Album Review: NAYEON – NA

[JYP; 2024]

Even for those who have followed TWICE from the very (or, at least, nearly) beginning, the longevity of the beloved K-pop group – both in terms of popularity and artistic relevance – continues to surprise. With this year’s WITH YOU-th, the group once again displayed their determination to remain together through thick and thin, as well as an ever-increasing maturity, finding moments to take it all in amidst the neverending rush.

Displaying just what makes them special, an answer regarding the standout members will change just about every time, depending on who you ask. There is no weak link. Nonetheless, it’s been clear for a long time that Nayeon has an undeniable it factor, both within the group and without. A perfect foil for Jihyo’s dominant, hyper-focused girl boss energy, Nayeon has always possessed a sparkly, playful attitude that offsets her carefully considered poise. A girl next door with the power to end your little world.

In short, it’s been obvious she was fully ready for a solo push, something she accomplished with 2022’s Im Nayeon. Yet, it still seemed, simply, more was within her reach. It’s not for nothing that her most ardent fans sometimes dub her “Nayoncé”, after all.

If Im Nayeon – for all its pleasures – felt like a tad of a tentative, cautious step, Nayeon has approached her sophomore effort, Na, with nothing short of joyous abandon. Fully aware of just how far she may well be capable of reaching, this is a full bid for a global pop presence. Receiving more than a month of hype with the full power of the JYP machine behind it, it quickly went from a ‘this could be nice’ hopeful to one of the most anticipated K-pop statements of the year.

Even the title is sneakily powerful. It communicates just how much Nayeon intends for this to be her moment: “Na” may represent a nickname for the singer, but also translates to “I” from her native Korean. Right from the outset, she’s taking big swings, with opening track (and lead single) “ABCD” bouncing with a wink between sweetly abrasive sing-song verses and a properly stomping, stadium-ready hook. One only need check the video to see just how ready to face the world stage its singer is, she cavorts through an international setting, showing her dancers little mercy as she steals the show with each and every second.

“Butterflies”, meanwhile, lurches forward with a nearly unsteady energy, with woozy vocal samples and flirtatiously pulsating chords, the music matching the titular feeling of starting to fall for someone. While she may not have the vocal power of K-pop’s strongest vocalists, her range is underrated, capable of flipping from feather-light pop beauty to punchy, rap-adjacent sass to bruised sincerity (and back again) at the drop of a hat. She dashes through the songs here between these poles so rapidly that it becomes something of an intricate web, deceptively simple to the casual onlooker.

Indeed, Na manages to glide through its tight runtime in spite of its frenzied energy. There’s a real sense of curiosity on display, with Nayeon fully asserting herself as both a performer and artist, consciously tapping into sides of herself that TWICE as a unit isn’t as likely to go. Her quirky blend of sporty sexy and nerd queen vibes are in an eternal game of tug-of-war, which goes beyond mere iconography. K-pop fans may be swift to focus on a concept, but this often undervalues how vital presentation is to the very art their favorite stars are making. When it’s done right, a concept goes far beyond an appealing look or theme: it speaks to the very values, artistry, and fascinations of the individual.

To say the least, Nayeon did this one right. She may be making strides ever closer to a proper global breakthrough, yet she hasn’t lost sight of just what makes her a special presence in the industry that she emerged from, nor the listeners who’ve been along for the ride from day one. It’s a celebration for the devout and unconverted alike. It doesn’t much matter when they’ll all be dancing together within moments of pressing play.