Album Review: aespa – Girls

[SM Entertainment / Warner; 2022]

aespa, really and truly, don’t have any time for your nonsense. As a general rule, girl groups in K-pop work twice as hard as their male counterparts for half the popularity, but, ever since their debut, aespa have simply felt meant for more. While some initially feared that SM Entertainment meant to use the group to gradually overshadow Red Velvet, the same way some saw that group as taking over for f(x), aespa immediately offered an aesthetic all their own, separating the two behemoth factions immediately.

I do mean immediately. Their concept, from the get go, was equal parts ridiculous and brilliant, the sort of thing that requires a ‘yes, I’m serious’ type explanation to a casual listener. The group were meant to embody online avatars in a futuristic, shall we say, MMORPG; one that has become so ubiquitous and popular that people bleed their lives into it. There’s only one (major) problem: an unknown entity, Black Mamba, has begun infiltrating and consuming the game. The members of aespa (complete with alternate avatar characters) are the force deployed to discover the identity and purpose behind the presumably sinister entity.

Yes, yes, this is seriously the background for the music of a massively popular group. It’s excitingly refreshing, all while being immediately appealing to the ever-growing nerd generation, the types that spend more time staring at their screens than… just about anything else.

Alright, to the music itself. Thus far, the group’s biggest hits – most notably “Next Level” – have directly dealt with this concept, but as their lifespan continues, the group continue to display new aspects to their abilities and talents. “ICU”, taken from the bluntly titled Girls, is the perfect example; a gentle ballad that finds the members harmonizing alongside harmonious guitar and delicate strings. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

aespa haven’t abandoned their clearest strengths, though. “Life’s Too Short”, which receives both an original and English version on Girls, finds the group chanting along to a thumping hook, unafraid of whatever lies before them. The project’s first single “Illusion”, meanwhile, is even more brash, alternating between hypnotic electronic elements and the members’ call-and-response vocals. It’s the sort of song that has the power to get you dancing in the middle of a bar, not caring the least about an onlooker as you weave to its every move.

Even the shortest, snappiest track, “Lingo”, leaves a real impression, with aespa dismissing anyone who might not understand their particular way of expressing themselves. It’s the sort of shrugging off that we could all use in 2022. While clocking in at barely over two and a half minutes, it manages to incorporate a riotous beat, the group’s dominant vocals, handclaps, and pure, unfiltered sarcasm.

Girls is a project that follows its title track: immediately in your face and unafraid to get pushy  – seriously, check out how hard the title track, dare I say, rocks out in a few precious moments. This is a mini-album that does exactly what it’s meant to, in exactly the time that it takes to do so; they say it themselves: “we them girls.” With the likes of TWICE and Red Velvet handling the bright and shiny side of female-led K-pop, aespa seem to face little competition cornering the more abrasive, in your face market. You’re either going to get in line with that, or you’re going to get pushed to the side. It’s your call.