For each of its six participating groups, Mnet’s Kingdom presented a unique opportunity to push themselves as performers, and to massively expand their public reach. SF9 seized that chance, showcasing their unusually mature brand of sensuality throughout the show. Some of their performances were stellar, some not so much, but all were memorable. Viewers walked away from Kingdom knowing exactly who SF9 are and what they have to offer. It’s fair to say that a lot of people liked what they saw, growing the ranks of SF9’s devoted fans and casual listeners alike.
Building off that momentum, SF9 are the first Kingdom group to make a full Korean comeback after the show’s conclusion with mini album Turn Over. Much of Turn Over continues the artistic exploration and improvement SF9 showed during Kingdom. This is a group that, like so many K-pop acts, spent years trying different concepts, searching for a match. It has only been in the last couple of years that SF9 have nailed down an alternatively dark or playful but always sultry sound, and a theatrically seductive performing style. Kingdom gave SF9 the platform they needed to solidify this newly discovered group identity.
Turn Over songs like “Fanatic” and title track “Tear Drop” are what Kingdom viewers and longtime SF9 fans would expect and hope for from the group at this point in their career. These tracks are confident, fully realized, and play into SF9’s strengths. Unfortunately, some of the other songs on Turn Over are painfully generic letdowns, as if SF9 were back to square one artistically, paddling around in the dark searching for a group concept.
But SF9 do have an identity, and they are executing it brilliantly, right here and right now. Turn Over is a solid album because of this. However, the release’s few bad eggs sting more thanks to the greatness they sit beside and drag down.
The two biggest offenders are “Love Again” and “Hey Hi Bye”. Not only do these songs fail to showcase SF9’s concept, they actually contradict it. One of SF9’s most appealing aspects is their maturity. The distinctly grownup flavor they bring musically, lyrically, and performatively is a good fit for the members’ individual styles, and it allows SF9 to offer something that is rare in the current K-pop landscape. But “Love Again” and “Hey Hi Bye” are downright childish.
This isn’t to say that SF9 should stay trapped in a “mature vibes only” box. They themselves proved that it is possible to put a light-hearted twist on their signature style without losing it in their summer 2020 release 9loryUS. That mini album was a wonderfully balanced breath of fresh air, allowing SF9 to show both versatility and reliability. In contrast, there is no mature ying to playful yang in “Love Again” and “Hey Hi Bye”. “Love Again” is full of forgettable synths, and its simplistic lyrics are a naive misfire:
Take me by the hand, tell me your love
It’s like I’m in a maze, everyday after I let you go I was confused
I apologize, I forgot because of a simple misunderstanding that we should be together
SF9 are just not suited for naïveté. The clueless lyrics of “Love Again” are probably meant to be endearing, but instead feel insincere and unconvincing. “Hey Hi Bye” has a similarly ill-fitting wide eyed quality as SF9 experience a heart-fluttering crush. That being said, the song is an improvement on “Love Again” musically. “Hey Hi Bye” does seem like a couple different tracks squished into one. However, it has a decent beat, its pre-chorus melody is nice, and the final bridge features a good back and forth between sung and spoken parts. Zuho’s growled rap verse is also a real musical highlight. Of course, being the second worst song on an album isn’t a high compliment, but that’s the best “Hey Hi Bye” can hope for.
“Off My Mind” is a decided step up in quality, though not a home run. The song is basically a better version of “Love Again”. Where “Love Again” used synths in deeply uninteresting ways, “Off My Mind” layers its synths to create a pretty yet woeful soundscape. The song also has much stronger melodies. Where “Off My Mind” truly succeeds though is in its lyrics, which see SF9 return to more emotionally complex territory, pushing their partner to break off a relationship that isn’t working:
What’s the point of breaking up? I just need to be patient for today
It’s bearable baby, it’s nothing baby
You and I, you and I end here
Let’s do it now, let’s break up, gotta get you off my mind
Let’s break up, I survived again today
So baby can I get a little push from you, please, let’s do it, let’s break up
Despite its appeal, “Off My Mind” is musically a pretty safe song. More importantly, it could have been sung by a number of different K-pop groups. There is little that is distinctively SF9 about it. This is something that can definitely also be said of “Love Again” and “Hey Hi Bye”. Luckily, the other three tracks on Turn Over do a fantastic job of spelling out exactly what SF9 are about.
“Fanatic” returns to the Latin-pop influences that SF9 showcased in 2017 title track “O Sole Mio”, but with a minimalist twist. Melodies never build into waves, but instead stay as subtle ripples, and the same goes for the track’s beats. This gives the whole song a restrained, just about to boil over quality, that is extremely engaging. It also fits with the track’s narrative of SF9 falling into a frenzy of love, lust, and partying.
“Believer” also has a barely held back energy, although its tone is more epic compared to “Fanatic”. The track was SF9’s finale stage for Kingdom, so it is the only Turn Over song that was released prior to the album. In the intensely energetic ranks of Kingdom’s closing round of performances, the dramatic but somber “Believer” didn’t make a huge impact. Standing on its own two feet in Turn Over, and with the benefit of time to age like fine wine, “Believer” comes into its own as SF9’s anthem of resilience:
Don’t wanna be stopping, why you give up?
Overcoming the unbearable pain
I am choked up, tuk tuk tuk, I am choked up, tuk tuk tuk
But you’re one of them reasons, you make me wanna believe
I won’t give up, I get up again, new start
The song’s airy layered vocals, auto tuned raps, and hypnotic synths give it a trancelike quality. “Believer” thrives in the contrast between this musical dreaminess and its story’s harsher character.
Title track “Tear Drop” also delightfully deceives listeners, its stylishly soft sound the mask its punishing lyrics wear:
I can feel it in your smile, I can read your mind, I see it coming
Pretending I’m ok, pretending I’m cool
Acting like it’s fake, but you and I, we say goodbye
Tear drop, tear drop, tear drop
Drip, drip, drip, your falling tears, they blind me
There is a slightly awkward quality to the track’s spoken titular chorus lyric. By and large though, “Tear Drop” is a striking, seductively melancholy breakup track. It’s also a wonderful addition to SF9’s growing collection of darkly suave singles that also includes “Now or Never” and “Good Guy”.
In a fun coincidence, “Tear Drop” ensures that all three of Turn Over’s best songs have a repeated refrain of nonsense sounds. “Fanatic” has its “na na na”, “Believer” its “tuk tuk tuk”, and the chorus of “Tear Drop” is filled with breathy oohs. Then again, maybe this is not an accident, but instead an intentional vocal mirroring of the driving dance beats these songs are built on. It is thoughtful details like this, plus SF9’s mature sensuality and irresistible flair for the dramatic, that show just how much this group have to give.
When Turn Over is good, it is very good. When it is bad, the resulting frustration is enormous precisely because Turn Over has so much promise. The same can be said of SF9 as a group. They are increasingly owning their sound and style, and that is an exciting thing to see. Hopefully, SF9’s next step will be to jettison the periodic mediocrity that prevents Turn Over from being the fantastic mini album it easily could have been.