Pink Tape marks the moment that f(x) fully emerged, armed with off-kilter beats, stranger lyrics and a sense of cohesion that would shame even the top tier of Korea’s pop scene.
The international explosion of K-pop has brought attention to the creative aesthetics and arrangements of Korea’s cross-pollinated pop scene and its elaborate crossovers of bubblegum, hip-hop, rock and traditional elements. But with this increased notice has come an uncomfortable awareness of the power wielded by South Korea’s entertainment studios over their stars, hopefuls chosen as early as childhood to be whisked away to a talent factory where they are taught music, receive a rudimentary education and even plastic surgery. All of this produces prefabricated talent put through a rigorous internal and televised competition process to separate the wheat from the chaff. This intense level of control manifests musically in a product that is regimented and single-oriented, aimed at constantly refreshing chart hits and not valuing much in the way of artistic expression or ambition.
A notable exception to this trend is f(x). A notorious thorn in SM Entertainment’s side, this former five-piece girl group (now a quartet) is one of a precious few acts within the assembly line structure of the hallyu scene to march steadily to the beat of its own drum, and with an album-centric focus that has infuriated their label but also made it a huge crossover success abroad. Its second album, 2013’s Pink Tape, marks the moment that f(x) fully emerged, armed with off-kilter beats, stranger lyrics and a sense of cohesion that would shame even the top tier of Korea’s pop scene.
The overarching sound of the album is the same kind of hi-NRG maximalism that is a trademark of hallyu, albeit of a sort filtered through influences ranging from UK underground electronic music to baroque art pop. Opener “Rum Pum Pum Pum” lurches in and out of the explosive sound of its climax, but it is strung together in-between funky, rubber-band guitar and layered percussion of New Order-esque handclaps weaved into synthesized snares. The lyrics compare romance to wisdom teeth, with a crush “push[ing] aside all the other others” and caused literal and metaphorical headaches. All of this makes for an odd but danceable tune that matches the usual spirit of K-pop with a greater sense of ambition. Likewise, “Shadow” slows down for a seeming ballad, only to stuff all available space with faint andante breakbeats and chiming xylophones that render the track in trip-hop terms, at once measured and busy. The xylophones recur on the ballad “No More,” which also digitally updates doo-wop vocal accompaniment into a shimmering wall of “oooohs” over darting stabs of bass guitar.
There are plenty of good old hallyu bangers here, yet even they skew toward the strange and singular. “Pretty Girl” comes across as Sleigh Balls gone K-pop, with grinding bleats of distorted guitar and percolating synths underneath soaring vocals. “Step” weaves juts of saxophone into its electro beats, which erupt into cascading runs in the chorus. “Kick” is the album’s most standard track with its marching beat and whistling synths, but even it ducks expectations in its pre-chorus, dropping out the noise to leave the vocals eerily suspended in mid-air before the instruments come roaring back in for added punch. The track flows well into the slower but no less bright “Signal,” with its warbling sine-wave patterns folded over layers of funk bass and soul strings. The ballad “Goodbye Summer,” one of those mercurial K-pop blends of traditional music and hip-hop, is perhaps the album’s most ambitious track, featuring guest vocals from boy band Exo’s D.O., who gets an extended passage in English before he and Amber float in and out of sync in a contrapuntal duet, complicating yet reinforcing the track’s breezy summer vibe.
Most K-pop LPs resemble the format’s earliest incarnation in the US and UK, glorified cash-grabs meant to re-sell singles to a rabid audience with a bunch of filler that wouldn’t break into the charts on its own. In fact, most hit K-pop albums are guaranteed to get a re-sequenced reissue within a year to append any significant singles produced in the interim. This makes hallyu albums frequently frustrating, with flow and cohesion low priorities that give a sense that one need only grab the major tracks on their own. But Pink Tape, like all of f(x)’s LPs since, is such a finely crafted work, one of a small number of hallyu albums that is compelling from start to finish. By the time the record reaches it last track, the perfect set-closer “Ending Tape,” its delicate blend of acoustic pop and phones-in-the-air arena sing-along, Pink Tape has firmly established itself as not merely a highlight of the Korea Wave but of global pop music in the last decade. SM Entertainment may be perennially frustrated by the group’s flashes of independence, but if they continue to produce chart-dominating work like this, it’s hard to complain that they’re also showing up nearly every one of their peers.