Album Review: Jessi – NUNA

[P Nation; 2020]

Jessi is fed up with your shit – and she’s going to kill you. Alright, fine, so those words are lifted from the Marshall Mathers LP, but, honestly, they might just suit Korean rapper, real name Jessica Hyun-ju Ho, just as well or better than ol’ Slim Shady.

Raised between New York and New Jersey, the Korean-American moved to her family’s home country at the age of 15 with dreams of stardom. To say the least, her outsized Jersey attitude did not always find the warmest reception in the notoriously image-conscious, deferential music industry into which she was attempting to swagger. She spent periods of time sleeping in public saunas, essentially homeless, refusing to give up on her ambitions. There was no counting the number of times she was told “No.”

She spent years fighting this seemingly endless uphill battle. Every time she scored a win, she faced pushback, and just as victory seemed within grasp, she was back to square one. Despite having appeared on mega-popular TV shows and released music, since she was a teen fame seemed to keep being taken away from her.

She’s never forgotten all those “no”s. Time and time again, it’s seemed like Jessi was truly down and out: after appearing on the first season of megapopular competition show, Unpretty Rapstar in 2015, she featured on a multiple chart-topping single alongside JYP – one of Korea’s most popular, and powerful, stars – she still was made to wait two more years before being able to finally release a proper mini-album (an earlier single album made it technically her sophomore effort) under her own name.

That release, Un2verse, felt like more than just a long-deserved victory lap. It felt like a celebration, an exhalation of breath, as if Jessi was savoring every single second, all too aware she may never be given such an opportunity again.

For a time, it seemed that may indeed be the case, the project wasn’t quite as big as it should have been, and Jessi seemed to linger in the wings. Then Psy launched his own label, and the news broke: Jessi was a member of P-Nation.

Being the bad girl alongside one of Korea’s most visible global icons is something Jessi clearly savors, snarling, “Psy oppa gave me the greenlight / so I ain’t gotta behave” over an infectious beat on “Nuna Nana”, the lead single for her long-awaited second mini, NUNA.

The words are telling of more than just her emboldened attitude, however. The Jessi of NUNA feels like a woman poised on the cusp of a moment that’s always rightfully belonged to her. It’s a bit difficult to fully express to someone who hasn’t dwelled with South Korea, but throughout her entire presence within the K-pop industry, Jessi’s suffer-no-fools, take-no-prisoners, hold-nothing-back attitude has often placed her within the crosshairs of, shall we say, traditionalists and morality police. For many young and (or) forward-thinking people in South Korea, she’s a breath of fresh air and more.

Other tracks deal with her once-blockaded path to fame in a more emotional light. “Star” slows things down with a vibe that feels like a weary love letter to herself, finding time to include shout outs to her idols including Lauryn Hill and Ashanti, ending on the somber note of, “Ima love if you won’t.” Jessi is undeniably at her best at her boldest, truly excelling over boisterous tracks of earned ego and bravado, but she proves adept at murkier ballads. “Numb” is an anthem for anyone stuck working for the weekends, bitterly reveling in drinking reality away. 

The only moments in which NUNA truly slows down are during unnecessary features. Quite simply, the guys can’t keep up with the woman running the show, while BM and nafla acquit themselves fine on “Put It on Ya”, they can’t help but feel superfluous (Jay Park fares less well failing at his best Kendrick impression [read: rip off] on “Drip”).

In the video for “Nuna Nana”, towards its end, a regal presence reveals itself. If you’re not versed in the genre, you could be forgiven for not recognizing her, but that is none other than Lee Hyori: the original K-pop bad girl, the one-time reigning queen of the country. Now in her early forties, Hyori doesn’t deign to appear in a musical capacity as often these days. For Jessi, though, she showed up, danced, and plain ol’ stunted for a few precious moments. It speaks volumes: legends supporting legends, women supporting women, a passing of the torch. For a glorious second, two of the baddest women in K-pop link up, before brushing the viewer off and walking away, hand in hand. That dismissal? You know damn well it’s a pointed one. NUNA bottles up that energy for a chest-thumping, all-too-short 20 minutes. Let’s just hope the industry has learned to let Jessi do her damn thing.