The members of Aespa, the newest group from legendary K-pop company SM Entertainment, work two jobs: one as regular idols and performers, and another as characters in a sci-fi/fantasy universe of SM’s creation where the narrative advances with every comeback. SM has put a lot of work into creating new terminology to describe Aespa’s world (the Kwangya, which is just Korean for “wilderness”), incorporating intricate plot references into their lyrics and shooting expensive, Marvel-esque lore videos, but not quite as much work into making the music stand on its own. That doesn’t mean the songs are all outright bad (besides the lazy, self-satisfied “Next Level,” although that’s looking more and more like an early misstep). However, it’s hard to take lines like “I want to protect / First encountering Rekall / I will hug you so that you can feel / without Synk Dive” seriously — and for the most part, the electronic intensity of Aespa’s music does demand to be taken seriously — they’re not tricks, Hybe, they’re illusions! — so there’s a disconnect between the crunchy, gritty instrumentation of songs like “Girls” and “Aenergy” and such goofy moments as Karina earnestly rapping “I’m going Kwangya로, game in!” In short, SM has seemed to care a lot more about showing off the SMCU (yes, it’s really called that) than letting the talented members of Aespa shine in songs.
Unless you’re a terminally online stan, Aespa’s releases are best consumed by ignoring everything going on in the Kwangya. Musically, their 2020 debut “Black Mamba” underwhelmed as a polished but uninspired Blackpink imitation, but their third single, “Savage,” is perhaps the most genuine K-pop take on hyperpop to date, and made for a much more interesting mission statement. Last year’s “Girls,” similarly, upped the urgency by mixing metal guitars, synth sirens, and crashing percussion to actually sound like the boss battle it narrated.
Aespa’s newest title track “Spicy,” from their newly-released third mini album, My World, has a brash electronic instrumental in line with their previous work — but, in a new move for the group, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. In the last episode, Aespa defeated the villain Black Mamba and traveled from the Kwangya to the real world, or whatever — what matters is that they’ve dropped the lingo for the time being and showed up on their California set ready to have a hot girl summer. “Spicy” is underlaid by a grinding synth that most K-pop groups wouldn’t dare touch, but though the pre-chorus clangs and shouts, the four girls perform with a lighthearted wink (“Tell me what you see / When you look at me / Cause I am a 10 out of 10 honestly”), and the second half of the chorus explodes into joyous pop melody. For an instrumental this filthy, their music has never had this much levity, and playful pop with an Aespa edge is an easier sell than any of their previous efforts.
Most of the other songs on My World are more conventional pop, not just compared to “Spicy,” but also to previous, unpredictable deep cuts from the group. Some of that may have to do with SM’s founder Lee Soo Man — who was the driving force behind Aespa’s complicated concept — cutting ties with the company in a blaze of childish feuding earlier this year, the fallout of which led to this comeback being downgraded from a planned full album to an EP (and an environmentalist title track that was likely horribly embarrassing being scrapped). “Salty and Sweet,” which is delightfully wacky, is the only B-side that matches the hyperpop edge of their first mini album, from 2021. Otherwise, the songs here skew vocal- and melody-heavy, which is overdue for the group. The trap-pop percussion of “I’m Unhappy” and power ballad instrumental of “Til We Meet Again” are generic, but the performances are well-done; “Thirsty” is a smooth, harmony-laden R&B song that became an immediate fan favorite for actually letting the members groove; and opening track and pre-release single “Welcome to My World” is flat-out grand, with booming percussion and dramatic strings that are tempered by a eerie beauty. (Of all the songs on the album, this one most reflects the group’s new style.) For listeners most interested in hearing the group push the envelope, My World won’t top Aespa’s first EP, Savage, but it does manage to be their most accessible album, without sacrificing quality, while the singles still produce the strong statements expected from a group this popular. Aespa has never needed their gimmicks to thrive, and My World at last delivers conclusive proof of this.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.