It’s a glorious time to be a fan of girl groups. UK trio FLO is paying homage to TLC and Aaliyah, and they’re poised to have a massive year; Japan’s XG and SG5 both have unusually Western pop ambitions; new and interesting Thai-pop groups are appearing every day. But when it comes to the unique joy of watching a group perfect the vibrant potential of pop music, no one is flourishing quite like the fourth-gen K-pop girls. (G)I-DLE, Fromis_9, Itzy, Aespa, STAYC, Pixy, Tri.be, Purple Kiss, Billlie, Kep1er, Viviz, Le Sserafim, NewJeans, CSR, TripleS, Fifty Fifty, and more — there’s a group for every sound and mood, from electronic badassery to nostalgic love ballads to chic synthpop to playful witchery. It’s almost overwhelming how much great pop music is emanating from the talented ladies of K-pop, and being generated by the diverse creative visions behind them.
In the next few weeks, InRO will be covering new releases from three of the biggest K-pop rookie groups currently working. First up is IVE, a six-member girl group who hit it big with their debut in late 2021 and have only reached higher heights since. Their first three singles — “Eleven,” “Love Dive,” and “After Like” — were all pleasant, accessible, and vocal-forward, with production playing a supporting role to melody and the members’ guiding charisma. These massively popular tracks quickly established IVE’s mission statement as something like “Just make some good freaking pop music,” and together with NewJeans, they’ve led the current K-pop wave of “reject loud experimentation, embrace tradition” and reached almost unprecedented success by doing so.
To dig into the whole sonics of it, IVE’s efforts so far have been what you might call okay-to-good: “Eleven” was unassuming, and “After Like” felt a bit rushed and overly derivative after two years of relentless disco K-pop. But then there was “Love Dive,” which features some of the most impeccable sound design and slow-burn brilliance to come out of pop music this decade. And notably, all of IVE’s singles sound like them, even with only half a dozen tracks to their name — they sing about your standard teenage crushes, but with a winking confidence that implies they have positioned those feelings right where they want them.
I’ve IVE is the group’s first full album and, as their first comeback longer than two tracks, almost doubles the size of their discography. (Yes, the title is an unfortunate crime against grammar.) Although it’s IVE’s first foray into crafting an extended set of B-sides, the biggest story here is still the two singles. At first glance, the whispered, bitchy anti-drop of prerelease single “Kitsch” feels at odds with the group’s sound. But a closer listen uncovers percussion bubbles boasting the same precision as the verses of “Love Dive,” and the lyrics about looking envy-worthy on Instagram fit right into their established rich-girl aesthetic — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a bug or feature that “nineteen’s kitsch” is a hilariously obvious rewrite of a demo about being a nineties bitch.
But where “Kitsch” is a breezy introduction to the era, “I Am” is a triumph. The group’s previous singles were distinctly fun, but this latest one is grand. The melodies challenge the vocalists in new ways, making each determined, sky-high launch into the chorus feel earned (“Life is a beautiful galaxy”), and the production sparkles with powerful synths and even a glittering electric guitar in the final chorus. On a technical level, “I Am” is not the group’s most interesting track (the pre-chorus and chorus are just the same melody repeated), but it’s maybe more impressive how the girls make it so that it doesn’t matter, generating a stronger emotional pull here than on any of their previous releases. Importantly, both singles make obvious what was previously mere subtext: IVE’s music is about watching their own star being born.
I’ve IVE stands at 11 tracks total, and the B-sides range from interesting to serviceable. A few stand out as new territory for the group: namely, the anthemic chants and minor-key strings of “Blue Blood” (title reinforcing their branding), the genuinely cute Disney Channel pop of “Not Your Girl,” and the clanging piano chords of “Hypnosis,” which could have soundtracked a rap song as easily as it does IVE’s light vocals. (After playing it straight for a year and a half, they have the right to be a bit obnoxious for two minutes.) Elsewhere, “Lips” takes another prominent piano line in an entirely different direction, with the same breezy mood as “Kitsch,” but with a less nuanced arrangement. (It’s still enjoyable, but you can tell that the singles on this album were made to hold up to much more concerted scrutiny than the rest.) And then there’s “Shine With Me,” which is a standard album-closing power ballad, not much worth any further commentary beyond that qualification.
The rest of the tracks — “Heroine,” “Mine,” “Next Page,” and “Cherish” — all occupy a very similar sonic space: first, start with some tasteful percussion, throw in a gentle synth, and then choose a simple titular hook to pull things together. “Mine,” for its part, at least does a particularly good job at the classic “mid-tempo pulsing synth” sound, but “Heroine” has nothing to say that the other songs don’t already, and could have easily been cut. They’re all perfectly pleasant enough, though very much B-sides, with no capacity to take on a starring role. And although everything sounds like IVE’s style of “make good pop music with a young, chic twist,” the divide between the big event songs and the ones always intended to be tracklist filler is too apparent not to be observed.
For all its ups and downs, IVE’s latest comeback is the group’s first attempt at an album statement of any significant length, which is a considerable milestone for any rookie group. The results roughly meet the expectations set by their previous work, with a clear focus dedicated to perfecting the handful of songs that will actually linger in the public’s memory, while the rest are handled with similar polish but less underlying ambition. There’s nothing particularly novel about the music of it all, but the project does boast great singles and solid enough deep cuts to keep dedicated fans hanging around: in other words, the classic pop album dynamic for a group who have dedicated themselves to the craft of classic pop music.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.