K-Poppin’ Off: Episode 10 – IU!

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!”

 

Rather than introduce this album on my own, I’ll let IU herself do the honors: “In the language of flowers,” she says, “’lilac’ means ‘memories of youth.’ I wanted to include a farewell with the message ‘I’m now going onward to my next chapter’ while also greeting my upcoming 30s at the same time,” she told W Korea.

Born Lee Ji-eun in 1993, IU is one of K-pop’s most popular idols. Several of the artists I’ve reviewed before mention her as a major influence, and her fifth studio album Lilac debuted in March, immediately racing to the top of the Gaon Album Chart.

While she might not be a household name overseas, she’s certainly got her supporters all around the world! One of my Twitter followers sees her as the “Taylor Swift of South Korea,” and another added that she’s an accomplished actress too (she starred in a popular K-drama called Hotel Del Luna).

This weekend, I spent some time with Lilac, exploring the album where this successful songstress bids her 20s a fond farewell.

That might suggest that the record would be slow-paced and emotional, but that’s the exact opposite of what the title track offered. “LILAC” started things off with a glittery, up-tempo, and breathy groove. IU’s voice was experienced but youthful, with a wide range right from the very start. Often, the first song in a K-pop album serves to introduce the theme without doing too much, but truthfully, this song wouldn’t sound out of place on an R&B hits playlist. I wonder what Seoul’s smooth-music scene is like…

Putting my R&B daydreams aside, I heard “Flu” next. Once again, it was bright and cheery, with subtle pop production and the potential to be massive in its percussion choices. Instead of fleshing out a stadium-anthem sound, she instead kept things pretty chill – is there a “Relaxing K-pop beats to relax/study to” playlist on YouTube? If so, this belonged there. I looked up the lyrics, which thankfully weren’t a Coronavirus reference, and was surprised by the metaphor she spun, equating lovesickness to an actual flu.

“Coin” began with fun, video game-inspired sound effects, before a Mark Ronson-esque beat with funky bass and clapping drums came in. The structure of her songwriting gave me everything I hoped for, without ever becoming complacent. I especially liked how she worked a tiny bit of Spanish into the mix of Korean and English, but not in a kitschy “look at me, I know three words of Spanish” type of way. Three songs in, IU was checking off all the boxes and delivering a quality product in just about every way.

That brought me to “Hi spring Bye.” Interrupting the steady beats, she traded in her infectious grooves for a glassy ballad, channeling an updated ‘80s sensibility. There was no doubt about it: this was slow-dancing music. Swelling violins and sparkling transitions moved her voice forward, but never overshadowed her. I’m not a huge fan of ballads, personally, but regardless of my taste, this was beautiful. I’ll probably never listen to it again, but I was enjoying my stay while it happened. And it was a long stay, at over 5 minutes long – the longest song on the album.

After her gorgeous vocals and silky accompaniment faded away, “Celebrity” followed. Thudding kick drums and marching band-styled snares carried it forward, but it lacked the punch of her first few offerings. That is, until the chorus came in, with a mix of Chainsmokers-like shuttered synths, a Latin beat reminiscent of J. Balvin, and vocal effects that called Kygo to mind. In other words, it was an attempt at creating the ultimate pop song. It was fascinating (but not an inaccessible art piece), and I knew I’d have to come back and listen a few times to truly take it all in.

The only song with a feature on Lilac, “Troll (Feat. DEAN)” arrived with ragtime influence and every-other-beat emphasis that almost gave it a reggae feeling. That didn’t last terribly long though, and as the second verse played, K-R&B vocalist DEAN delivered a solid performance. Their harmonies were perfectly mixed, and although I would’ve liked to hear more range in his voice, it wasn’t his album I suppose.

“Empty Cup” was the shortest song on the album, at 2:20, and with its detuned guitars, quiet finger snaps, and relaxed melody, that was a shame. Halfway through, the first of two choruses impressed me with how it was able to define itself without adding too many layers. I heard more lo-fi creativity, and IU admitted she was done with her relationship in the lyrics.

Nearing the end, “My sea” built up gradually, like a song they’d play in a romantic comedy, right before the two main characters put their differences aside in the name of love. With grace and excellent dynamics, it wasn’t going to change my mind about ballads anytime soon, but it was another A+ selection on a fantastic record. Unlike her previous down-tempo attempts, I had a feeling that this one might sound even better on vinyl. Anyone tried that yet?

“Ah puh” came next-to-last, sounding like a female-fronted Charlie Puth single at the onset. A pair of guitars in sync gave way to the sounds of a beach and a brief moment of rest, before the funkin’ began again. The drum kit underneath her voice was deliciously dead (that’s a good term, don’t worry), and the piano was tight, bright, and on the beat without fail. In other words, it was one of the most feel-good songs in a collection of (mostly) feel-good songs.

“Epilogue” was obviously the final track – although it would be funny if it weren’t, right? In the conclusion, distant guitars introduced a fuzzy instrumental that made her sound even more crispy and clear in her vocal presentation. It was a nice use of contrast, and once the shuffly drums came in, I knew that this was another musical treat. IU’s voice soared softly, coupled with major-7 jazz chords that made me picture her in a smoky club lounge. So many final tracks in K-pop seem to be re-iterations of what I’ve already heard, but this offered new musical material the whole way through. Tragically, Lilac ended on a deceptive cadence, leading my ears onward into a song that wasn’t there.

And that was the curtain call for IU’s 20s. This album was joyous and serious, danceable and thought-provoking, and one of the best K-pop collections I’ve had the privilege of reviewing. No wonder so many other idols list her as a source of inspiration!

In terms of taking IU’s music overseas, I get the feeling that she could, but she doesn’t need to. In the Far East, she’s a star, enjoying fame, riches, and a relative degree of independence compared to her peers (she was a co-writer on most of Lilac). If she moved her music promotion to the West, she’d likely have to team up with a few big-name American or British hitmakers, and that would potentially leave her as an accessory on her own songs. That being said, if she and her team at Edam Entertainment wanted to go global, I would recommend pairing up with an R&B-inspired Western star (think the aforementioned Charlie Puth, Mark Ronson, or maybe even Khalid) for a collab that would be sure to attract attention.

My final scores for IU look like this:

Persona: 8/10

Vocals: 10/10

Production quality: 10/10

Musical variety: 8/10

Replay value: 9.5/10

The final grade for IU: 9.1/10. Considering that her stage name comes from the idea of connecting people through music (“I” meets “U” in each track), I’m not surprised that Lilac brought me into a close, intimate world of emotions and music. This South Korean superstar is personable, talented, and a force to be reckoned with, especially as IU continues to win over hearts and ears, song after song.