“Who do you think you’re looking at?… You’d better shut your mouth and stand back,” began GOT the Beat’s debut single, “Step Back,” released last January. The all-star supergroup consists of seven of the most talented vocalists and dancers to have passed through the halls of SM Entertainment in the last two decades — soloist BoA, Taeyeon and Hyoyeon of Girls’ Generation, Wendy and Seulgi of Red a. Velvet, and Winter and Karina of aespa. Delivering on the musical promise of this K-pop fantasy league-worthy lineup was always going to be a tall order, but kitchen-sink singles by other SM acts do come to mind (ex. Red Velvet’s “RBB,” SHINee’s “U Need Me,” NCT’s “Superhuman,” aespa’s “Girls”), songs that are packed with so many different instrumental, melodic, and vocal ideas that they’re practically playgrounds for their performers and thrilling roller coasters for the audience.
Surely, a complex track like EXO’s “Tempo” would be the best way to mediate within a supergroup whose performers each have distinct and iconic styles to take into account. Instead, “Step Back” was a shrill, metallic track that sounded like a group of girls fighting in a warehouse while a few Gregorian monks try to hold them back while knocking away collapsing merchandise. It was polarizing, to say the least, but also enough of a hit in South Korea that GOT the Beat have finally followed it up with a proper mini-album this year. Stamp on It isn’t a good album, at least not consistently, but it is interesting to consider where it fits within the current K-pop landscape.
Title track “Stamp on It” follows the same formula as “Step Back,” but adds in a few more interesting musical ideas for better results. Both songs are built around a left-field vocal sample; both call on their performers to be aggressive; both, with their gritty yet knife-sharp instrumental layers, show off how co-producer Dem Jointz does texture better than anyone else in K-pop. Even their bridges have similar parts: the classic SM slowdown, the rap, the dance break. But the vocals — rather than losing all their personality to too-high belts and compression — have a little more space to breathe in “Stamp on It,” and the still-strong singing feels like it’s actually adding a new element because the production isn’t as abrasive. Writers Dem Jointz, Yoo Young Jin, and Tayla Park throw in a few fun quirks: Why not add some random modulations? Why not drop four bars of meditative music in the middle of the bridge? Why not make the bridge six distinct sections? (SM slowdown, meditation, dance break, rap, return of the title refrain, and pre-chorus.) In other words, it offers the same foundation as “Step Back,” but is more playful and complex in execution. This time, when the dance break and rap hit, the grinding instrumental backing genuinely feels new, and the energy level skyrockets. And the song still has places left to go after that.
Just as there’s a fine line between excellent and tragic in GOT the Beat’s title tracks depending on execution, the mini-album also bounces between fantastic and awful B-sides. The chilling metallic percussion, rubbery synths, and cold staccato vocals of “Rose” are a more vivid version of the “Step Back” soundscape (it’s another home run from the SAAY, DEEZ, and Yunsu writing team.) But immediately before it is “Goddess Level,” which is practically falling apart around its limp, farty brass part. “Alter Ego” is the most conventional, melody-driven pop song on the project, and it’s a fun breather amidst all the surrounding intensity, but immediately after it comes “Outlaw,” which smashes a couple loud, crude noises together and calls it a chorus, to even worse effect than “Step Back.” Surprisingly chill final track “Mala” lands somewhere in the middle: it’s a decent, vibey take on the hyperpop percussion stabs that punctuate the album (chased here with flute and light vocals), but it does sound like the second-best B-side on an Itzy album.
There are admittedly some moments of greatness on Stamp on It, but it lacks a consistent point of view. The entire selling point of the group is its members, yet their music is more about the production than the singers. But if GOT the Beat is meant to be most interesting for the new aggressive, edgy pop sound they bring to the table, this album does a poor job defining or justifying it. K-pop is flooded with girl groups doing a huge variety of interesting concepts right now: the girl crush market (i.e. Blackpink-style cooler-than-you electronic songs) has been one of its most saturated corners for years, and, in a post-NewJeans world, there’s also currently a huge musical shift away from excess and toward simplicity. If the music is inconsistent in polish and style, and it’s off-trend, and only a handful of tracks actually make any kind of strong statement… what is its purpose? There are very few moments on this mini that will make the listener stop and think, “Wow, I can’t believe these women are all singing together!” compared to moments of “Hmm, why does it sound like that?” (Just look at how many times this review felt compelled to mention individual vocal or performance moments. Or don’t; it was zero.) For a project in heavy dialogue with SM Entertainment’s legacy, Stamp on It doesn’t seem to care much about the musical background of its performers, but it also doesn’t present a clear vision of the future. It’s a fascinating album, but largely for unintended reasons; wipe the dust off it in two years and look to see how much has actually changed in its wake.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.