Breaking out of my self-imposed hiatus (life has just gotten too busy for me to regularly keep up with the blog, but more on that at a later point) to write about f(x)’s most recent album and consequential domination of the Korean pop scene.
Just about a year after the excellent Pink Tape, f(x) returns with a darker and more coherent follow-up, Red Light. I have no idea how S.M. does it but their recent production efforts have been nothing short of stellar. Red Light follows the release of EXO’s Overdose album as a true double-threat from the agency this year, but to compare them on the same level is grossly unfair. Not to slight Overdose in any way, it’s quite good, but Red Light is just absurd. It’s absurd that something could follow Pink Tape and be even better, just like it’s absurd that you could flip styles like this album does without ever losing f(x)’s signature that made Pink Tape so special.
Simply put: Red Light is, like the album that preceded it, the best release K-pop has seen all year. I dare say it will continue to be so by the end of this year.
Red Light is trap-heavy in a way I can’t say I was fully expecting. Unlike most productions trying to grasp what is the “hottest” sound right now, Red Light uses it in far smarter doses. Sparingly as a foundation for most of the songs and blended with intense rhythm and sampling when taken a bit further. Contrary to the genre’s typically muddy pace, there is never a dull trap-related moment in Red Light and that alone is worth noting.
But Red Light’s real strength lies in just how perfectly woven together it is. Pink Tape was an incredible collection of new singles that fired off on all cylinders but, ultimately, felt exactly like that: a collection of singles. Frankly, Red Light is not -entirely- different from this but the singles themselves have a much better consistency in style and attitude. The more sinister and mysterious sounds of “Red Light” and “MILK” are a stark contrast to the bright and bubbly “Vacance” and “Summer Love”. Yet all of them are edited and performed in a way that they feel completely complimentary to each other, like they really are a part of the same album. Even in the clubbier “Rainbow” and “Boom Bang Boom”, the use of f(x)’s vocal strengths is completely in sync with the rest of the album.
YouTube link to “Red Light”, the first track on Red Light
My personal highlights are “Butterfly” and “Dracula”. With a chillingly powerful chorus, “Butterfly” instantly stood out to me on my first listen. “Oh shit,” I told myself, “Red Light seriously isn’t fucking around.” To quote a friend of mine, “’Butterfly’ takes me places.”
A three-minute electro assault, “Dracula” is the album’s final energetic blow. The loud and aggressive verses, the melancholic and dazing bridges, the catchy and electric chorus—it’s a perfect lead-in to the album’s final songs. “Summer Lover” and “Paper Heart” end Red Light with an upbeat and very f(x)-like finish, but “Dracula” is the song that’ll stick with you. It’s the track that will make you hit the play button again when it’s over, desperately waiting for that climax once more.
I feel like a tart for elaborating so much on the production, though, when f(x)’s members are what makes Red Light the special bit of music it is. Their individual strengths shine unlike anything I’ve heard in K-pop before. This is so much more than just a group’s latest musical release. Red Light is a showcase, an 11-track tour-de-force that highlights five of the most skilled and talented vocalists in the industry. Their harmonies are hypnotic at times.
I also don’t know if I’ve ever heard Amber peak this high. Not to take away from the rest of the group, but her individual parts show so much more variety. The most apparent to me is how effectively they’ve used her unique voice in sampling, utilising her across the album way more this time around in a manner that bridges the rest of the group perfectly. The entire group, really, is just at their absolute best.
Fuckin’… everything in this album is at its absolute best. The more I listen to it, the deeper I fall in love with it. I will absolutely accept the opinion that some might prefer Pink Tape’s upbeat and brighter tone better, but I heartily believe Red Light to be the superior album. Earlier in the year, I said that Sunmi’s Full Moon EP set the bar for the rest of the industry this year. f(x) just demolished those expectations so much that I can’t even think of an analogy. It’s just really fucking good music and, more than any other form of criticism I can raise, that is what matters most.
YouTube link to “Dracula”, the 9th track on Red Light.
You can purchase Red Light on iTunes.