For K-pop fans not closely paying attention, WM Entertainment boy group ONF‘s steady rise to prominence in 2021 may be sudden and even confusing. But for the fiercely loyal teams backing ONF’s polished, cohesive discography and larger-than-life music video universe for the past four years, the new heights the group has been quietly reaching felt not only just a matter of time but overdue. Lapping at the opportunity to maintain the deserving momentum they have built for themselves with their last two comebacks, “Beautiful Beautiful” and “Ugly Dance“, ONF have put aside rest to return with their third comeback in eight months, this time with the desire to make their mark in the traditionally comeback-dense summer season of K-pop.

After a series of misleading and confusing teasers featuring both summery and wintery backdrops, the music video for “Popping” was highly anticipated. After all, ONF’s music videos are intricate and confusing even for the most ardent of fans. The only certainty is that they all tell an overarching, connected story in the same sci-fi universe, even if its sequence and connection is never made explicit. Their music videos are also almost always excitedly grand. During pre-Covid days, ONF’s videos were filmed across three continents, and they have worked with CGI artists whose credits include La La Land and Marvel.

In addition to the juxtaposition of summer and winter in the video, the track’s instrumental also incorporates sounds reminiscent of spring and autumn, from percussion in the pre-chorus to the use of woodwind in its instrumentals. The flute that forms the track’s main hook is recorded by the respected Monotree‘s Hwang Hyun, who has become synonymous with ONF’s music as the main producer of their entire discography. Despite ever-increasing expectations, he once again works his magic with ease through “Popping”, and the result is a track that evokes feelings of ecstasy, nostalgia, and hope all at once.

Grabbing inspiration from the disco-funk elements of “Beautiful Beautiful” and the rhythmic, synth-heavy “Complete“, “Popping” is yet another milestone of musical growth for the group. Good pop music is creative, dynamic and misleadingly difficult to produce, but the final product is easy on the ears and easy to love—this is something Hwang Hyun understands well, and he harmoniously puts together otherwise simple and even overused elements to produce a song with a familiar sound but made much more powerful and melodious. In “Popping”, he also blends memorable and catchy lines with his signature romanticism, reflecting a layer of depth to the otherwise fun song.

“Seasons change, this air gets colder. Our heart inside is always summer. Even if ice age comes back, don’t worry. We will be together forever.”

The video opens with an eerie and clinical shot of Hyojin‘s eyes opening after being scanned, before the cheery group chants that form the song’s introduction plays. The members are seated around a screen singing along, before the next shot shows them in goofy, bright outfits on a stage. A closer look reveals the parallels between these outfits and the characters ONF cosplayed as in their August music video from a year ago, “Sukhumvit Swimming“, all before the shot quickly shifts to a choreography sequence set against a field. The members are seen looking up into the sky in individual shots, all as the song further explodes in exhilarating energy in its pre-chorus. As the pre-chorus draws to an end, a wave of golf balls hit E-tion, and the cheerful outdoor scenes of the members playing basketball and having water gun fights will remind fans of their first comeback “Complete”.

The music video transitions to a darker narrative in the second verse. MK has been seen seated behind computer screens through multiple ONF music videos, but here he is joined by Wyatt who types away at another computer. MK taps a key and viewers are transported into another scene where U walks into what looks like a spaceship vault, with E-tion trailing behind as if trying to stop him. The two have a close connection in ONF’s universe that manifests differently across their music videos, but the recurring theme seems to be the intertwined relationship between betrayal and trust. E-tion pulls down a handle to close the vault on U, who turns around with a stoic and resolute expression. Cuts of E-tion and Wyatt’s devastated expressions signal foreboding tragedy.

Simultaneously, J-us is seen walking down an aisle with a spacesuit on, a blank expression on his face, and he is later joined by MK as they fist-bump each other. Suddenly, the menacing androids from “Beautiful Beautiful” and “Ugly Dance” appear holding guns charging from left and right, and U is showed at the centre of it, watching as it all unfolds. He calmly presses a button that engulfs the entire scene, and subsequently an entire space shutter, in flames.

In a series of even more confusing yet gorgeously colour-graded scenes, J-us stands alone in a snowy terrain, with a futuristic building in the faint distance. Hyojin watches through a window as a meteor hits a space shutter, and then braces himself as a spaceship heads straight towards him and the room he is in explodes. As the track’s opening chant returns, ONF are once more seen smiling fondly and singing along, seated in the same round formation as they look up at a screen. A montage of the carefree days where ONF would play flash by, all as MK peers into the viewfinder of a camera and U is seen playing with a toy rocket lighted up with a sparkler happily in a classroom.

ONF’s two leaders, Hyojin and J-us, are arguably the two main characters of the music video universe, and they are frequently caught in direct confrontation. In “Popping”, they do not interact all until the end, where their hands mirror each other in a symbolic scene, reaching out through a glass panel, even as the other is no longer seen. J-us slowly puts down the same camera, all as the music video pulls its final dramatic twist.

Another version of Hyojin, this time clad in black with an evil glint in his eye, enters and glances around a burning room, where Wyatt, E-tion and the first Hyojin lie on the ground seemingly dead. This scene is parallel to the ending of “Sukhumvit Swimming”, where J-us is the only member left alive. This sinister Hyojin then reaches out to seemingly switch off a recording and we see J-us put down the camera once more. This time, the shot pans out to reveal that he’s standing in front of the previously faraway building and the music fades out, leaving only the sounds of winter winds blowing by. It’s chilly and unsettling, and he’s alone.

“Popping” is another instalment to ONF’s music video universe, showing a commitment to maintaining the story that will cater to invested fans who can pick up on the details and connections between all their music videos. For non-fans, “Popping”‘s convoluted storyline will probably not do much except confuse them, but they will likely still leave captivated and engaged because of the members’ performances, the fantastic CGI and the clever way the music video leverages the song’s flow to create an exciting adventure for viewers.

The track’s twists and turns in its structure, including an unexpected second part to its chorus, continuously excite and bring new layers to the song, something the music video makes full use of when introducing new narrative elements. Made by dance crew Quick Crew and members J-us and U, the song’s choreography’s simple formations also work well and give more shine to its fun energy and quirks. Yet, the details in the choreography, such as the quick yet light footwork, also retain semblances of ONF’s notoriously difficult choreography in a more subtle fashion.

Summer comebacks in K-pop are polarising. When done well, they showcase K-pop at its most fun. On the other end of the spectrum, they can be lazily constructed, trend-chasing yet cliched, or even gimmicky and juvenile. It’s easy to make a happy song, but it’s not easy to make a convincing one that isn’t tacky. For this reason, while most K-pop groups have these light-hearted, upbeat tracks in their discography to varying degrees, the extent to which these are successfully executed is often a testament to their true versatility and how seriously a group takes their music. Traditionally, girl group summer releases dominate the season, with SISTAR earning the affectionate term of “Summer Queens” before their disbandment, and Brave Girls recently making a successful attempt at filling in that gap in the industry.

Through “Popping”, ONF boldly makes a statement that they don’t cut corners with their bright music, and set the bar for what K-pop boy group summer comebacks could be. More than just cheerful music in time for summer, ONF have stepped up to the challenge to continue taking their artistry to the next level and their dedication and hard work pay off. Already loved by and raved among music critics domestically, and gradually, internationally, the praise ONF and their team get for the care put into making each comeback a sonic and visual spectacle is only further exemplified by “Popping” and its accompanying music video.

With “Popping”, ONF solidifies their musical niche as the masters of uplifting, inspiring music, especially amongst their contemporaries, many of who dwell on being cool rather than fun. Through the refreshing track, ONF show that these aren’t mutually exclusive, and the strength, unity and class displayed in “Popping” make them a force to be reckoned with. It remains yet to be seen if ONF’s bold but grounded artistry will ever get the recognition it deserves from international K-pop fans, but the consistency in quality of their releases make them young K-pop royalty in their own right. At this point, if you’re not keeping with what ONF is about, you may just be behind on times. After all, what is good music meant for, if not appreciated?

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