Credit: Abyss Company
by Kayla Beardslee Foreign Correspondent Music

Sunmi | 1/6

September 30, 2021

1/6 is both a confident and vulnerable comeback for Sunmi, a synthpop work of polished songcraft and raw lyricism.

Since 2017, K-pop artist Sunmi’s velvety synthpop singles have helped establish her as one of the most musically striking soloists in the industry. Her songs have cycled through concepts as varied as romantic city pop (“Pporappippam”) to social media being the uncanny valley (“Noir”) to sneering EDM drop (“Gashina”) to wistful EDM drop (“Heroine”) to catlike seducer (“Tail”) to her newest title track “You Can’t Sit With Us,” which is built on a foundation of 2000s Mean Girls nostalgia. Despite her consistent presence as a pillar of the K-pop scene — before her solo work, Sunmi was also a member of the popular group Wonder Girls — her discography is surprisingly small, as the majority of her comebacks have been standalone singles and her last mini album release was back in 2018. August’s 1/6 EP, then, is a significant addition to her discography, but not just because it has six new tracks: 1/6’s music is also exciting, thoughtful, and a highlight of the year among K-pop comebacks.

Almost all the songs on 1/6 are inspired by the ‘70s and ’80s retro sounds that have dominated K-pop most recently. (Interestingly, Sunmi’s single “Pporappippam” and her JYP collaboration “When We Disco” in summer 2020 were both at the forefront of this trend.) Release-day single “You Can’t Sit With Us” has no pretense about its existence in a post-“Blinding Lights” world — with a terrible rap break but enjoyable everything else, Sunmi sings about the frustration of a crush over bursts of synthwave production. B-sides “Sunny,” “1/6,” and “Call” all have gently polished nu-disco and funk-inspired grooves; the latter even has the lightest shades of piano house, while the former has, for some reason, an “O captain, my captain!” reference. 

Despite buying wholesale into the retro trend, however, these songs distinguish themselves with sophisticated production and vocals and surprising touches of darkness and anxiety. Closing track “Borderline,” which was first performed in 2019 and released with a music video in 2020, is a significant departure from the rest of the mini album. Over hazy, grungy guitars, Sunmi sings in English about her mental health and the struggles of being in the spotlight (she opened up about her diagnosis with Borderline Personality Disorder last year). This song’s theme of trying to be “a good girl” also appears in “Call,” where she sings, “Used to call you my boy / And now you call me mad girl.” Shades of anxiety are present in “1/6” as well — its chipper beat slows down suddenly when Sunmi confesses, “Don’t wanna feel gravity / Don’t wanna feel anything,” and its lyric “Take my pressure to the moon” gains added meaning in conjunction with the EP’s tagline, “On the moon, where gravity is one-sixth, will the weight of anxiety also be one-sixth?” “You Can’t Sit With Us” is about her confusion over mixed feelings of love and hatred; even the lighthearted “Sunny” circles back to the question of personal identity (“Oh, you can call me Sunny, Sunny… / I’ll be your Sunmi, Sunmi”). Although the songs on this mini album are fun enough to be enjoyed mindlessly, their composition is thoughtful and unafraid to ask serious questions of the listener. It’s no coincidence that Sunmi is the sole credited lyricist for every one of these tracks.

The crown jewel of 1/6 is “Narcissism,” a stunning synthpop song with one of the best choruses of the year. In it, Sunmi dives even deeper into themes of fame, identity, and mental health (“You look at me, I am reflected in your eyes / Is that beautiful?”), writing in a way that seems to blur the distinction between artist and audience (“I shrunk myself into the mold you built”). The song begins with a twinkly beat and breathy vocals, but, after a long buildup, eventually explodes into a chorus so desperate, blinding, and almost overwhelming that it should make you feel grateful for the craft of pop music itself. “Narcissism” is a lavish song, rich in synth textures and melodies, but in the extremity of its emotions it also feels stark and vulnerable. It’s the perfect representation of Sunmi’s 1/6 as a whole: self-assured in its presentation as a polished piece of pop, but unafraid to question the norms that underpin that presentation— and creating nothing but great music along the way.

Published as part of Album Roundup — August 2021.