Album Review: Hyuna – I’m Not Cool

[P NATION; 2021]

It hasn’t been an easy road for Hyuna. Ever since her 2011 debut “Bubble Pop” and her appearance in the music video for the song that really started it all, “Gangnam Style”, the K-pop sensation has been all but omnipresent. At just 28, she’s viewed as one of the elders of her industry, the sort of figure that can even send the multi-award-winning TWICE into a tizzy merely by saying she’s a fan during a radio appearance. She was briefly with Wonder Girls, the key member of 4Minute, half of Troublemaker, a third of Triple H: she was unstoppable.

At least she seemed it, until 2018 when her own label, Cube, tried to kill her career in its tracks. She had divulged a relationship with fellow Triple H member E’Dawn (now known simply as Dawn), and they were both promptly fired. This is especially baffling for those outside of Korea and the non-K-pop-intiated, but in an industry that polices its ‘idols’’ relationships, the two letting the world know of their young love before their handlers was, essentially, seen as unforgivably embarrassing. Of course, all this was patently absurd. 

Thankfully, rather than suffering the blacklisting Cube surely had in mind, both Hyuna and Dawn were scooped up by Psy himself and made two of the flagship artists for his upstart label P Nation. That Mr. “New Face” didn’t jump towards his good fortune immediately with a quick turnaround is somewhat baffling, but here we are, just about two years after her signing, only just receiving her first proper release for the label (save a sole prior single).

To be fair, part of the wait speaks to benevolence on Psy’s part: Hyuna was meant to return last year, but suffering from issues regarding her mental health, the release was postponed for her wellbeing. It was refreshing to see in an industry often (justly) accused of placing gruelling schedules over its artists.

In any case, here we are with I’m Not Cool, and it’s somehow been since 2017 that we last saw Hyuna prancing her way across the charts. For those that found some sense of freedom in the way she carries herself, it’s been a particularly long wait. It may not feel as novel in 2021, but Hyuna’s innate sensuality, and her lack of fear in putting it on display, has long made waves in a notoriously conservative country. Tracks like 2014’s “Red”, along with their epically colorful and defiantly risque visuals, made veritable splashes in the world of K-pop. Alongside the likes of Jessi and Sulli, Hyuna was a breath of fresh air for the sexually repressed, with her final solo single for Cube, “Lip & Hip”, simply putting it in name.

All this being said, it makes it rather hard, bordering on impossible, to fairly judge her return on its own merits. On the one hand, it could be just about anything: at least we have her back, damn it. On the other, it’s hard for a brief mini-album (of which, one of its five tracks has been available since November 2019) to sate an appetite that’s been starved for nearly four years.

Viewed as neutrally as possible, I’m Not Cool isn’t really breaking any particularly new ground for Hyuna, but it doesn’t have to. She was so ahead of the game in her earlier years that now that the industry has begun to catch up to her, her old tricks simply feel entirely current. Much like 4Minute’s “Crazy”, as well as some of her other singles, title track “I’m Not Cool” benefits from a Middle Eastern-inspired musical backing, and as in her previous videos, she’s dancing powerfully, flamboyantly (and that outfit? It’s unfair how few could pull that off). It may be more of the same, but much like a delicious beverage you haven’t had in far too long, it’s more than refreshing.

To be fair, there’s plenty of power packed within the words “I’m Not Cool” and the lyrics that go with them. They’re a double-edged sword. As the old adage goes, if you have to say you’re cool, you’re not, and if Hyuna is anything she’s sure as hell cool. She’s toying with the simple fact that due to the way many follow her moves, what she does goes from novel to cliché within the space of a gesture. On the flip side, the track is Hyuna acknowledging all that’s expected of her: she’s reaching out to those inspired by her, signalling that she’s not special, she doesn’t present herself in any way the listener can’t, she simply is, and all her fans can be as well. It’s a subtly powerful blow to the Korean patriarchy.

Much of the rest of the mini-album is Hyuna doing Hyuna things: partying, loving, and generally showing a lack of concern for any societal norms. One of the most memorable moments comes when she links up with her partner Dawn on “Party Live Love” and slows things down over a track he both produced and wrote for the pair to share. His singing and rapping exists somewhere between Drake and Travis Scott, but he’s deft enough to make the sounds feel his own, and it’s genuinely endearing to hear the two so smitten with one another, even purely through auditory means.

After years without her presence, and the massive empty space it left behind, it’s more than enough to simply have Hyuna back on the scene. Still, especially in the moments here when she tentatively begins reaching there, it’s exciting to imagine where she might go next.