Album Review: IU – The Winning

[EDAM Entertainment; 2024]

Speaking on the process of creating The Winning, Korean singer-songwriter (don’t you dare call her “just” a K-pop star) sensation Lee Jieun (much better known as IU) reflected, “It felt like I was getting the results of my devotion.” This statement drives right to the conceptual core of The Winning, her first body of work since 2021’s double serving of LILAC and Pieces, which nicely represented two sides to her artistry; the former a widescreen pop vision and the latter a pared back, intimate slice of cozy folk songwriting.

In the worlds that IU creates (most literally displayed by the actual, full fantasy realm she conceived alongside Sulli for 2015’s Chat-Shire and more figuratively by her other work) absolutely nothing is accidental. So far as pop stars (however resistant to this term Lee was for much of her career) go, few are as purposeful with every single step as IU. For every song she writes – and even more critically when it comes to full projects – everything is a factor. Growing up alongside her music, age has always been a key consideration in her songwriting, from Spring of a Twenty Year Old to the embracing of adulthood that was Palette. Now 30 (sheesh, just take that in), it once again plays a critical role.

Ever self-observant and thoughtful, leading up to the release of The Winning, IU shared that she struggled to find the insights that drive her songwriting in her late 20s, leading to the delay we’ve experienced prior to this release. Chiefly, she wasn’t easily finding the “keywords” that play into the conception of an IU statement.

More to the point, competitiveness plays a key role in IU’s mind. This could easily be misinterpreted as an attempt to dominate her industry or her peers, but this is far from the truth. Lee sees herself as competing with the plans she’s made. Can she really do what she set out to do? It’s when she crosses these self-made markers that she feels fulfilled.

Fulfilment, then, is also a key feeling across The Winning: as she enters her 30s, not only has IU rediscovered that spark, but she’s never felt so content. Whereas songwriting and album crafting has long been a stressful, painstaking process for Lee, she found, with this mini-album, that each moment came naturally. She wasn’t pushing herself to arrive at a certain place, but simply ending up on warm shores she was happy to rest upon. All this lends a certain organic, unhurried, and simply pleasant atmosphere to The Winning; quite an accomplishment for such a short statement. 

As for the actual songs, there’s no choosing any centerpiece as each component of The Winning is absolutely intrinsic to the whole. “Love wins all” felt like a bit of a strange, if bold, choice for a lead single due its focus on balladry rather than shooting for a pop jam to lead the project. It works infinitely better in context, offsetting the rest of the songs perfectly, especially as it features an introduction by Korean music legend Patti Kim via the outro of the prior song, “Shh..”. 

On that note, “Shh..” serves as the most straightforward love letter to South Korea’s overall musical legacy that IU has yet offered. This is no small gesture, given her longtime fascination with, and devotion to, her country’s musical history, displayed most obviously by her pair of Flower Bookmark EPs, which remade songs she grew up loving within a modern context (and from her own artistic perspective). “Shh..”, then, gathers four full generations of Korean musical brilliance, with Patti Kim (the first Korean singer to perform in Japan following the end of their occupation) representing the old guard, the soulful Joe Won Sun (조원선, best known for her work with Roller Coaster) representing the generation before IU’s, of course IU herself standing in for her own, and NewJeans’ Hyein proudly championing the young whippersnappers (you can practically hear her beaming about being involved). Most importantly, the song itself is a delight, avoiding the all-too-easy pitfall of feeling overstuffed, with all the singers blending together, displaying a natural, breezy camaraderie.

Meanwhile, “홀씨” (“Holssi”) forms the emotional core of The Winning, also serving as its mission statement. Returning to Lee’s self-focused conception of competition, the very idea of what it means “to win” became important to Lee. Contrary to what the EP’s strong title may imply, her interest was far, far less in boasting about her accomplishments or enjoying her victories, but instead rooted in the concept on display in “홀씨”. As she began working on the project, the idea that remained omnipresent in Lee’s head was that of a dandelion seed rejecting the thought of turning into a flower. Aware that it may well not make for a beautiful flower, and coming to understand that it need not be one at all in order to be fulfilled, it decides to remain as it is. This thought drove IU, and she began to pull apart – after years of painstakingly building a legacy and career – just what “winning” actually meant to her. As she witnessed a generation of children dreaming, almost exclusively, of growing up to be influencers or pop stars, she grieved for the time in which a child’s dream might change on the daily, of reaching for fanciful, joyful goals. She hopes for us all to stop thinking so much about what we need to do, but to instead seek our desires without restraint.

Following that very thread, opening track “Shopper” digs into unrestrained aspirations with a double-edged blade, with IU at her wry best. It serves as both a satire of rampant consumerism (arguably particularly prominent in her home country) as well as an anthem to self-care. It flat out rejects the shame we all sometimes feel when treating ourselves: would buying that mood light genuinely make you feel a bit better? Go for it. Life is hard enough. On the flip side, it’s impossible not to detect her mocking wink when she sings, “greed is easy”. There’s also a certain desperation to it all: in the course of the song, her material desires are changed from “want” to “need”, brimming with deliberately visceral language (take “Shouting out my name / Until my heart explodes” or “Fill it up to make it burst”), granting a sort of frenzied intensity to a seemingly generous, playful ode to shopping your way to happiness.

This duality is subtly integral to every aspect of The Winning: across its economical 18 minutes, IU questions just what it means “to win” in the first place. Lee always makes it look easy. Yet victories have always been hard-won for one of Korea’s leading musical voices. From the swindlers posing as agents leaving her family in debt as she sought connections as a child, to the body-shaming rampant early in her career, to the manufactured, failed attempts at creating scandals in order to knock her down a peg, to the friends she’s tragically lost along the way, it has, with every step, been anything but easy for IU. Her crown is burdened by shadows. Even the bleach blonde look she’s adopted for the project’s imagery feels pointed: gilded, flashy beauty masking a complex, reflective inner process. She might make it look easy, but every step has been a battle, her own little war. To arrive at The Winning is no small thing: if the world wasn’t going to just allow her happiness, Lee Jieun was damn well going to create it for herself. She just happened to reconceptualize what a victory is to begin with along the way.