Blackpink Are Doing It Big Without The Exhausting Bloat
Everything about Blackpink is huge and emphatic and in your face. The crushing titanium beats, the severe top-of-the-lungs melodies and swaggering rap bars, the ostentatious eye-catching outfits, the bombastically busy and colorful music videos, the radical empowerment messaging, even the all-caps album titles: This is K-pop — a genre not known for its subtlety — taken to its wildest, most maximalist extremes. Blackpink seem to be having fun with it too, flaunting and taunting their way across each bedazzled-spaceship video set. When the girl group dropped their KILL THIS LOVE EP ahead of a Coachella performance last year, I called it a throwback to a sleek and garish moment when “popular music as a whole was larger, and louder, than life” — namely that early ’10s era ruled by over-the-top sounds of Kesha and Lex Luger and Skrillex and Nicki Minaj and peak-opulence Kanye West. It was clear that they were going to be big in the fame-and-fortune sense and were already doing it big in just about every other capacity.
One key exception to this all-large-everything rule: Blackpink’s releases are uniformly short and sweet. They get in and out before you have time to grow weary of the sonic blitzkrieg. At a time when some artists dare to affix the EP designation to a double-digit tracklist, KILL THIS LOVE was a tight five tracks in 16 minutes, each one a different kind of booming neon EDM-hip-hop contraption save for the acoustic ballad “Hope Not.” The prior year’s SQUARE UP was even shorter. In the half-decade lead-up to their debut album, they only released 14 songs plus a member’s one-off solo track. You could almost call it a hardcore approach to big-budget pop music, barraging you with quick bursts of hooks, rhythm, and noise and leaving you wanting more. Or, in the parlance of Blackpink themselves, they hit you with that DDU-DU DDU-DU DU.
THE ALBUM, Blackpink’s full-length debut, does not diverge from this approach so much as it expands on it. They’ve found ways to scale up this time around, including the addition of Western superstar guest performers Cardi B and Selena Gomez (plus a high-profile Blackpink appearance on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica alongside Ariana Grande and Elton John), a Netflix documentary set to follow in THE ALBUM’s wake next week, and an Elle cover story anointing Blackpink as the heiresses apparent to Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls. Yet the whole record only lasts 24 minutes. It’s eight songs long. I’m so used to these top-tier pop and rap stars testing my patience with bloated see-what-sticks tracklists that I was ready to heap praise on this one without even hearing it.
Fortunately, there’s quite a bit more to love about THE ALBUM beyond its runtime. The project cribs liberally from brash pop, rap, and EDM trends throughout recent history, with an emphasis on about 2005 to 2015, to construct one unrelentingly catchy Voltron after the next. Blackpink and their gaggle of producers bombard pleasure triggers with an exuberance that renders notions of taste irrelevant and a flair that outpaces many of their inspirations, mashing musical and verbal languages together until they cohere into a monolith. Hooks, beats, and eminently quotable lyrics keep piling up faster than I can keep track. It’s like they tried to cram as much fun as possible into eight gargantuan pop songs and succeeded.
Blackpink is an even split between rappers and singers and famously combines members from disparate backgrounds. Only Jisoo Kim is a South Korea lifer; Rosé (born Chae Young Park) was born and raised in Australia, Seoul native Jennie Kim spent part of her childhood in New Zealand, and Lisa (born Lalisa Manobal) is from Thailand. They also trained for four years in YG Entertainment’s K-pop boot camp before debuting in 2016 and spent another four years meticulously building up to this LP. (“Life is work, and work is life!” Rosé told Elle during a Zoom interview they conducted at 4:30AM Korean Standard Time after a 10-hour all-night photo shoot.) Both the eclecticism and the insane lack of work-life balance comes to bear on THE ALBUM. It’s the pan-genre sensory overload manifestation of that old Strokes lyric, “Work hard and say it’s easy/ Do it just to please me.”
This particular extraordinary machine funnels its many touchpoints squarely down the middle. THE ALBUM never ceases to sound like lowest-common-denominator pop music, and those who are allergic to that kind of thing will probably find not hear anything here to change their minds. You wouldn’t be wrong to connect the dots between Blackpink’s music and the likes of Black Eyed Peas, Pitbull, and LMFAO, though I’d argue Blackpink inject that type of M.O.R. sledgehammer pop/rap/EDM hybrid with a thrilling pizzazz that makes it sound more flashy than trashy. And from their visual presentation to the conversational ad libs that pepper their songs, Blackpink create a magnetic sense of camaraderie, like they’re four close friends having a blast and letting you tag along.
The onslaught begins with “How You Like That,” a trap-rave banger that merges the chaotic energy of Kesha’s dark EDM detonation “Blow” with the also-chaotic energy of early M.I.A., Rosé’s piercing melody giving way to Jennie’s taunted “Look at you, now look at me.” That one segues into a contagiously playful pop-rap posse cut called “Ice Cream,” featuring Selena Gomez on guest vocals, both Victoria Monet and Ariana Grande in the writing credits, and arguably the best use of whistling on a pop song this year. From there it’s on to “Pretty Savage,” basically a lesser version of the thudding, metallic opener; its main addition to The Album’s formula is an acoustic “Whoa-oh!” pre-chorus that reminds us that floor-stomping folk-rockers Mumford & Sons were popping off concurrent to the EDM explosion.
That acoustic guitar takes an even more central role on “Bet You Wanna,” a sex jam (“Give me an all-night hug, I bet you wanna”) featuring a verse from sex-jam expert Cardi B. Pop-R&B veterans Tommy Brown and Mr. Franks wrote the music, and their vocal melody masterfully tightens and loosens as it unfurls atop a stripped-back boom-bap beat that feels laser-targeted to Top 40 radio. Jisoo and Jennie get Blackpink’s lone writing credits on “Lovesick Girls,” a low-key-nihilistic shout-along anthem in step with Kesha’s “Die Young” or Icona Pop and Charli XCX’s “I Love It,” propelled by a pulse-pounding bass line. “Crazy Over You” rides thunderous yet jittery production with a Middle Eastern tint, like something Timbaland might have cooked up with Justin Timberlake or Nelly Furtado in the mid-aughts. “Sound the alarms!” the group shouts together, before Lisa completes the rhyme: “I’ma be mad ’til you get me back in them arms.”
THE ALBUM begins its comedown with “Love To Hate Me,” another deeply trap-influenced track. At its quietest, when the arrangement pares back to little more than booming 808s and skittering hi-hats, Blackpink whisper a hook that sends me back to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” but soon enough the harmonies are piling up again and those Destiny’s Child comparisons start to make sense. With its plaintive piano chords, dramatic string section, and distinct closing-montage energy, “You Never Know” makes a fitting conclusion. “Cause everyone sees what they wanna see,” Rosé sings. “It’s easier to judge me than to believe.” It’s almost like she’s daring you not to take Blackpink seriously. Don’t take that bet.
Congrats to M.I.A. on her first #1 single! Congrats to Young Thug on his second #1 single! Congrats to Travis Scott on his fourth, and for figuring out how to make songs debut at #1 while leaving no lasting cultural footprint whatsoever! “Franchise,” Scott’s new single featuring Thugger and Maya, enters the Billboard Hot 100 on top this week. It’s the 44th song in the chart’s 62-year history to debut at #1 and the ninth just this year. Three of those are Travis Scott songs, which, as Billboard reports, makes him the first artist to ever score three #1 debuts in the same year. (Ariana Grande previously debuted three tracks at #1 within a 16-month window.)
Young Thug topped the chart once before with his appearance on Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” M.I.A. previously peaked with “Paper Planes,” which topped out at #4. Both of those songs seem destined to be remembered by a lot more people than “Franchise,” which, if it’s anything like its predecessors “Highest In The Room” and “The Scotts,” will likely plummet down the chart in the coming weeks now that Scott’s hypebeast fans have streamed their streams and purchased their merch bundles. (“Franchise” sold 98,000 copies, including 58,000 on cassette and CD, and I know nobody out there is buying a CD single of the new Travis Scott song for listening purposes.)
The arrival of “Franchise” bumps BTS’ “Dynamite” to #2, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” to #3, and Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” to #4. 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” holds steady at #5, followed by the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #6, DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” at #7, Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” at #8, Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” at #9, and Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” at #10.
Over on the Billboard 200, Machine Gun Kelly has his first #1 album pop-punk pivot Tickets To My Downfall. The project reportedly tallied 126,000 album equivalent units including 63,000 in sales. The actual bestselling album of the week is by the K-pop supergroup SuperM, who moved 101,000 copies of Super One: The 1st Album but ended up with 104,000 units overall to debut at #2. Yet another debut at #3: Joji’s Nectar, with 92,000 units and 41,000 in sales.
After Pop Smoke at #4, the debuts keep coming. Deftones are in at #5 with 49,000 units and 43,000 in sales for Ohms, their sixth top-10 album. (It was also the top-selling vinyl album of the week at 14,000 copies.) Following Juice WRLD at #6 and Taylor Swift at #7, Carrie Underwood gets a #8 debut for Christmas album My Gift via 43,000 units and 41,000 in sales — her eighth LP to reach the top 10. YoungBoy Never Broke Again falls to #9, and Tory Lanez’s godforsaken pity party Daystar enters at #10 with 36,000 units but only about 2,000 sold.
Shawn Mendes – “Wonder”
Like Shawn Mendes, I wonder a lot. I wonder how many people would be vibing with this if it was the new Coldplay single. I wonder how Mendes got that chorus to sound so grandiose while keeping one foot in his Mayer-esque adult contemporary comfort zone. I wonder whether the people who like to speculate about his sexuality are feeling seen right now.
Demi Lovato – “Still Have Me”
Demi Lovato keeps rolling out a new single to announce each major life event. What a way to live! To commemorate the end of her engagement, she’s back in gospel ballad mode and sounding phenomenal.
Bryson Tiller – “Outta Time” (Feat. Drake)
How have these two never linked up before? You’d think they would be an unstoppable force on R&B radio, and “Outta Time” is as somberly smooth as you’d expect.
Ella Mai – “Not Another Love Song”
Speaking of artists that could be keeping the airwaves sounding shadowy and sensuous for years to come: “I don’t wanna mess this up,” Ella Mai sings here, and she need not worry.
Julia Michaels – “Lie Like This”
I never knew how much I needed a translucent neon Julia Michaels dance jam in my life.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Nicki Minaj had a baby. [TMZ]
- Timbaland was in the studio with Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake. [TikTok]
- The Chicks did “Sleep At Night” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
- Quavo stars in the new Crash Bandicoot commercial. [YouTube]
- Logic publicly called on Def Jam to pay collaborators who worked on his albums buy say they haven’t been compensated yet. [Instagram]
- DaBaby leads the BET Hip Hop Awards nominees with 12. [BET]
- J Balvin leads the Latin Grammy nominations with 13. [USA Today]
- Kelly Clarkson is being sued by her ex-father-in-law’s management company for $5.4M in unpaid commissions. [Deadline]
- John Legend and Chrissy Teigen lost their baby after pregnancy complications. [CNN]
- “By popular demand” Miley Cyrus put her “Heart Of Glass” cover on streaming services. [Twitter]
- Lady Gaga put up a new Chromatica billboard with a heartfelt message in Los Angeles. [Twitter]
- Selena Gomez shared the demo for “Lose You To Love Me.” [Selena Gomez]
- The limited-edition Bad Bunny Crocs sold out in 16 minutes. [NYT]