation remains quite sparse throughout, allowing the vocals and harmonies between the trio to really shine. Surprisingly, IU’s and Suhyun’s voices are hard to differentiate in this track, especially when they sing in unison, but this can be attributed to the application of vocal effects which complement the synth sounds used. Its instrumentation causes it to have a slightly retro feel, similar to “Hey kid”, but its rhythmic sections really stand out.

Without a doubt, “Nakka” is a very technically challenging song. The coordination between all 3 singers is also on point, as they match each other beat for beat, note for note. I was absolutely blown away when I heard the trio’s stunning live performance on Palette. It proved that they were the best singers for a song like this — only they could pull it off so perfectly.

Beyond the vocal artistry displayed, AkMu’s message of hope shines in an unconventional way. Within a soundscape that is relatively dark, AkMu shows listeners a new perspective with which we can look at the act of falling. Rather than seeing it as a failure, falling can also be rising, just in a different way. There is also comfort and companionship, as the protagonist promises to be with the falling person, no matter where they land. Therefore, you do not need to fear the act of falling.

This album, and this title track in particular, definitely feels like AkMu took their own advice. Their bold experimentation, even with the possibility that this song might not appeal to mainstream listeners, definitely pays off. “Next Episode” is a well-crafted masterpiece that displays how AkMu has matured over the years and kicks off a mindblowing new chapter in their musical journey. I cannot wait to see what else they have in store.

(Youtube [1]. Images and lyrics via YG Entertainment.)