It can come across as a bit of a cliché to say that an artist’s music becomes more mature as they get more years under their belt. If maturity is a change in attitude due to the effects of experience, then surely there’s no other way to describe a group who have been around for a while? Whilst this is true, many want to stay in the mould that broke them onto the scene in the first place. This is a risk in K-pop as much as, if not more, than anywhere else. With 4th generation groups only upping the performance stakes (from Itzy to Ateez), monster success rates (like IVE’s super-hit debut with “Eleven”), and musical freneticism (hello NMIXX), there is an obvious temptation to try to meet this for older idols. 

Monsta X certainly fit the profile of a group who could make a good attempt at taking on their juniors. With a history of powerful performance, and no fear at all of bombast (their debut with “Hero” confirmed this pretty quickly), it wouldn’t be especially surprising if they created work in 2022 that was heavy on enthusiasm and light on depth. However, as their 2021 album No Limit showed, the now-5-piece group (whilst Shownu continues his military service) instead decided to go down a calmer, more structured and solid musical route. 

2022’s Shape of Love is a continuation down this road, turning even further away from gimmicky trends into a track list that is still confident in itself. This album’s greatest strengths lie in its production, which works consistently and yet subtly to create songs with wonderful layering and flourishes. The music is tight, the playfulness is there, and the mood still remains self-assured, a statement of the real maturity that Monsta X have achieved as a group. 

The first indication of this experienced outlook that the group offer comes through their choice of title track, the simply-named “Love”. Opening with Hyungwon speaking the lyric “What do you think love is?”, the song then unfolds into a mid-tempo homage to nineties hip hop musical stylings. The beat is modest, a backdrop rather than the booming focus, with pianos, bass guitars, and relaxed synths slotting into place to form the song’s landscape. This musical atmosphere feels inherently laid-back, echoed through Joohoney in the post-chorus lyrics. 

Uh, sit back and enjoy the show

Feel my rhythm and flow

We can take it fast or slow

For a leading single, this is a notable flex of confidence in their abilities. Through this style, Monsta X are showing that they can present an album without falling back on the hype techniques of EDM bass drops or choruses based on chanting. The song is so laid-back, it even pulls out saxophones after the choruses. It’s a logical step forward from the slickness of “Love Killa” and “Gambler”, taking their stylish funk and relaxing the mood a little more. The MVs for those songs tellingly included a lot of suits, where “Love” features far more hip-hop fashion stylings. The jacket is coming off now. 

There is no point where the mood swerves dramatically across the album, though the casual approach of “Love” is swapped out for cool tightness in “Burning” and “Wildfire”. In the latter, gentle violins and acoustic guitars swim under another soft beat, as the melodies cascade in the pre-chorus to echo the strings. It creates a sense of restraint that, once again, mirrors the angst in the lyrics. 

I’m up all night

Twisting, turning, breaking out in sweat

Inside this room, I found my doom

As Hyungwon (who wrote and composed this track alongside Joohoney and I.M, as well as producing) sings of being trapped inside his room and emotions, the minor melodies and unfussy instrumentation give another layer of restriction, of tightness. 

“Burning Up”, a lean funk groove of a song, similarly contains absolutely no excess. Made as a collaboration with Moroccan Dutch DJ R3hab, the synths here are deeper, met with soft piano and finger clicks as the only additional musical elements. The opening lines—sung by I.M—feature almost the exact melody of 2020’s “Fantasia”, and this through-line between the two tracks alone demonstrates the calmness with which Monsta X have come to approach their work.

“Breathe” and “사랑한다 (Love You)” move away from the darker, more yearning tone of other tracks towards an even breezier feel than in “Love”. “Love You” is probably the most generic that the album offers, taking the place of the sentimental, sing-along anthem that so often comes towards the end of K-pop albums. “Breathe” is a placeholder between this and the funk of “Burning Up”, taking the instrumentation to a lighter place. The rhythm, whilst not increasing, is a little more pronounced, with wonderfully cheery brass samples lining the chorus. These samples act as all the flourish that the song needs, much as the high notes from Kihyun and Minhyuk are sufficient embellishment to “Love You”. 

It is almost definitely no coincidence that this levelling up of maturity in their style comes as the members themselves have more involvement in their work. In Shape of Love, as with last year’s No Limit, Hyungwon, I.M and Joohoney have writing or production credits on every track across the album, with the exception of “Breathe”. It’s exciting to see that their presence in the production of their songs is continuing, and it undoubtedly has an effect on the style. The control and neatness of structure in these songs speaks to a level of experience that Monsta X have achieved. 

The album’s final track—“AND”, with I.M contributing lyrics, composition, and arrangement—is perhaps the mellowest moment among all the tracks. The echoing, laconic guitars are slightly reminiscent of a Cigarettes After Sex song in their minimalism, though the song does neatly build to chorus of slow foot-stomps and belting from Kihyun. There isn’t even any rapping here, the swagger that I.M and Joohoney can bring so easily replaced with emotive singing instead. It’s an interesting move on their part to place this track, sensitively opining that they “want to hold you and stay”, at the end of the album in place of “Love You”. Again, moving away from the anthemic crowd pleaser to close with a more subdued piece only adds to the proof of Monsta X’s increasingly creative and developed decision-making. 

This is ultimately why the main buzzword of this album really is “maturity”. As unappealing as this word might be, especially in the youth-worshipping K-pop world, Shape of Love shows that it really means confidence, great flare, and a trained eye for constructing lean, exciting music. This is a track list so watertight that a cliché or gimmick can barely even drip out. Following the similarly solid, if less creatively engaging, No Limit, this album is the perfect next step for Monsta X’s development as a group.

Bringing this level of musical production quality to their next projects will only illuminate Monsta X’s status in the industry as it stands. Monsta X do not need to overhype anymore, nor do they need to be loud or flashy to grab our attention. They are mature idols who create mature K-pop, and their trajectory can—hopefully—only become more creative and exciting as they show their juniors how it’s done. 

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius. Images via Starship Entertainment)