With the success of Boys Planet still fresh in viewers’ minds, anticipation for Mnet’s first Produce 101-like boy group since 2019, and a bold announcement from their agency claiming they’ll start the fifth generation of K-pop, rookie act ZeroBaseOne (ZB1) have a lot on their shoulders. And like nearly every artist, their journey begins with their debut.

Their first record Youth in the Shade is exactly that—a significant first step in a journey. It represents a new beginning and starting point for the members as idols.

This youthful identity is, as expected, best conveyed in lead single “In Bloom.”

Although the lyrics of “In Bloom” carry hopeful sentiments as they express determination to move forward as a group for the first time, they also touch on the bitter feelings that come with a project group:

Whenever I close my eyes

I replay the same day after day

Even if it’s the same ending every time

I will keep running towards you

I believe in my faith, you

Even if everything around us changes

As the members’ time together is already predetermined, mentions of the unavoidable end can be disheartening. When combined with the song’s lighthearted melody, though, they offer a more encouraging perspective. There’s no denying what’s to come once the group’s contract finishes, but we can still share many beautiful moments with each other.

Musically, despite ZeroBaseOne being meant to be front runners of a new generation, “In Bloom” actually incorporates retro synth-pop influences in addition to its trendy drum and bass tune with the most apparent being a sample of the main riff from a-ha’s “Take On Me.” Its feature in the pre-chorus is tastefully done under the slow-paced vocal melody and continues to act as a nice framework for the upbeat chorus, enhancing the flowery atmosphere alongside keyboard sounds, brisk percussion, and sparkling synths. The hook also creates a high-speed impression that matches well with the “running towards you” lyrics.

In similar fashion, the album’s opening song “Back to ZEROBASE” has a comparable use of fast-moving percussion as another drum and bass number. But whereas “In Bloom” slows and speeds up throughout, “Back to ZEROBASE” feels like it’s constantly ascending. The combination of synths and vocal harmonies forms a transcendent ambience, one that feels more grandiose than a simple intro track.

Its lyrics carry a soft and uplifting theme, capturing the emotions felt when a dream becomes reality. The change from “Is it real?” in the chorus to “Make it real” in the outro is also a notable detail that helps heighten the dreamlike sentiments.

Altogether, it’s an ethereal tune that invites listeners to the rest of the EP as well as ZeroBaseOne’s own journey as a group.

While “Back to ZEROBASE” depicts the boys’ astonishment at debuting, “New Kidz on the Block” shows their ambition as idols. With lyrics like “We’re going straight to the top” and “Turn this gray street upside down,” the song is a confident introduction of the group to the K-pop world.

Like the previous two numbers, “New Kidz on the Block” makes great use of various synths. In addition to the tune’s dance-pop sound, it also includes some 2-step garage and deep house elements that are hard to resist. And with the groovy bass, lively drums, and addictive vocal melody, the track is an enjoyable earworm with plenty of personality.

The second half of the album slows down the pace slightly as mid-tempo pop number “Our Season” continues ZeroBaseOne’s debut adventure. Its lyrics contain similar feelings as the preceding songs with the group singing about their excitement for the future but focuses a little more on the boys themselves and their friendship:

On the road ahead in the name of one, you and I face each other

Filling our empty season with a wonderful story

So that someday, on a day like today, I can bring it up with a smile

This moment that will be our first page begins

Our season

With their journey having only just begun, things may still be awkward and even difficult at times. In spite of that, the lyrical message is filled with hope that the members will make many worthwhile memories together and create a story of their own.

As for the sound, “Our Season” features a somewhat trap-inspired instrumental with nonchalant whistles and guitar sounds. This proves to be an effective foundation for the boys to showcase their vocals, particularly during the chorus which carries most of the emotional impact. The sing-along melody in the outro also feels warm and cozy, ending the tune on an earnest note. Moreover, the order of seasons in the lyrics (winter, spring, summer, fall) instead of the typical order (spring, summer, fall, winter) to indicate the members’ first meeting during Boys Planet is a small but delightful detail.

Moving away from the tracks that illustrate ZeroBaseOne’s entrance in the industry, the remaining two songs “And I” and “Always” explore different emotions from the rest of the EP. “And I” has the boys portraying secret admirers who attempt to express their feelings through social media while “Always” is a thank you letter from Zhang Hao to fans.

The lyrics of “And I” are especially sweet with lines like “Dozens of times a day/Like a habit, heart, like” and “I wonder if my feed management is meaningful/I posted it just for one person to see, for you.” Its Korean title “우주먼지”, which means cosmic dust, also makes for a cute simile. Like a small speck of cosmic dust amongst the sea of stars, the boys become shy and small in front of their crush.

These endearing words pair well with the bouncy melody developed with brass and rhythmical keyboard sounds. The R&B pop number also works great as another vocal showcase as Zhang Hao’s, Sung Hanbin’s, and Kim Taerae’s refreshing vocal colors stand out.

“Always” includes many R&B influences as well but different from “And I,” the number is less poppy and goes into a more alternative direction. As a solo song, which is a prize for the contestant that ranked first in the final episode of Boys Planet, it’s filled entirely with Zhang Hao’s warm and clear voice that’s complemented by the atmospheric instrumental.

What’s disappointing, however, is the track’s length. It’s only a little over two minutes and even shorter than the album intro. As pleasant as “Always” sounds, the absence of pre-choruses and a bridge is obvious. The tune concludes without really going anywhere and ends the EP on an unsatisfying note.

Having said that, Youth in the Shade as a whole is still very cohesive and enjoyable for the most part. It might be imperfect and not the most distinctive work, as one would expect from a rookie taking their first step in the industry, but it nevertheless holds much promise and potential for ZeroBaseOne to blossom into an even brighter flower in the future.

(YouTube [1][2]. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4]. Images via WakeOne.)