Checkmate is a flawed record, but in true Itzy fashion, refuses to take itself too seriously and knows that the group’s sense of fun is its greatest strength.
Five member K-pop girl group Itzy have made a career out of being weird. Sometimes through shallow, not-like-other-girls branding, and sometimes through music packed with quirky production choices and bold, shouted hooks. Their debut track “Dalla Dalla” (2019) opened with an elevator ding and a hollow, bending synth line: “I love myself!” the ladies of Itzy cheered as glitter bombs exploded in the distance. A year later, they renewed their self-love licenses on “Wannabe,” where they declared that “I don’t wanna be somebody, just wanna be me” over a crunchy mix of guitar strums and room-filling synths. Other tracks like “Not Shy,” “Swipe,” and “Icy” respectively featured obnoxious horns, a sneering hip-hop beat, and a chaotic cascade of first sugary, then gritty instrumental layers. They reveled in being too much, almost all the time: you either got it, or you got left behind to catch up later.
Checkmate, led by single “Sneakers,” is Itzy’s seventh release and treads mostly expected ground. After mixed results from their more exploratory title tracks in 2021, the basic teen-pop of “Sneakers” picks back up as if nothing post-“Wannabe” ever happened, complete with lyrics about how “you can call me weirdo” but they’ll still dance proudly to their own drum. It gets the job done hook-wise, but is without a doubt their safest single to date. The b-sides, however, inject more energy into the mini album, some through dynamic anti-drops and some through buildups to rippling synth choruses (like the LDN Noise-produced “What I Want”). True to form, several of the tracks are sprinkled with playful sound effects — cars skidding and revving on “Racer,” a literal “wheeeee” drop on “Free Fall,” and the pots-and-pans extravaganza of “365” (an album highlight for its sheer musical audacity).
Itzy’s brand as a group is focused on dance and performance rather than vocal acrobatics, so their songs often lean toward talk-singing, chants, and rapping alongside traditional pop vocal moments. As a result, many of the tracks on Checkmate have difficult-to-pull-off hooks that rely on charisma to sell what might otherwise be a silly, flippant, or underwhelming line. For the most part, Itzy prove themselves up to the challenge, subordinating unremarkable lyrical content to their confident presence (although not even Chaeryeong’s tone can save the “You can call me weirdo” lyric in “Sneakers”). “3-6-5, not thinkin’ ‘bout you,” they sneer on “365” as the music goes full industrial hyperpop; Ryujin draws out the titular hook of “Racer” with a smirking vocal fry; “What I Want” opens with Yeji, Yuna, and Lia drawling about how they’re “gonna get, get what I want” over twitchy, bass-y synths.
The end of the album takes a more sincere turn with pop-rock power ballad “Domino.” The mixing washes out the guitars and makes the stylistic signifiers fairly shallow, but it’s still a nice track — Itzy songs usually don’t have quite as deep an emotional core, and the earnest melody is reminiscent of their soft, harmony-stacked ballad “Mirror” from last year. Checkmate isn’t a perfect album, but it keeps the energy pleasantly high from start to finish, creates a listening experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and, above all and in keeping with the group’s designs, is just plain fun.
Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2022 | Part 3.