Following Iz One’s disbandment last year, it is only natural for the members to start embarking on their individual journeys, be it debuting in groups or going solo. While Iz One leader Kwon Eunbi and main vocalist Jo Yuri went solo, there were rumours floating around that rapper Choi Yena would be joining Everglow. Thankfully, this all-rounder beat the rumours and went solo with her first mini-album, Smiley (stylized ˣ‿ˣ (SMiLEY)”), instead. 

Same-named title track “Smiley” is a pop-rock inspired track, having some Avril Lavigne influence, some early 2010s Disney Channel influence, and a dash of a high teen style. “Smiley”, as its name suggests, seeks to spread joy to others in a bleak world. As Yena explains, “Even if people in the world criticize and point fingers at me and laugh at me, this is a song that contains my thoughts and aspirations. That is, to smile it away with my own confidence”.

“Smiley” is absolutely Yena-esque. It is happy, cute, colourful, quirky, a whole visual and auditory treat. This is perfect for Yena who is known for her energetic and happy-go-lucky image. “Smiley” is a joy to listen to, including the feature from Bibi, Yena’s ‘classmate’ from Girls High School Mystery Class

The MV’s storyline is relatively simple. The world is an unhappy place. But worry not as the world has Yena, a superhero who sprinkles hearts and smileys that have the power to make people happy. Sensing that the diners at a restaurant are miserable, Yena, in full superhero fashion, comes to their rescue to turn their frowns into smiles. But of course, every good story can’t go on without a villain. In comes Bibi, who dulls Yena’s shine as the world stops being happy upon her presence. Thankfully, a child, the epitome of innocence and joy, helps Yena get back on her feet to spread happiness again. 

However, behind the simple storyline lies a grim reality that few would acknowledge: even our smiley hero, like any human, gets tired from making others happy. Yena cannot be happy all the time and even admits that she feels the burden of having to do so for the sake of others. Nevertheless, she bravely chooses to stand by her personal belief to “just smile away to forget about pain, sadness and loneliness”. Eventually, as the world’s superhero, Yena devotes herself to the power of smiling and even becomes a personification of the positive energy that the world desperately needs: 

I live my life once, I smile it

Even it’s lonely and dark

Yeah I And I say hey I’m gonna make it smile smile smile away

I’ll make a beautiful smile and let it go

Just smile away

Visually, Yena’s energy is displayed through the cartoon style that “Smiley” adopts, heavily relying on CG doodles to portray happiness and sadness. Notably, while hearts, flowers, and smiley faces enclose Yena, her darker half, Bibi, is dramatically surrounded by a dimmer setting, devil horns, a tail, lightning bolts, and sad faces. At one point, “Smiley” even fully commits to its cartoon art style by turning Yena into a cartoon superhero, a nod to the classic comic book superheroes many are familiar with.

Musically, pop-rock never dies and “Smiley” will be a timeless piece. While pop-rock is probably the last genre that fans would expect Yena to head towards, she seamlessly pulls it off here. Not to mention, Bibi’s darker feature contrasts with yet balances out Yena’s bright personality. Yena is happy and Bibi is mad. In fact, this calculated move saves “Smiley” from becoming over the top cute, intercepting it at the right moment before it turns into an overly animated Disney Channel-esque song. 

On a lighter note, the duo’s subtle attention to detail deserves some acknowledgement. While Bibi typically has two hand-drawn moles below her eyes, adding a sad face to it is a pleasant easter egg. Taking it a step further, the frown turns into a smiley face at the end of the MV. 

After a successful career with Iz One, Yena’s solo, “Smiley”, is a safe yet infectiously feel-good debut. “Smiley” does everything right, and it certainly leaves viewers smiling, just as Yena intended to. With a pop-rock formula that works in her favour, here’s hoping that Yena will carry on a similar style for at least her next few releases. 

(YouTube[1][2]. Lyrics via Lyricskpop. Images via Yuehua Entertainment.)