For the past couple of years, Itzy have found themselves in an ambiguous position in the K-pop scene. While they’ve made attempts to grow from their ‘teen crush’ image, their transition to mature concepts has been a bit rough. Currently, the group’s comebacks seem to be continually changing from their recognizable upbeat style and a darker, more powerful sound. Choosing one of the two isn’t exactly a necessity especially when the members can pull off both quite well, but the recurring switch-ups appear to have put the development of their musical color at a standstill. Their past few singles (“Sneakers,” “Cheshire,” and “Cake”) have received mixed reviews, and Itzy’s latest album Born to Be feels just as divisive.

Carrying familiar themes of self-love and confidence, Born to Be is somewhat reminiscent of Itzy’s older tunes but also shows several sides of the group that we’ve haven’t seen before.

As the lead single, “Untouchable” is the album’s most compelling number by a long shot and perhaps the best representation of Born to Be as a whole. Although the song contains sparks of the group’s signature sound, the incorporation of various new styles produces an atmosphere that’s notably more mature than early Itzy while also not covering up the group’s unique spirit like “Mafia in the Morning” did.

In “Untouchable,” hefty, pulsing electronic beats grab listeners’ attention right from the start and when paired with the electric guitar performance, brings about a potent dance-pop and punk rock-influenced sound. On top of that, the guitar gives a needed boost to the chorus which would have otherwise been a dull anti-drop, taking the tune to new heights. Regardless of the doubt and uncertainty lingering around the group, “Untouchable” is a bold statement that naturally progresses Itzy’s musical identity and transitions the members into a mature sound much more effectively than previous attempts.

In contrast, the same can’t be said for the group tracks on the album. The opening and closing numbers “Born to Be” and “Escalator” are both forceful tunes that feel tailor-made for loud performance stages. Though this isn’t an issue given that performances are among Itzy’s biggest strengths, the songs still sound less intense than intended.

“Born to Be” has the girls showing plenty of attitude and singing how they’re “born to be wild and free” throughout the track, but it’s not enough to make up for the lack of edge and power.

These same sentiments also apply to “Escalator” which may be even more colorless and monotonous than “Born to Be.” If the members are going all out on bombastic pieces, why not fully commit to the part? As a result, the tunes are surprisingly bland.

Interestingly, this underwhelming impression continues with “Mr. Vampire” but in a completely different way. While “Born to Be” and “Escalator” are fierce, “Mr. Vampire” is muted and toned down. The whistles and soft piano create a curious, dreamlike ambience that eventually gets thrown out the window when the chorus drops. Despite being minimal overall, the chorus has a hodgepodge of irksome sounds that are more discordant than harmonious. The vocal melodies are also quite ineffective and besides the sparkling piano in the instrumental, there isn’t much here to intrigue listeners.

On the other hand, “Dynamite” with its engaging Miami bass beat is a lot more memorable. Its distinctive pluck and bass sounds, as well as the dynamic topline enhance the bouncy arrangement, giving off a playful air in spite of the heavy sounds. “Dynamite” is a fun and energizing addition to the album especially when the other group B-sides are less inspiring.

The solo tracks make up the rest of the album and not only do they significantly strengthen the record, but they also give many opportunities for the members to take on genres outside of their comfort zones.

In “Crown On My Head,” Yeji takes on the role of a queen and shows determination to open up a path of her own despite the burdensome weight of the crown:

They only want the graceful smile of a rose

Even invisible thorns are piercing me

I don’t care how much I get hurt

“What doesn’t kill me makеs me stronger”

With intense electric guitars and powerful percussion throughout, this rock number fits Yeji and her overflowing charisma to a T. The vocal arrangement is fierce, and Yeji’s assertive voice carries the melody as the energy soars continuously.

Ryujin’s solo has a similar rock-inspired sound but in a more modern and poppy way compared to “Crown On My Head.” As Itzy’s most prominent rapper, Ryujin doesn’t get as many moments to showcase her singing. “Run Away” provides just that, acting as a playground for her to explore a different style with her cool vocals. Her voice combined with the blues rock-influenced electric guitars form an almost defiant mood. Lyrically, though, Ryujin sings of a ruined love as she readily becomes the villain in this particular romance story:

If you’re afraid, I will be the villain

If you really can’t say it

You can blame it on me

Run away, run away, run away from me

We ain’t shinin’ anymore

You can be the pitiful main character, I’ll takе that ugly part

Like Yeji and her solo, “Run Away” is a well-suited track for Ryujin.

Switching gears to some alternative R&B, “Blossom” is Lia’s solo song and comes across as a comforting piece with lyrics that compare the singer to a flower that has yet to fully blossom:

Don’t force rays of sun on me

Don’t you dare pour water on me

Hunched up, curled up

Even if I endure everything without blooming

It’s not late, not late to give me lovе

I’d love to be a flower too

With Lia’s noticeable absence during this comeback, these words seem to have even more impact. This along with the dreamy synths bring about a wistful ambience that’s befitting of the soft, breathy vocals. While the other B-sides are more hard-hitting, “Blossom” remains as a thoughtful inclusion and unexpected highlight for the album.

The last two solos “Mine” and “Yet, but” are Chaeryeong’s and Yuna’s respectively. Both have a pleasant synth-pop sound but whereas “Mine” is dark and alluring, “Yet, but” is bright and bubbly.

“Mine” also has a bit of a nu-disco flair with groovy guitars and a bouncy shuffle rhythm. Additionally, the hypnotizing melody conveyed with Chaeryeong’s sweet voice adds a nice whimsical element to the overall sultry song. In the same way as the previous solos, “Mine” matches Chaeryeong remarkably well. And it’ll be intriguing to see whether she’ll pursue a similar sound if she ever makes a formal solo debut in the future.

Moving from chic black and white to dazzling princess pink, “Yet, but” is unapologetically cheerful. Vibrant synths and spirited guitar riffs inspire a lot of the playfulness in the melody. Add in Yuna’s youthful vocals, and you end up with a fun and buoyant pop tune.

Though the peppy number can feel somewhat vain with the lyrics “not yet, but” sounding close to “나 예뻐” (I’m pretty), it’s hardly a drawback in this case. Because when you have a performer with as much charm and personality as Yuna, it makes this cheeky and exuberant tune difficult to resist even if bubblegum pop isn’t typically your interest.

All in all, Born to Be is a double-edged sword. While some tracks are disappointingly safe, others allow the members to step on unfamiliar ground and explore new genres. The thought of expanding and refining the ideas in this record for Itzy’s next release is quite appealing. But given their past records, whether the group continue on this path or drastically change their sound once again, the development of their musical identity still seems up in the air.

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4][5]. Images via JYP Entertainment.)