The K-Pop culture industry has been hotly tipped for years, but even connoisseurs seldom make a case for its albums. Many of the most rewarding trips from my perpetually deepening K-hole (After School’s “Shampoo,” Girl’s Day’s “기대해,” Girls’ Generation’s “Gee,” Brown Eyed Girls’ “Recipe,” Rainbow’s “Kiss Me,” B2ST’s “Virus,” Infinite’s “Chaser,” Big Bang’s “Café”…) have come courtesy of LPs and “mini-albums” that are inconsistent at best. But even by the Western, post-Beatles rubric that has dictated “good album” criteria for the past half century, S.M. Entertainment girl group f(x)’s Pink Tape is solid stuff. Long dismissed (often fairly) as a cheap imitation of Anglo chart trends, K-Pop here breezily surpasses the recent output of global oligopolists like Ke$ha, Bieber, One Direction, Rihanna, et al.
It’d be tough to find a parallel for either of Pink Tape’s best songs in any pop history domestic or abroad. Opening banger “첫 사랑니 (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” makes unlikely esperanto of Middle Eastern funk, clangorous samba, the yuletide classic “Little Drummer Boy” (deftly interpolated), a massive syllabic hook à la pre-shit Gaga, and the ad-libbing knock of mid-aughts Timbaland. It finds vivid contrast in the fluorescent “미행 (그림자 : Shadow),” which wavers upon a theme closer to a Thelonious Monk rag than anything within current definitions of pop harmony. Then there are the lyrics: “Rum Pum” exploits the shared etymology in Korean of “love” (sarang) and “wisdom teeth” (sarangni) to indulge in some of the strangest lyrics to ever top charts internationally (“Hello! You’ve probably heard of me at least once/ I’m your wisdom tooth”; “I will pierce through your heart’s wall and grow/ A special experience/ It will hurt like your head’s gonna shatter/ A new experience”; “You probably expected someone who grew up straight/ But I’ll be crooked and torment you”), while “Shadow” portrays a schizoid stalker’s descent into madness. That both songs remain very functional (and salable) dance tunes in light of these harmonic and thematic eccentricities is pretty remarkable.
This opening dyad serves as the kind of fan-craze catalyst any K-Pop release would be lucky to have, but Pink Tape further distinguishes itself by very nearly avoiding filler. The ensuing eight tracks are melodically invested feats of pop engineering, each balancing a different equation of modern formulae. The scornful “Pretty Girl” casts a hex on its titular princess with dark, Prime synth droplets, Treats-grade guitars, and a few pointed measures of “We Will Rock You” boom-clap. “Signal” boasts a verse as sleek as the Cardigans in their most glossily reduced form, while its delectable chorus adds another tick to the tally of major label pop songs derived from Breakbot’s “Baby I’m Yours” (though one nowhere near the gusto and insolence of a Bruno Mars). “Kick” is a welcome remainder from f(x)’s bratty electro Nu ABO, while “Step” synthesizes “Pon de Floor” pitch parabolas, Enur horns, and a post-”Since U Been Gone” Max Martin breakdown. “Airplane” is a pristine, Zedd-reminiscent highlight, accelerating “Starships”-like into a sunburst chorus learned from Alex Metric’s ledgers, while the sunnily simplified “Toy” inverts itself at the midpoint for some symphonic dubstep. None of these songs attempt to match the ingenuity of “Rum Pum” or “Shadow,” but they’re ruthlessly effective in guiding and gratifying expectation.
Of course, Pink Tape remains a product of the Korean music industry, and it doesn’t totally escape the pitfalls of groupthink consensus. Ill-advised chanson “Snapshot” sets the scene for “Ending Page,” a tired script that bears all the markings of an overwrought (and underperformed) closer. There are a couple of more holistically regrettable decisions — token rapper Amber routinely overestimates her utility — but Pink Tape suffers mostly for this sense of entropy toward the end.
Still, the hooks are sharp and plentiful, the majority of the album is a joy, and its two lead singles are rare achievements by any megawatt standard. Those who believe mainstream, club-crushing pop is an art form worth advancing will find an encouraging pulse in f(x).