TWICE are unicorns. The fact that one of Kpop’s most epic forces is still united, and dazzling us, eight years into their career is an accomplishment that’s impossible to overstate. Perhaps the main reason we must never take TWICE for granted, however, is that they’ve accomplished the rare feat of maturing gracefully while maintaining their signature sparkle.

Shimmering with effervescence, most of TWICE’s songs are about celebrating life to the fullest. In an era when most music is about control, TWICE counter trends by instead opening us up to possibility and prismatic feeling. Their 12th album, Ready to Be, is an exploration of transcendence–releasing the shackles of our inner demons in favor of freedom. It’s a theme that demands maturity to really lean into the larger-than-life nature of the material, and TWICE deliver in spectacular fashion.

Ready to Be is not only stylishly produced, it’s prismatic in its catharsis. Lead track “Set Me Free” is an undisputedly electric rallying cry for liberation. It has special resonance for member Jeongyeon, who has said that it’s the track that has meant the most to her since their debut. “I’ve listened to it more than any other TWICE song,” she noted.

Jeongyeon and Mina have been trailblazers within the group by being open about their bouts of anxiety, and “Set Me Free’s” lyrics take on additional significance in this context. “I bet everything on me, I’m going to risk it all… come and set me free,” Jeongyeon sings. Those lines also read as a summation of TWICE’s career to date: they had to bet everything on themselves in the battle to debut on survival show “Sixteen,” but true psychological freedom as an idol is difficult—some might say impossible—given the pressure that comes with being in the public eye.

TWICE remind us, though, that at the end of the day freedom is a gift we give ourselves. The members have been so open about their lives and hardships, unusually so for an idol group, that they can deliver lines like “there’s no more to lose, and nothing to hide” with an authenticity that is moving. The production succeeds in conveying this sense of liberation, opening with a chunky bass that will immediately set your toes tapping. The 80’s disco influence is infectious, with sweeping strings augmenting the percolating trap beats in the chorus. Though TWICE may not seem as vocally-oriented as contemporaries like Red Velvet, “Set Me Free’s” chorus highlights how adept the members (particularly Nayeon and Jihyo) are at controlled belting.

Mina‘s vibrato also shines, and her ad libs add texture to almost every song on the album. The experience of “Set Me Free” (and Ready To Be in general) is TWICE’s signature brand of exuberant pop while also being, oddly, genreless–both nostalgic and forward-looking at the same time. What makes Set Me Free special, though, is that the lyrics are so rooted in TWICE’s identity as a group.

Thematically, “Set Me Free” is less a declaration of independence than a declaration of self-actualization. According to Chaeyoung, the song is one of transformation: “It’s as if we’re breaking out of a mold. We wanted to show confidence.” (Jihyo was especially proud of her eyebrow piercings, which she felt exuded this). “We’re trapped but choosing to confidently walk the path we’ve chosen,” Tzuyu added.

That confidence, more than earned given TWICE’s astonishing work ethic and discography, extends to greater involvement with the creative process of Ready to Be. Not only did the members dictate their sartorial choices for the jacket cover and have a hand in defining the new concept, Dahyun is credited as a writer and composer for two tracks on the album. “Wallflower,” which she authored entirely, maintains the group’s grooviness in a more laid-back EDM landscape then their standard musical territory.

In a subversion of the typical butterflies-in-stomach TWICE giddiness, “Wallflower” flips expectations by challenging us ( to dance with them and lose ourselves in the music, setting aside our worries. In other words, TWICE are in control and fully aware of the affect of their charms, but they don’t abuse their power: instead, they empower the listener, telling us “don’t overthink it… this is what it feels like to be in love.” In other words, they set us free.

This song is ultimately a chill-but-groovy call for liberation. “Wallflower’s” low-key production also allows the vocals to be more foregrounded than in the rest of the album. In an instance of clever songwriting on Dahyun’s part, none of the three choruses in “Wallflower” are the same, and the chopped, staccato-y treatment of the title makes this one of TWICE’s most inventive tracks to date.

“Crazy Stupid Love,” also penned by Dahyun, is home to the album’s most impactful call-and-respond background vocals, as the members celebrate various stages of being done with an ex. Even in the throes of anger, “Crazy Stupid Love” is all lighthearted fun, and the jaunty guitar instrumental is reminiscent of early 00s’ pop-rock.

In some ways “Crazy Stupid Love” is the dark horse of the album, as the ultimate showcase of each member’s strengths. Chaeyoung’s second verse rap exudes such authority it’s one of the standout moments of Ready To Be, as is Jihyo’s powerful delivery of the chorus and Nayeon’s soaring belts and ad-libs. Tzuyu’s sweet, light tone also sounds especially lovely in the midst of this break-up anthem, perhaps because it’s so unexpected! While not as inventive as the other tracks, “Crazy Stupid Love” is a well-rounded bop that exudes TWICE’s personality, which is in itself a magical feat.

The most party-ready song on Ready to Be has to be “Got the Thrills” which, true to its name, will have you at the end of your seat. It bursts with excitement, continuing the album’s pursuit of freedom and delivering TWICE’s signature explosive chorus. “It’s like a symphony of you and me…let me take you to this whole new world,” Sana sings. “Got the Thrills” is about the rush that comes with allowing yourself to be lost in “dazzling feelings,” but TWICE make it clear they are in no danger of losing themselves in the process. “Hey, there’s no stopping’ me,” is their refrain, and it’s impossible not to believe them. In “Got The Thrills,” they are firmly in control even as they invite us to let go of ours, and the production reflects it.

“Got the Thrills” implements different styles beautifully, including funkiness from the 80s and the epic build of the chorus we associate with the ’00s. The way the vocals play with the synths in a cat-and-mouse game is also emblematic of TWICE’s playfulness, which they haven’t lost even as they’ve stepped into this mature era.

Stripped back where “Got the Thrills” is larger-than-life, “Moonlight Sunrise,” Ready to Be‘s ubiquitous English track, sparkles with atmospheric synths. At first listen it sounds sparse relative to TWICE’s typical full-to-the-brim instrumentals, but this seeming emptiness is what allows the vocal production to really shine. The harmonies are lushly layered, and the members’ delivery of the lyrics feels not as overly articulated—and thus much more natural—than most English K-pop tracks. (A particular standout is Momo‘s delivery of “I guarantee I gotcha,” which sent Twitter aflame). In the mold of TWICE’s previous megahit “Alcohol Free,” “Moonlight Sunrise” captures the exhilarating rush of falling in love, with plenty of references to tequila, too. Light as air, the song crystallizes the feeling of euphoria and liberation that comes with chasing our feelings.

The fullest expression of freedom in the album comes in the form of “Blame it On Me,” in one of the biggest surprises of TWICE’s discography to date. Country rock was not on most people’s 2023 TWICE bingo card, but this genre fits shockingly like a glove on the members. The gritty guitar and snare adds a biting edge to the track, and the slight country twang to their vocals is a delight. “Blame it On Me” pulsates with a vaguely threatening energy that conveys power in tandem with playfulness. The slow, minimalistic build to the chorus—scaling back, only to hit us with a wall of sound—is a genuinely innovative take on country-rock in K-pop, further expanding the group’s genre repertoire.

The premise of the song is that we are “irresistibly bewitched” by TWICE’s charms, “being led” deeper down the rabbit hole (and thus shouldn’t blame them for their power). Despite the language of entrapment, it’s clear that TWICE know they are liberating us through the act of ensnaring fan’s “obsessed minds” in a full-throttle “stimulation of the senses.” “Blame it On Me” exudes tongue-in-cheek confidence, and is unbridled in the power it projects.

In an industry that is increasingly leaning towards aloof, hip-hop oriented sounds, TWICE have been trailblazers by marching to the beat of their own sonic drum–to say nothing of their incredible impact on the Hallyu wave in Japan, or on mental health awareness in K-pop (to name but a few areas in which they’ve made a seismic impact).

Though there is no denying TWICE is one of the biggest groups in the world, their incredible versatility is not discussed as often as their discography warrants. In Ready To Be, they catapult across sounds with skill and style, gifting us with a dazzling achievement of an album that feels like it could belong to no other group.

What is most profound about Ready To Be, though, is its commitment to the concept of freedom, recognizing that it often takes a ton of effort to do something seemingly simple: let go. Letting go is an inherently vulnerable act, after all. But TWICE show us in this album that true power comes with allowing ourselves to be seen. It’s rewarding to see the group step even more into their power here, as they deserve.

(Youtube. Images via JYP Entertainment. English lyrics via Genius.)