[MNH Entertainment; 2021]

“Home, authentic self / Where my own desires are protected / My own oasis: Querencia,” so K-Pop singer Chung Ha introduces the world of her debut album. It seems a statement of intent from one of the industry’s most transfixing pop dynamos, letting listeners know that this project is her labour of love. The wait has been long, with levels of anticipation set high since “Stay Tonight” was released in April last year and increasing with each progressive single since.

With Querencia‘s scope and ambition, there is no doubt that Chung Ha is determinedly aiming for the global recognition she deserves. Make no mistake, Querencia is a world in itself, showcasing an expansive sonic palette across 21 tracks trademarked by the singer’s unassailable boldness and vulnerability. Split into four different ‘sides’, each quadrant possesses a different vibe where the singer consolidates her versatility and powerhouse vocals.

Side A is titled ‘Noble’, which seems dedicated to Chung Ha’s asseritveness. The chaotically confident single “Bicycle”, for example, is a collage of electric guitar, churning synths, bouncy piano and switching tempos. An experimental ode to the singer’s work ethic and success, she calls out (in an incredibly impressive rap verse) “Gossipin’ lowkeys” and warns “Come on / I’ll slay you from tip of my tongue.” There is also a tongue-in-cheek element in the lyrics as she sings “I ride it, I ride it / You like it when I ride it,” which risks eclipsing the song’s message of working hard, but such double entendres help in its ability to hook listeners. The English-language track “Flying On Faith” explores the difficulties of convincing your lover that you are nothing like their ex. Beginning with a guitar riff that eventually expands into a colourful explosion of synths, Chung Ha sings “She keeps weighing us down / I keep wondering if you wanna stay.” The highlight of Side A, however, is “Luce Sicut Stellae”, which possesses mysterious, enticing production with a bouncy beat, guitar, strings and echoing harmonies. The song is a dreamy, romantic track about following the starlight and embracing the moment. Its unapologetic romanticism makes it an endearing listen that is easy to get lost in – although it may make you feel just that little bit sadder about being single.

Listeners then enter the bold world of Side B, titled ‘Savage’, which is a dance-inflected paradise. The aforementioned “Stay Tonight” is a club-ready track featuring Chung Ha’s perfect pop vocals and edge. Refreshingly overt in its lyrics about, well, enjoying the night with someone, this is a mature and irresistible earworm – with a special mention to the instrumental breakdown at the end that begs to be vogued to. “Dream of You” features production from R3HAB and is another brash dance track where Chung Ha quite frankly sings: “I can’t stand that you might be in someone’s bed / With some bitch that you just met all over you.” Despite the word “bitch” being censored by a klaxon, this song drips with unfiltered sexual tension alongside the singer’s come-ons (“I’ve got whiskey, I got gin and lingerie”).

If these tracks seem set in the honeymoon phase of a relationship, then album highlight “Bother Me” is the slump. A classic-sounding dance-funk track with bass guitar, dreamy synths and a propulsive beat, Chung Ha sings her frustrations and annoyance towards someone who doesn’t reciprocate her efforts. Beyond the incredible production, the melodies of this track are simply glorious and every element ties together in this pop masterpiece.

Side C, ‘Unknown’, is mostly a set of Latin-influenced tracks that maintain a consistent groove. Single “Play” featuring rapper Changmo has bouncy xylophone, clattering drums and a great post-chorus breakdown with Chung Ha comparing love to a song you want to listen to over and over again. Although this track is fun, it isn’t as interesting as the previous offerings as it opts for something a bit more straightforward. This is followed by the singer’s collaboration with Puerto Rican rapper Guaynaa, “Demente”, where Chung Ha flexes her proficient language skills, alternating between Spanish and Korean without missing a beat. With its chill pace, the chemistry between the two artists finds them lamenting the push-pull of wanting somebody who can’t quite make up their mind about whether they want to be with the other. “Lemon”, featuring Colde, is a funk-influenced R&B song that is instantly likeable. A romantic track, both artists exchange compliments particularly in regards to scent, and, like “Luce Sicut Stellae”, the song also possesses wanderlust yearnings.

The concluding Side D, ‘Pleasures’, is undoubtedly the most vulnerable section of Querencia, yet it still has a penchant for experimentation. Album highlight “X” isn’t exactly what one would expect from the singer with its Britrock influence – in fact, it’s quite a risk. Over guitar, piano and drums, she blatantly states: “You should’ve loved me at my worst / Now you just watch me on your TV screen.” It is an incredibly emotional track where Chung Ha finds strength from her feelings of abandonment and manages to ultimately sound victorious over the anthemic production. Later comes the soaring ballad “Everybody Has”, with a piano, swelling strings and a smooth beat where she laments not being able to spend time with those she loves due to the pressures of work. The transparency of exhaustion is striking – especially when considering the work ethic of K-Pop idols in general who have notoriously busy schedules – and displays the singer’s ability to emote. Then there’s the 90s-influenced dream-pop gem “Comes N Goes” – an ode to acceptance that people and the emotions associated with them don’t ever completely leave. The layered guitars, octave synths and handclaps make this an interesting listen that feels nostalgic and poignant.

Ultimately, Querencia is an exciting and surprising debut that is completely unrestrained in its ambition to be one of the ‘big’ pop albums. Although it occasionally falters – which is always the risk with records that have a huge amount of tracks – Chung Ha has created a genuinely exciting project that ticks all the boxes for pop fans. Experimental genre mish-mashes, nostalgic dance tunes, introspective ballads, huge vocal moments and even the straightforward bops – there is a lot to experience on here. Her description of the album as an “oasis” is adept, as fans may have had to wait a while to take refuge in its splendour, but when the pay-off is this good you can’t deny that the journey was worth it.

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