Monsta X have given us so much to be thankful for on the modern K-pop scene over the years: guardianship of the aggressively sexy concept, one of the strongest rap lines around, powerhouse vocalists, and Wonho’s Instagram. They have been able to set their perspective in the field more solidly than almost any other group active today. Everyone knows what the Monsta X style is and what to expect. With their work over the past few years, they have successfully transitioned their style into its next stages, from 2020’s All About Luv to their most recent One of a Kind.
Their latest album, No Limit, isn’t necessarily a further push into complexity or maturity. Rather, what we can find here feels more like a comfortable recognition of their current status and abilities. Despite being the first album produced without Shownu, who is currently serving the military, the seven tracks here all have a more personal edge, with multiple members contributing to the lyrics, music, and arrangement of every single one. No Limit may be a slightly ironic title in this instance, but the album does manage to be slick, solid, and as controlled as the group have ever been.
As with the standard K-pop album structure, the tracks open with lead single bombast, moving through varyingly creative directions before finishing on a mellow note. In this respect, the limits have very much been stuck to, though the songs themselves manage to tie themselves into said format extremely effectively. This is what happens when they are a group that has been doing this since 2015. In “Rush Hour”, Monsta X cannot resist leaning into the swagger and hype style that they have branded themselves with, though here their experience shines through in just how well the song fits together.
There are a lot of elements that could make the song too busy: whistle hooks, guitar riffs, chorus stomps, vocoder voices, and even gunshot effects. But with the careful layering of these elements around ever-strong raps and clear vocals, they achieve the effect of adding colour to the song, rather than overstuffing it.
Leading on from the fun of the opener, the album manages to never drop pace. This is where the title fits best, with the following track, “Autobahn” taking the baton from “Rush Hour” and running onto a smoothly produced electro-club moment. Harmonies build neatly in the pre-chorus, leading perfectly into a tight chorus of beat drops. The keyword that describes both of these songs is “tight”. There isn’t any sense of excess here. Everything that has been brought in is just enough, which is a testament to the members’ experience, notably I.M, Joohoney, and Hyungwon who, between them, have contributed to each track.
Whilst the song that follows “Autobahn”, “Ride With U” does not do much to be distinctive, there are some nice electronic hooks woven through “Got me in chains” that put the work back on form. It seems as though the more affectionate songs on the album are the points where it is weakest, not necessarily due to an inability on the group’s part to handle this concept (just look to “Someone’s Someone” to see them master the love song). It simply feels as though we are hearing more of Music Production Basics 101 in tracks like “Just love” and “I got love”. The rhythms are less playful, and the electronica is switched out for more straightforward guitar backing.
However, the album’s best moment comes in a swerve away from both generic mid-tempo and EDM high energy. Hyungwon in particular is credited with arranging the snarling, sensual, “Mercy”. After the constantly fast beats of the previous songs, here we slow the tempo down dramatically. Underlying pianos, minor keys, and echoing vocals almost imply a ballad, but the driving pulse that explodes in the chorus mirrors the intensity of the song’s lyrics.
I wanna run into the fire again and fall into you deeper
Deep wounds that have already opened up
I get hurt even though I know you are my pain
Unstoppable continuous pain
The longing, alongside the descriptions of pain and anguish in this track, give “Mercy” a dark sensuality that is complemented by the growling beat drop of the chorus, and only strengthened by Kihyun’s incredible high notes. There is great light and shade in the vocals here, along with some of the most interesting rapping. The moment where Joohoney’s voice tails off in a brief moment of overwhelm is an especially standout flash of tone and colour, demonstrating his absolute skill in K-pop rap. This song stands as the greatest testament to Monsta X’s growth of their concept, even if it is not always so clear on the rest of the album.
Whilst “Mercy” is refreshingly straightforward in its concepts, mostly free of symbolism or metaphor, the tracks on the first half of the album lean into a motif of cars and fast driving. It is pretty clear to see this just from the titles of “Rush Hour” “Autobahn”, and “Ride With U”, though there is also the rather embarrassing use of “pull up, skrr” peppered throughout “Just Love” as well. In “Rush Hour”, the theme seems to be used to represent the group’s passion and ambition.
Hitting the gear on the heavy traffic of the city
Only looking forward, no back, back
Competition is always thrilling
In “Autobahn” and “Ride With U”, the metaphor becomes more sexualised, with mentions of “I want you to do drive me hard” in the former, and the latter being similarly suggestive.
Cross the line and speed me
Without a speed limit, I can’t control myself
It is clear here that the speed and excitement of driving are suggestions of the thrills or romance and sex, moving into something more personal than the generalised idea of “our ambition is fast-growing like a fast-moving car”. Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable piece of symbolism to use, it feels a little tired. After being overused by groups like Cravity, the car motif just risks feeling a little immature, a little too boys with their toys. Monsta X do add their signature sensuality to this idea, and not in unsuccessful ways, but the album definitely becomes more exciting in the moments when the symbolism is dropped and the ideas behind it are allowed to stretch out.
Yet, despite this occasionally weak symbolism, No Limit is, ultimately, as mentioned above, tight. Though not every track is equally sonically compelling, there are no moments (skrr aside) that feel unnecessary or fussy. This album does not really work to develop the Monsta X sound much, aside from in “Mercy”, but it does not need to. This is Monsta X stabilising this stage of their careers, adding in more of their own flair as lyricists, composers and arrangers.
They have passed the point of being overly flashy, as well as the era where they need to prove their maturity (their most recent work has already done that). No Limit is not a musical step back, or even a curveball, but rather a boy group consolidating their strengths and style into compact, skilful songs. Their maturity is proven, the sensuality and bravado have gone nowhere, and the next phase of Monsta X is continuing comfortably into the new year.
(YouTube. Images via Starship Entertainment)