August brought some long-awaited comebacks, with some artists returning after extended hiatuses, while others in subunits that have not been seen in years. This was also a month for relative newcomers releasing songs that differentiated them from other artists. While this month’s Unsung Artists drew musical influences from diverse genres, ranging from punk rock to jazz to EDM, they brought intense energy and confidence to their unique artistic identities.

Xikers – “Do or Die”

One could say that punk rock influences have overstayed their welcome in K-pop, but Xikers’ “Do or Die” (their first comeback after their debut “Tricky House”) fully commits to the genre and executes it perfectly.

The MV starts with full-throttle energy, matching the propulsive punk rock guitar, aggressive vocals, and fast-paced rap. The MV adopts the concept of a zombie video game, but instead of destroying the undead, the Xikers members are tasked with the mission of “Capturing Zombie’s Heart.” They initially wield cricket and baseball bats (even wrapped in wire like out of The Walking Dead), but ultimately revive the zombies by putting headphones on them.

After the first verse, the MV loses the zombie plot: the stage performance of the first chorus more resembles Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with its hand-drawn lighting bolt overlays. In the second half of the song, the group ends up performing their intense choreography either in front of a stage or in a set resembling a video rental store. Concept and story become secondary to the group’s sheer raucousness. At one point, a text declares “Mission Complete,” and it is clear that the MV’s real mission is winning over everyone with their exuberance and confidence.

U-Know – “Nexus”

U-Know has released cinematic MVs previously, but “Nexus,” a short film featuring all tracks from his Reality Show album, establishes not only a full storyline, but a universe. With the premise of U-Know’s character Noah entering a metaverse (navigated by an AI played by Aespa‘s Karina), “Nexus” allows Noah – and the audience – to experience enthralling virtual realities: launching up to a rooftop for a dance sequence in “Wannabe,” or fighting dozens of enemies on a warship in “Tarantino.” In contrast to the depressing doldrums of his everyday life (depicted in “Relax” as a cycle of eating canned food, taking pills, smoking, and doing mundane household tasks), Noah states, “I might be nothing in real life, but in NEXUS I can be anything.”

The title track “Vuja De” (also released as its own MV) starts with carnival sounds and imagery, with mimes, clowns, and acrobatic performers. Later, the song incorporates influences from big band music and musical theater. The brassy and buoyant sound belies the song’s darker lyrics:

Greed makes me heavier again
Gulp it down, all that I am
My life and time’s all been sold
Like an undead, lurching zombie
Buried in money and fame, running fast
Can’t tell if I’m living or being lived

The line “can’t tell if I’m living or being lived” most likely refers to relentless idol life, but also fits with the AI storyline of “Nexus.” In both cases, humans cannot live as the center of a spectacle without questioning if they are losing their humanity. “Nexus” is a compelling piece of storytelling that effectively captures the themes of the Reality Show album.

TripleS Lovelution – “Girls’ Capitalism”

The title “Girls’ Capitalism” (the first song from TripleS subunit Lovelution) might lead fans to anticipate an angry, cutting sociopolitical critique. Instead, TripleS Lovelution takes an easygoing musical approach, with a breezy, groovy pop song resembling “Generation”, especially in its “la la la”s.

Still, the MV, framed as a series of tips from the “Mad Money Club for Sad Girls,” has some satirical commentary on its mind. Intertitles flash on the screen with tips for young girls, with the first reading “Don’t Cry Be Rich.” This unattainable advice sets the stage for more ironic “rules,” such as holding a seance with a panoply of religious idols for “Dream Big,” or having a literal cash sandwich for “Eat Healthy.”

The latter scene, along with a later moment with member Xinyu eating a bar of soap, suggests the ways that young women feel pressured to conform to beauty and behavioral standards to have value. Similarly, the MV includes dance sequences with the members wearing white, with comically oversized receipts and shopping bags in the background. Set to the refrain of “Call me beauty… cute is now boring” these scenes reflect how much beauty is commodified.

The MV peaks with a high note and wailing background guitar as the members jump and run giddily with other girls wearing white, suggesting other forms of fulfillment than pursuing wealth: investing in self and community. “Girls’ Capitalism” is a pleasant song with a self-love message. The MV manages to convey anti-capitalist commentary in a playful package, always vibing to the carefree refrain of “la la la la la la la heart.”

Everglow – “Slay”

Everglow is back with their first comeback since “Pirate” in December 2021, and they pick up where they left off, with a girl crush concept and EDM sound. This is not a style that is currently on trend, which indicates how much 4th generation girl group music has evolved in the last two years. On some level, though, it is refreshing to see Everglow return with their signature sound (loud, bombastic, and hard-hitting, with a chanting chorus and heavy instrumentals) even if they are not showcasing much that we didn’t already see prior to their hiatus.

Set in a dome with lasers and floating crystals, the MV has a vaguely futuristic feel, but the sets are relatively spare and ultimately forgettable. The MV is most effective when providing close-ups of each member, which is fitting for an MV that serves as a re-introduction to the group. As a whole, the MV does not appear to have high production value, but it is competently shot, with camera movements and cuts appropriately showcasing the group’s choreography.

The highlight of the song is undoubtedly the bridge. Sihyeon‘s floaty vocals in particular provide much-needed variation from the repetition of “slay” and “na na na” throughout the song. The lyrics in her section also hint at a vulnerability behind Everglow’s empowerment message:

Find me in the thick fog
I know this is the good thing
I want time for the chance
My own pace
I want to go higher

In a song with frequent chants of lines like “slay, slay, crazy sexy cool,” Sihyeon’s and Mia‘s bridge suggests other musical and thematic directions. Everglow proves that they can still slay their trademark powerful girl crush, but mixing it up with new elements would also be welcome.

NCT U – “Baggy Jeans”

Sometimes an MV immediately signals to not take things too seriously. “Baggy Jeans,” a hip hop track featuring the NCT U lineup of Doyoung, Jaehyun, Mark, Taeyong, and Ten from “The 7th Sense,” opens with jeans unzipping to reveal Taeyong lying on the floor, under Ten’s legs, whispering “Baggy baggy baggy baggy baggy baggy jeans.” We know right away that the MV will be campy and full of swagger. There is plenty of absurd imagery, like the members dancing on an amp, or Doyoung singing on top of a pickup truck covered in jeans. Indeed, this is an MV with a sequence of disembodied jeans dancing while Mark shouts, “Yeah boy!”

Similarly, the lyrics are undeniably silly, such as Mark’s first verse rap, rhyming “boom boom boom,” “doom doom doom” and “vroom vroom vroom.” The chorus, with the repetition in English of “baggy jeans” and the line “Baby you ain’t know what is in ma pocket,” features lyrics that are both ridiculous and ridiculously catchy. The moments when a member repeats “baggy jeans” in a deep voice are fun and unexpected; however, the phrase not only dominates the chorus, but also the post-chorus and the section following the instrumental dance break, which makes the song feel longer than its 3-minute 38-second runtime.

Even for those who don’t care for the song’s lyrics, the hook’s repetitiveness, or NCT’s experimental flair, the members’ charisma is undeniable. By the time the tempo intensifies in the outro and the camera swoops around the members dancing on a rooftop, it is hard not to be swept up in their dynamism and magnetism.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4]. Lyrics via YouTube [1][2][3]. Images via SM Entertainment, Modhaus, Yuehua Entertainment.)