SF9 have tried just about every concept under the sun since their 2016 debut. The nine-member boy group never lacked talent, but can definitely be criticized for having such a long identity crisis. In an industry as packed as theirs, distinctiveness is a must. Luckily, their search was not fruitless. SF9 have ultimately emerged as somewhat unlikely torchbearers of an increasingly rare brand of mature, unabashedly sensual K-pop.
SF9’s years of experimentation didn’t go to waste though. Their bumpy trajectory has given them a truly eclectic discography, with something for every taste. More importantly, SF9 have proven time and time again that no matter what challenge is thrown their way, they are up to the task. It’s a good thing that SF9 have found a long-term style to call their own. However, their ability to be musical chameleons shouldn’t be undervalued. Even as they’ve settled into their sultry K-pop home, SF9’s free-wheeling tendencies continue to shine through and enhance their current releases.
One of SF9’s earliest standout b-sides is the weird and wonderful “Jungle Game”, from their first mini-album Burning Sensation. It’s a spiritual successor to SF9’s high octane debut b-side “K.O”, complete with its own acrobatic choreography. But what really sets “Jungle Game” apart in a sea of aggressively energetic K-pop is its musical creativity. The use of rhythmic nonsense lyrics to help build the skeleton of the song is ingenious. This allows the electronic beats which also form the bedrock of “Jungle Game” to stay controlled, and out of grating territory, without the track losing momentum.
“Jungle Game” would have made a stellar game theme. You can practically see little pixelated characters bouncing along to the beat. The song shows SF9’s ability to not only take on a common concept, in this case the video-game-inspired action track, but to also put their own witty spin on it.
SF9’s next release, Breaking Sensation, features a standout b-side of a very different kind. Where “Jungle Game” is modern and experimental, “Hide and Seek” is a cheesy retro throwback. Cheerfulness is the dominant emotion, with bouncy rhythms and cute horns complimenting SF9’s honey-like vocals. SF9 fully commit to the vintage style of “Hide and Seek”, even working with lyrics that, like so many old school songs, would be undeniably creepy in a less easygoing musical context:
You think I don’t know your heart just cuz you’re hiding it?
Stupid, why don’t you see how my heart only looks for you?
I can see you, it’s hard to act like I don’t know
I can see everything
“Hide and Seek” is an opportunity for SF9 to prove that they can play ball with a well-established style of music, and they step up to the plate.
SF9’s third mini-album Mamma Mia! is, Dawon’s atrocious hair aside, a very solid release. Among the many excellent b-sides on Mamma Mia!, “Never Say Goodbye” can be singled out as an example of SF9’s balladic talents. Lyrically, the song is a basic breakup track. The largely instrumental production, although very pretty, also doesn’t bring anything new to the table. However, it is the simplicity of “Never Say Goodbye” that makes SF9’s performance particularly impressive. The group are able to take an unoriginal base and make it into a memorable song through their convincing emotional delivery.
“Never Say Goodbye” highlights one of SF9’s most consistent musical strengths, which is the cohesiveness of their vocal line. Most of SF9’s singers have a shared airiness to their tone, allowing them to pass the vocal baton between members seamlessly, even when there are very quick transitions. For instance, the first minute of “Never Say Goodbye” features a smooth vocal relay between Rowoon, Taeyang, Jaeyoon, Dawon, and Inseong. The blink and you’ll miss it nature of these vocal switches makes the song feel like it’s coming from a single voice, enhancing its emotional power.
SF9’s rap line also shows great versatility in “Never Say Goodbye”, pulling back their normally guttural and speedy deliveries to an appropriately sorrowful place. Overall, “Never Say Goodbye” demonstrates that SF9’s musical abilities are strong enough to enliven even basic material.
Sensuous’ “Photograph” sees SF9 take on light-hearted synth-pop as they sing about a love so perfect, they just want to capture the moment:
Oh baby feel so special, a perfect Sunday like today
Oh beautiful you and I want to keep it
No one is going to accuse “Photograph” of being deep, but the group brings real finesse to their take on a popular musical genre. The vocalists float above the song’s pulsing beats, while SF9’s rappers bring “Photograph” down to earth with their rapid and low-toned verses. The result is a song that will feel comfortably familiar to any K-pop listener but in a pleasant rather than disappointing way. It’s also worth noting that member Zuho, who is the group’s most frequent producer, has lyric and production credits on “Photograph”.
Jumping ahead to 2020, SF9 finally released their first full album, appropriately titled First Collection. This is where SF9 really began to nail down what would become their signature sensuality. Therefore, First Collection is dominated by distinctly moody b-sides. Even here though, there is some exciting variation.
For instance, “Like The Hands Held Tight” and “Stop It Now” are both songs that tackle tormented romantic relationships. However, the tracks go for different musical styles and fall on opposite sides of the I’ve done wrong versus you’ve done me wrong coin. “Like The Hands Held Tight” keeps its simple production wound tight like a trap about to spring, sticking to a moderately paced beat and atmospheric instrumental touches. Center stage is ceded to the members’ individual vocal and rap contributions. Taeyang and Hwiyoung especially excel at conveying this melodramatic tale of woe:
That’s right, me who’s a bad guy and selfish
There’s nothing I can give you, you’re still the same
Don’t leave, I need you right now
I wanna be by your side so I can rest, so I can comfort my tired mind
There’s only the cutting wind on the frozen streets, and it’s raging
Meanwhile, the production of “Stop It Now” is a much more elaborate affair. An evocative plucked instrument punctuates a layered, synth-heavy musical landscape. Jaeyoon and Taeyang’s vocals shine because of how well they fit with the song’s airy atmosphere, and Chani and Zuho’s guttural raps provide a crucial dissonance. “Stop It Now” has a sophisticated beauty that suits yet contradicts its heart-wrenching lyrics:
I said it hurt, tears are forming
Your words become poison and spread
That’s enough, I know how you feel
So stop it now, stop it
In a total turnaround of mood, 9loryUS’ “Go High” sees SF9 get into the partying spirit. Zuho is again in the producing chair, crafting a feel-good track that is full of momentum. A propulsive beat constantly pushes the song forward. It only gets more frenetic as it goes on, intense rap verses alternating with airy vocals that do indeed “Go High”.
A party track of a different kind can be found on SF9’s next release, their fourth anniversary EP Special History Book. “Love No.5” is a song that could slide right into a club playlist, with its staccato rhythms and pulsing synths. SF9’s vocalists add some spice to the dance track formula with a generous sprinkling of ad-libs throughout. Meanwhile, the group’s rap line of Youngbin, Zuho, Hwiyoung, and Chani (who are frequent lyrical contributors) can take credit for the clever lyrical comparison at the heart of “Love No.5”, a reference to the iconic perfume Chanel No.5:
Every time you pass by, I feel like I’m under your spell
A dreamy wobble
A feeling that has become dull in time that has stopped
Fill this space, wrap my whole body, control me
You’ve got that love, love no.5, love no.5
“Go High” and “Love No.5” are examples of SF9’s new, more skillful approach to experimentation. In their early years, SF9’s varied discography was fun but often aimless. Now, SF9 are able to imbue their signature sultry maturity into everything they do, no matter how new the genre or unexpected the mood. Cohesion isn’t sacrificed in the name of versatility. SF9 do both.
This can be seen in the group’s most recent standout b-side. “Believer” is a track on mini-album Turn Over, and it was also SF9’s finale performance during their run on Kingdom. Appropriately, “Believer” is an epic song, packed with soaring melodies and thumping beats. It represents one of SF9’s few forays into an almost fairytale-like musicality, although the synth-reliant production and danceable rhythms keep the track within SF9’s zone of expertise. Still, “Believer” proves once again that SF9 are skilled at and willing to push their own boundaries, even on a high-stakes stage like Kingdom.
Watching SF9 slowly hone their own unique identity has been a journey worth following. It’s also gratifying that the group haven’t lost the risk-taking tendencies that made their early career so exciting. They’ve simply refined them. After all, if you can do it all, and do it well, then why not do it all?