Last summer, Korean producer and vocalist 박혜진 Park Hye Jin delivered the six-track How Can I, her first release for the legendary Ninja Tune label. It came as a crowning moment after years of rising through the Seoul club scene, a move to Los Angeles (after stints in Australia and London), and tours of Europe and North America. And yet, How Can I cut a much more dissatisfied figure than her placid and blissful debut offering IF U WANT IT. Her fierce independence and determination to succeed surely had a bearing on her words, while time spent DJing big clubs had evidently shifted her perspective on dance music. Her work took on a more rugged, pounding sheen, while her monotone words (and memorable repetition of “shut the fuck up” throughout “NO”) seemed to suggest someone could vacillate between supreme confidence and crippling insecurity.
Where How Can I should have seen her set off on an even larger victory lap, the pandemic obviously had other ideas. Instead, Hye Jin was left isolated in LA with nothing much to do except work on her full-length debut, which now arrives under the name Before I Die. From title on down, there’s almost no separating Before I Die from the situation in which it was created. While the hefty beats of How Can I remain, the dreamier elements of IF U WANT IT also return, as well as a new finesse that balances the two – culminating in a record that harnesses isolation but yearns for connection.
Opener “Let’s Sing Let’s Dance” encapsulates this. On its surface an invitation to party, “Let’s Sing Let’s Dance” plays out as a more wistful affair than expected; the minimalist beats are danceable, but atop are minor key piano chords and Hye Jin’s disaffected vocal, which suggest that singing and dancing are a mere wish – something to be achieved when the world gets back on its feet. This minimal melancholy carries into the following “I Need You”, which is firmly in the hip-hop realm, Hye Jin rapping in her native Korean over skittering beats and more of those plaintively plinking piano chords, before openly drawling “I need you” in the chorus.
The need for connection is a major theme in Before I Die. The separation caused by endless lockdowns was tough on everyone, but you have to think that it might have been even worse for Hye Jin, stuck in LA, thousands of miles away from her native home – and a severe come down from playing to rapturous crowds of thousands of people. She states this bluntly on the title track, where she chants “I miss my mom, I miss my dad / I miss my sister, I miss my brother,” over woozy and textured hip-hop beats. The verses of “Before I Die”, rapped in Korean, display more shades of her isolation, as she discusses nightmares about death and the grit she’s had to display in moving around the world on her own.
Greater self-belief is shown in other songs, where she continues to look in rather than out. “Good Morning Good Night” sees her congratulating herself on making it through another day of hard work and continual grind. “Me Trust Me” utilises a warm guitar loop over her dextrous beats, underscoring her affirmation of “I believe in myself.” On “Never Give Up” she employs a luminous tone over a thudding bass, embodying her confidence as she pushes through all the detractors and naysayers she’s undoubtedly had to deal with in her rise.
Of course, turning inwards is not just about emotions, but physical needs and connections. The mid-point of Before I Die is where she expresses her desire for intimate interaction, which also relates to the album’s overall theme of living for the moment and putting mortality on the backburner. She approaches her sexual exploits with carnivorous directness, particularly on “Can I Get Your Number” where she employs a rolling, sumptuous bass and cuts all the bullshit and outright repeats “I just wanna fuck.” There is a shred more tact in the following “Whatchu Doin Later”, where juddering bass stabs and vinyl scratches underline her maniacal repetition of the titular question – it would be borderline harassing if Hye Jin wasn’t so effortlessly cool.
The final part of this horny trilogy is “Sex With Me (DEFG)”, a sequel of sorts to “ABC” from her debut release that illustrates just how she’s changed in the intervening years. Where “ABC” found her repeating “A: I love you, B: I want you, C: I miss you” over blissful house beats, “Sex With Me (DEFG)” is grainier, a muted subterranean techno track reminiscent of Drexciya where she professes “D: I dare you, E: I eat you, F: I fuck you, G: I give you”. It seems to be her four point plan to “sex with me” – a prospect as intimidating as it is enticing.
This pulse-quickening segment seems to kickstart Before I Die as it heads into its final stretch, Hye Jin ramping up the tempo from the hip-hop pace of the album’s first half to a peak-level club atmosphere. In line with this momentum, the words here are less involved. “Where Are You Think” simply checks that you’re ready to join her on this acceleration, while “Never Die” finds her words garbled into incomprehension except the emphatic repetition of the title – perhaps a reference to her bid for immortality through her music. “Hey, Hey, Hey” does away with words entirely, apart from sampled “hey”s thrown in among the most pulverising and tunneling techno found on the record.
A consummate cultivator of mood, Hye Jin brings Before I Die back to its introverted origins to conclude. The penultimate “Sunday ASAP” throws on the brakes with a slightly slower, sample-heavy mixture, before she concludes with the aqueous and daydreaming “i jus wanna be happy”. With this final track, she brings it all back to square one: a young woman, satisfied making music alone in her room, but dreaming of profound happiness – whether that comes in the form of career success, physical pleasure, romantic love, or reconnecting with family.
At times on Before I Die, her personality might seem inscrutable or unapproachable, but Hye Jin is just expressing herself honestly through her creativity. “I jus wanna be happy” is a reminder that she wants the same as anyone else, even if she might be more blunt or brash in her methods of acquiring it. Having been treated to a fairly unique record that shape-shifts through electronic tones all while giving us a clear view of her inner monologue, by the end we can’t help but want the same for her.