After an over 18-month hiatus, Jeon Somi is back with Game Plan, a mini album in a very literal sense: the five-track EP runs barely 14-minutes. Based on that number alone, it would be easy to dismiss the long-awaited comeback as disappointing. The EP itself, however, paints a more complicated picture. To be sure, the album has sloppy, shallow tendencies that leave much to be desired. At the same time, Game Plan’s continuity with Somi’s previous releases solidifies rather than muddles her artistic identity, something that can’t be said of many of her peers’ recent comebacks. Most of all, the album sparkles with unabashed pop fun, making it a nearly no-skip EP despite its flaws.

Game Plan’s production is both an MVP and a constant source of disappointment, the bedrock of its earworm appeal and the feature which most frequently falls short of its potential. In a pattern brutally familiar to Black Pink fans, producer Teddy and his The Black Label team summon one fantastic beat after another only to leave them woefully underdeveloped. This is artistic laziness at its most self-sabotaging, with initially dynamite beats repeated, unaltered, so many times that they lose their luster.

Of course, it is here that the brevity of many of Game Plan’s songs works in its favor. Title track “Fast Forward” is a prime example. The central dance-ready beat is a winner, but the song clings to this golden ticket without evolving (no, Teddy, the lackluster production switch-up in the final chorus does not count as evolution). At three minutes though, the track largely holds onto its charm. As a title track, “Fast Forward” also has the help of a delightfully pop-diva style MV and some of the most eye-catchingly unique choreography K-pop has offered all year. Despite The Black Label having to admit to MV production laziness as well, in the form of plagiarism, “Fast Forward” is a charismatic title track.

Alas, a short run-time can’t save a song that has nothing to offer to begin with. That’s the case with album-opener “Gold, Gold, Gold,” a tedious, aggravating, copy-paste confidence anthem with repetitive staccato rhythms. On the more positive end of the production scale, slow-tempo tracks “Fxxked Up” and “Pisces” showcase the possibility of The Black Label’s production style being harnessed semi-innovatively. The soft beats of “Pisces,” if cranked up, could fit right into a dance track. Subtly applied in this introspective track, they instead add momentum without dominating Somi’s delicate vocals. This method is even more effectively used in “Fxxked Up.” While the transitions between low-key verses and beat-heavy choruses are jarring at first, they are also interesting, match the hard edges of the song’s mood, and culminate in a cool breakdown in the track’s outro.

If “Fxxked Up” is Game Plan’s production at its most intriguing, “The Way” is the album’s crowd-pleaser, easy-listening pop with a coherent structure and nice melodies. Ironically, but not surprisingly, it is also the only track with outsourced production. Where “The Way” falls short is in its lyrics. The song’s story of a sad breakup fits the EP’s heartbreak theme, but its flowery and nostalgic style clashes with the spikier tone of other tracks. It is no mistake that “The Way” is the sole lyric credit on the album that does not include Somi (she also has three composition credits), and amidst the ups and downs of Game Plan’s production, it is Somi’s versatile vocals and defiantly messy message that reliably hit.

From the beginning of her solo career, Somi has been part of writing her own music, a still rare career feature among idols. Even better, Somi’s writing contains an engaging push-and-pull of confidence and vulnerability, hard-won smarts and raw anger. She is not shy of bitterness or cynicism, which makes her heartbreak narratives feel surprisingly lived-in and insightful. It is somewhat rare for K-pop companies to give a thumbs up to lines like those that open “Fxxked Up:”

Don’t you dare to text me anymore

Cause you really fucked up

Don’t even breathe next to me

Cause it’s a waste of my oxygen

Even the tamer storyline of “Fast Forward,” in which Somi wonders how many relationships she will have to go through before finding real love, carries a world-weariness that takes on an interesting dimension when you realize that at 22, Somi is an eight-year veteran of the entertainment industry. Somi’s experience shines through in her vocal and performance polish as well. In contrast to the stagnation of The Black Label’s production, Somi has admirably continued to hone her talents throughout her solo career, becoming more confident and accomplished with each successive comeback. Game Plan in particular shows off her emotive signing abilities and the increasing dexterity of her range. Once again, the last minute of “Fxxked Up” stands out, with Somi deftly moving from belted chorus, to falsetto bridge, to softly staccato outro.

Seeing Somi continue to take steps forward as a performer, even a tiny step like Game Plan, is exciting. Ultimately Game Plan fails to develop Somi’s artistic identity much beyond anything she has already shown, but the album’s affirmation of her clear vision is still gratifying. Mix that with the EP’s occasional flashes of pop brilliance, and even with all of Game Plan’s downsides, you have a pretty successful comeback.

Was Game Plan worth the 18-month wait? Debatable. Still, the EP offers some great end-of-summer tracks and raises anticipation for Somi’s future. Ultimately though, what comes next (and how long that takes) is what will truly determine whether Game Plan is remembered as a satisfying treat, or an ominously shrunken pseudo-comeback.

(Sports Donga, YouTube. Lyrics via Genius. Images via The Black Label.)