When a member of a popular idol group debuts as a solo artist, there are two main goals: to set that debut apart from their group, and to establish the persona of the idol as an individual.

While these are often interchangeable goals, especially when both are achieved, it is entirely possible to achieve only one. Sadly, that is the case with Jihyo’s debut EP, Zone. While the music very much sets Jihyo as an act independent of Twice, there is little sense of Jihyo herself. And while there are signs of how she could develop as a soloist, in the present, the job is only half done.

Zone favors darker and more sensual tones and influences, matching its subject matter of a relationship’s descent from the highs of new love into bitter, vengeful wrath. And it absolutely improves the further down Jihyo slides, as dark and twisted is something she excels in. However, the latter half of Zone is preceded by the first half, which suffers both in terms of performance and productions.

Title track “Killin’ Me Good” and follow up “Talkin’ About It” both lean heavily into R&B tones, though from different eras. “Killin’” pulls from the 90s and early 2000s, for a funky sound that balances against a rubbery texture in the production, while “Talkin’” is more influenced by reggaeton.

That said, they both show Jiyho as a bad girl in love: cocky and confident, but with a vulnerable streak that this guy brings out in her. They also share strange production choices, carrying a sourness, as well as oddly quiet vocals that feel less intentional and more like someone messed up some settings. Moreover, Jiyho is not selling these songs. All her professions of love come off as hollow and insincere. This is not helped by the palpable lack of chemistry with 24kGoldn on “Talkin’”, who is certainly a choice of a guest artist.

That sense of insincerity carries through on the next two tracks, “Closer” and “Wishing on You”. As much as Jiyho tries to appear sexy-sweet, she just sounds placid, which is again not helped by the vocal mixing. “Wishing on You” does manage to fix the quiet vocals, but places them right at the front of the mix instead. Unfortunately, this highlights her struggles with the upper end of her range, as Jihyo’s cooing sounds nasal and piercing. The instrumentation is left to do most of the heavy lifting, balancing deep bass against lighter, dreamy synths on “Closer” and bubbled, staccato production on “Wishing On You”. But with Jihyo herself coming off as completely detached, the first four songs on Zone just flounder.

Thankfully, this is where Zone turns a corner and lets Jihyo move into a sound and persona that suits her far better: dark, heartbroken, and a little bit crazy. It also turns a corner on the sound levels.

Breakup track “Don’t Wanna Go Back” captures that devastating moment when there’s enough clarity to understand that a relationship needs to end, for everyone’s well-being, but the feelings have yet to fade. Jihyo perfectly nails the feeling of trying so hard to keep it together when you’re so close to falling apart, helped by the great chemistry between herself and Heize. The acoustic guitar and sparse drums bring back some the 90s vibes from the start of Zone, but with far better execution.

The album closes out with “Room” and “Nightmare”, which play against the previous track. While “Don’t Wanna Go Back” is the stiff upper lip that people want to have, the closing tracks dig into the inevitable messiness. “Room” lives in the feeling of being held hostage by your own thoughts. Deceptively airy synths play against a darker, discordant undertone as Jiyho struggles and fails to move on. The frustration and resignation rings through as each time she vows she’s not coming back to this, it becomes clearer that she will, whether she likes it or not.

Closer “Nightmare” sees Jihyo finally break free and reclaim herself by becoming something powerful and seeking vengeance with that power. The instrumentation takes on a rock edge, especially on the drums.

There’s a sinister edge that Jihyo meets with aplomb, the smile in her voice because of her thoughts of violence, not in spite of them. Yet even as Jihyo is framed as a very real danger, she is still under the spell of a man. Her obsession might have been warped into vindictive threat, but she’s just as obsessed as she was on “Killin Me Good”.  A dark obsession is still an obsession.

The most frustrating thing about Zone is that the pieces for something great are there. The last three tracks are legitimately great, both in production and Jihyo’s performance, and following down a darker path would be a great choice for her. Yet the EP is hampered by the odd choices made in the first half, ranging from questionable mixing to lyrics such as  “I got Jihyo with me, better not talk back”, which is just concerning. Moreover, those songs are completely anonymous, with no sense of Jihyo at all. One can only hope that in the future, Jihyo is able to lean into her darkness and thrive in it.

(YouTube. Images via: JYP Entertainment)