Credit: YG Entertainment
by Kayla Beardslee Foreign Correspondent Music

AKMU | Next Episode

August 12, 2021

Fresh off re-upping their current record contract, AKMU delivers an EP in Next Episode that marks a career milestone.

Although they’re under the K-pop umbrella, sibling duo AKMU (brother Lee Chanhyuk and sister Lee Suhyun) make music that’s different from the usual idol-pop sound you might associate with the genre. Their work, which is largely self-composed, leans toward poignant singer-songwriter impulses and live instrumentation, which has made them favorites of the Korean general public. Although it’s been almost two years since AKMU released a studio album, the break has proved to be worth it: their new project Next Episode is one of the best, most well-balanced K-pop albums of the year.

Episode is a collaboration album, with each of its seven tracks featuring a prominent Korean artist singing alongside the siblings. In order to complement these features, the production runs through a wide variety of genre signifiers — there’s disco, R&B, funk, and soft-rock all intertwined with traditional pop hooks. Perhaps the most impressive part of the album is how smoothly the tracklist progresses through these different features and genres, making every transition feel like a natural progression despite the stylistic shifts that occur from song to song. It’s an impressive feat for a project of this length: seven tracks is too long for a hyper-focused EP and too short for an exploratory full-length, so you need perfect execution and vision to make your album both cohesive (without getting stuck in a rut) and stylistically daring (without that cohesion falling apart). AKMU pulls it off.

Next Episode opens with the pre-release single “Hey Kid, Close Your Eyes,” a muted, disco-influenced song featuring Lee Sun Hee. Retro concepts have been the most popular trend in K-pop for over a year, and with every new K-pop act that jumps onto the retro bandwagon, it seems like the trend gets closer to tiring itself out. Yet, after months and months of synth-saturated comebacks, K-pop artists are still finding exciting new ways to push the sound. The rise of “sophisticated disco” has been far and away the best recent development in this area, with huge names in the Korean music scene turning in groovy but delicate retro singles that, rather than exploding outward in a burst of neon, seem meant to make quiet moments more special (see: Heize’s “Happen,”  IU’s “Lilac,” Taeyon’s “Weekend”). The smooth, subtle production and featherlight melodies of “Hey Kid” make it a top-tier entry in this field, but what really sets the song apart is its solemn tone. “Hey Kid,” whose Korean title translates to “Battlefield,” is part apology, part coming-of-age lesson for a younger generation forced to inherit a world scarred by war: “Hey kid, close your eyes / Hang in there just a bit, although it’s suffocating / Because here on the battlefield / Once your ears stop ringing / There’s gonna be screaming.” The video features somber black-and-white scenes of children play-acting a battle; the synth motif that ends each chorus could almost be a siren. Don’t worry, the rest of the songs aren’t nearly as grim, but as the first single and first track on the album, “Hey Kid” showed listeners exactly what to expect from the songs that follow — thoughtful, skillful writing and production that only improve with repeat listens.

The next few tracks on Episode showcase different, equally compelling takes on the retro trend. “Nakka,” the big release-day single, features K-pop legend IU and is one part “Blinding Lights,” one part Taeyeon’s “Something New” — a bit sleek and synthy, a bit funky, and just a little bit ominous. “Bench” (with Zion.T) is built around a gloriously cheesy “Black or White”-style guitar riff and has one of the best opening lines of the year (“Sometimes I just wanna lie on a bench / Fall asleep for a day, and wake up / To find everything gone”). Track 4, “Tictoc Tictoc Tictoc” (with rapper Beenzino), can best be described as “chill AKMU beats to study and relax to” and marks the turning point of the album as it transitions from dance-y retro sounds to more relaxed singer-songwriter fare. The last three songs are all midtempo tracks with R&B and rock-leaning instrumentation, and among them, closing track and Sam Kim duet “Everest” is a highlight: Starting out backed by nothing but a quiet acoustic guitar, it gradually builds up into a swelling soft-rock song (check out the live performance, which may be even better than the recording). Smartly written and produced, perfectly balanced between vocal and instrumental focus, ambitiously varied yet cohesive: AKMU’s newest work is a highlight of the year in pop so far. Despite being an album based on collaboration, what comes through most strongly are the voices and vision of Chanhyuk and Suhyun, who pull the project’s disparate influences together into a strong statement of identity. As the duo’s first release since renewing their contracts under YG Entertainment earlier this year, Next Episode feels like a milestone in AKMU’s career — and, hopefully, a sign of more just-as-great music to come.

Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2021 | Part 1.