K-Poppin’ Off: Episode 6 – Chung Ha!

We’re going on a musical journey. In this series, I’ll be exploring the world of K-pop, reviewing artists, bands, and albums as we go! Along the way, I’ll offer my unfiltered opinions – so if I criticize your favorite song, I apologize in advance. Let’s start “K-Poppin’ Off!”

 

For someone who’s only 33 days older than me, it sure seems like CHUNG HA has been a lot busier.

By the age of 25, the Seoul-born singer, dancer, and choreographer had already graduated college, auditioned at three different K-pop entertainment companies, been a part of the girl group I.O.I., and released 15 singles as a solo artist. An incredible work ethic!

This weekend, I decided to find out if her music matched her productivity. Since the breakup of I.O.I. in 2017, she’s had a few years to develop her own sound, and from what I heard, everything she’s learned was on full display in her debut album, Querencia.

For Chungha, (whose name is also stylized in all caps, or as Chung-Ha sometimes) music is clearly a global experience. The record is titled in Spanish, and she sings a little bit in Spanish too, alongside the Korean and English that one expects from a K-pop release. She teamed up with the Moroccan producer R3hab, got the Puerto Rican rapper Guaynaa to feature on a song, and even recently signed a new deal that would expand her US-based promotional opportunities.

So obviously I was in for a world-class album… now I’d find out if I liked it.

The 21 songs were divided into 4 sections, titled “Noble,” “Savage,” “Unknown,” and “Pleasures.” Launching into the first part, “SIDE A {NOBLE}” welcomed me with a steady drumbeat and a rising sense of tension.

That introduction was just over a minute long, and immediately led to the fuzzy guitars and energy of “Bicyle.” Track two had an obvious Latin influence, in both percussion and note selection. Big and dramatic, it flirted with bubblegum-pop sexuality, featuring lines like “You like it when I ride it,” even though that’s not quite what she meant. The bicycle sound effects weren’t corny, and altogether, they helped make this a song unlike anything I’d heard before in K-pop.

“Masquerade” was the third offering in Querencia. Horns and Cuban-sounding keys led the way, creating a summery and humid song. Her singing style was reserved, even though her range was wide – almost like she was holding herself back. Jazz chords and a little falsetto spiced up the bridge, and kept things interesting throughout.

That took me to “Flying on Faith.” The clean guitar arpeggios underneath a pretty melody reminded me of “Message in a Bottle” by The Police. But unlike Sting, Chungha provided a traditional pop song structure and sound. It appeared to be a love story about a one-sided relationship and its issues, which was intriguing. My only complaint was the lack of low-end in the mix… a lot of these songs could’ve “thumped” a little more.

Next up, “Luce Sicut Stellae,” which more or less translates to “love like a star.” Returning to the jazzy musical influences and flipping between languages with ease, she showed off some serious head voice at last. Of course the song titled in Latin would be one of the most musically smart pieces: it was complex, just barely catchy enough, and subtle, even in its most exciting moments.

That concluded the first section of Querencia, and “SIDE B {SAVAGE}” kicked off part two with an instrumental lasting 0:59. It sounded like something from a soda commercial, with distorted marching band elements and what kind of sounded like fireworks in the background.

“Stay Tonight” was the first full song in the second quarter of the record, and combined pop pianos with a well-built vocal melody. Dropping everything out in the chorus (except Chungha’s voice and a bass guitar), she exuded confidence. Cool suitcase keys added some smoothness, offset by choppy percussion and the many filters applied to her voice throughout. This was my favorite so far, but it didn’t quite sound like a single.

That’s probably because the single came next. “Dream of You” was promoted to US pop radio last year, and had a modest showing, thanks to its formulaic structure and funky chorus. R3hab did a good job exploring the full frequency spectrum, finally adding that thick bass sound that every other song was in desperate need of. Once again, Chungha gave us temptation and sensuality in her lyrics, with lots of vocal effects and textures added below her.

“Bother Me” was the fourth song in this section, playing with a few R&B techniques without losing the tempo that defined Side B. She delivered a nice contrast in the hook, singing a call-and-response of long extended runs and rapid replies. That made me notice that so far in Querencia, there was no rapping – a little unusual, compared to the other K-pop records I’ve had the chance to review. I guess K-pop without a rap break is possible, after all!

Wrapping up the first half of the album, I heard “Chill.” She had a lot of singing to do, as the song barely ever rested her voice. Catching her breath in between beats, this one felt relatively happy throughout.

“SIDE C {UNKNOWN}” was the third intermission, which incorporated break-beats and pianos that sounded like car horns. That took me into a breezy Caribbean tune called “PLAY.” The Latin pop influence was heavy in this one, and the chorus was undeniably exciting. Her second feature on the album, South Korean rapper Changmo, came in on the second verse. His rap that fell flat – to me, it just got lost in the noise and only served to connect two choruses. Chungha’s vocals stole the show instead, hitting those high notes and never losing control.

Driven by reggae-styled offbeat keyboard stabs and decorated with subtle guitars, “Demente” was the perfect continuation of those equator-themed vibes. Guaynaa impressed on his guest verse, delivering a rap break that channeled the same stuff that makes Bad Bunny and J Balvin so popular in the ‘States. This song belonged on a beach, with a light beer cracked open, dedicated to a lover that one met last night.

“Lemon” saw the return of jazzy and cool tones. Her voice was gorgeous and breathy, sitting comfortably over the dominant-seven chords. Meanwhile, Colde showed up for a feature, although I wouldn’t have called it a rap break, thanks to the slow pacing. He and Chungha complimented each other nicely in the final chorus, but the at times, the song swerved into on-hold-on-a-phone-call territory.

The complete the third quarter of Querencia, “BYULHARANG (160504 + 170607)” caught my attention thanks to its ridiculously complicated name and ballad structure. For the first minute, we only heard Chungha and an acoustic guitar, but the chorus opened things up and added a few well-placed percussion hits to keep it moving. From what I understood, this was a love song for her fans, called Byulharangs (it loosely translates to “the stars with the moon,” with the stars representing her fans, and Chungha herself being the moon).

“SIDE D {PLEASURES}” arrived afterwards, marking the final 15 minutes or so in this hour-long album. This instrumental was urban and textured, sauntering along for 73 seconds before petering out.

That meant it was time for “X.” One of the longer songs, at just over 4 minutes, this one got comfortable and slowed the tempo. I’m not a huge fan of power ballads, and that’s definitely what this was. I felt like it could have been featured near the end of a sappy Korean rom-com, and I’m sure some people enjoy this style of music a lot. Unfortunately for me, it took until about 75% through the song before I finally became interested in what was happening – and by then, it was pretty much too late.

“All Night Long” was long and smoldering in a different way, serving nighttime-neon soundscapes and delicate note choices. The vibrato in her voice finally had enough space to show through, and this song surprised me by not going down the super-80s-retro direction that so much of pop music defaults to lately. This song could have easily been a more casual “Blinding Lights” or “Star” by Loona… but instead it was its own thing.

Detuned synth pads and soft pianos complimented Chungha’s soft vocal delivery on “Everybody Has.” Once again, I had found myself in slow-dance ballad territory, and although that’s not my favorite place to be, I still found some entertainment in her strong and controlled voice. I’ll bet this song absolutely slaps at South Korean karaoke nights.

“Come N Goes” combined the double-clapping percussion of indie rock with the distant guitars of a U2 cover band, but wasn’t off-putting. The chorus fired into a key change that took me by surprise, but didn’t necessarily surprise me in a record that took so many chances. This was a pleasant song that occasional ventured into a Colbie Caillat/Ingrid Michaelson musical attitude, but never truly committed to one sound.

Last at track 21 (holy sh*t), I concluded my listening session with “Querencia (Epilogue).” Using samples and a thumping bassline, topped with squiggly synthesizers, I really thought this song was going somewhere. Instead, it concluded at about 30 seconds in, and gave way to a few artsy snippets of music, before it… just… stopped.

And that was a wrap on Querencia. My biggest takeaway is just how smart this album was. Combining several different styles and fusing them together, sometimes it hit the mark and did something never heard before, but sometimes it felt a little confused. Several of my fellow critics had a lot of praise for the musical variety, and I have to second them on that. It seems like there’s hardly a genre that Chungha couldn’t fit her voice into seamlessly, but I would have loved to be in the room with her producers, so I could tell them please, for the love of all things, turn the bass up a little.

It’s hard to come up with a few paragraphs to describe such a diverse and ambitious work of music. I liked this album, but in some ways, it honestly seemed more like a museum piece. Even though the record spawned four singles, I’m pretty sure it was meant to be consumed in one 60-minute long sitting. And I’m glad I did.

So in the end, is Querencia the future of music? In regards to its length, I hope not, because ain’t nobody got time for that. But I really appreciated a lot of what she was trying to say, and there’s no doubt that Chungha is an artist, in all senses of the word. I felt more intelligent after listening, and not many pop albums can achieve that anymore.

My final scores for CHUNG HA look like this:

Persona: 8/10

Vocals: 9/10

Production quality: 6/10

Musical variety: 11/10

Replay value: 6/10

The final grade for CHUNG HA: 8.0/10. Getting to know her music was an experience. Querencia is one-part exhausting, one-part exhilarating, and all parts experimental – I doubt I’ll ever hear another K-pop artist with as much musical flavor as her!