Album Review: Red Velvet – Queendom

[SM Entertainment; 2021]

When the word ‘comeback’ is used in K-Pop, it typically means a group is returning with new music after only four to six months. However, the long-awaited return of girl-group Red Velvet is undoubtedly a capital-C Comeback, having been absent for just over a year and a half. That isn’t to say we haven’t received any content – we’ve had an amazing sub-unit album from Irene & Seulgi, the purifying beauty of Wendy’s Like Water, the effervescent covers album Hello from Joy, and some emotional OSTs – but in terms of a new album with all five members, it has been a while.

With the long wait being acknowledged, arriving gloriously is their latest mini-album, boldly titled Queendom – an all-killer summer project exploring the themes of empowerment, romance and its accompanying obstacles. This album counterpoises both their Red side (upbeat, bright and left-of-centre pop) with their Velvet side (stylish and sumptuous R&B) in equal measure. With the exception of the pleasantly maximal “Pose”, there is an overall chill vibe that allows listeners to immerse themselves in this sonic world. Tackling house, 80s-pop and different shades of R&B, there is also a variety of sounds that consolidate Red Velvet’s experimental tendencies.

Opener “Queendom” is a house-influenced, empowering track that possesses a wholly different vibe from their previous summer songs such as “Red Flavor” and “Power Up”. It’s still vivacious and uplifting, but has a comparatively more laid-back and magical vibe. Starting with bright piano, the song expands into a euphoric synthy, bass-led chorus with the bright proclamation: “Cause we are kings and queens!” The track additionally unites every member’s unique charm such as Irene’s charming rap (“We are the Queens of the Red Castle / Don’t need crown, we were born to dazzle”) and Wendy’s resonant high notes and ad-libs. It also includes an undeniably catchy phrase (“La di da boo ba ba dee da”) to join the league of their “peeka-peeka-boo”s and “Umpah Umpah”-isms. Admittedly, while this isn’t the typically risky choice we’ve come to associate with Red Velvet (see “Zimzalabim” to see just how weird their music can get), it feels like the perfect return track. Its message of unity and encouragement connecting to the group themselves being united for the first time in forever.

After that, we move into the lane which Red Velvet have developed one of the strongest reputations of being great at: the B-sides. “Pose” is a propulsive and clubby track that feels appropriately designed for the runway and radiates confidence. In fact, the lyrics allude to treating the world like an imaginary runway and being unstoppable. The song consistently transforms in production, switching from fast-paced deep keyboard to an R&B pre-chorus underlined by military-esque drumming. With an elevator ding, the chorus explodes into a declaration of self-empowerment over frenetic synths (“I feel alive… / I feel so high…”). It almost seems a rule that the second tracks in particular on Red Velvet albums prove iconic, and “Pose” is no exception.

This is followed by “Knock On Wood” – an 80s-influenced pop track filled with cheeky keyboard stabs, finger snaps and wobbly synths. Referencing Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka, the track is an ode to magic, casting spells and hoping luck will bring you a true romance. Of course, this type of whimsy is dominant across Red Velvet’s discography and usually has a dark twist, but this track is very sunny and catchy.

“Better Be” is simultaneously sexy and quirky – the two expected adjectives when listening to a Velvet track. Beginning with airy, delicate synths, the song eventually brings in snaps and sneaky bass riffs to create something both chic and mysterious. With the repeated refrain of “Better be my baby / You better be,” the song is about the gradual progress of a relationship and how they hope it is leading to true love. The chorus is melodically fast-paced and delivered flawlessly but in particular, Irene and Yeri standout delivering a rap verse that is simultaneously coy and assertive. This is a top-tier B-side that represents what Red Velvet accomplish so seamlessly: R&B with a fresh twist.

“Pushin N Pullin” is – like its title suggests – about having a relationship with someone who is emotionally inconsistent and the accompanying frustration that follows (“Why you do me like that?”). Yet again demonstrating their R&B strengths, the track combines jaunty piano with heavy drums alongside acrobatic melodies, and is a pleasant medium between ’emotional’ and ‘bop’. The chorus turns pleasantly dreamy with muted strings as they ask “Kissing and hugging / What more do you need?” in their incredible harmonies. It ultimately proves an empathetic track – one that acknowledges a partner’s anxiety and reassures them that they will wait for them to feel comfortable.

The album concludes with “Hello, Sunset” – the most surprising song on this project, with its bright slice of throwback R&B with its slow-burning synths and groovy bass. Quite simply, the song is a sweet ode to summer romance set in the backdrop of a warm sunset. As cosy and uplifting as it is, this is the type of track that makes you yearn for a simpler time which is always the double-edged sword with these nostalgic tracks. Regardless, this track is beautiful and also reminds listeners of how great every member’s voice is: Seulgi’s unique and strong tone, Yeri’s gentle airiness, Wendy’s authentically soulful vocals, Irene’s rather under-appreciated lower range, and of course Joy’s voice which is unmistakably bright. When these five completely different voices blend together, it yields heavenly results.

Queendom is an exceedingly wonderful project from a group who refuse repeat themselves, and even after seven years of activity, they still enthral and excite with their unpredictability. Their innate knack for pulling off whatever genre is thrown at them remains stronger than ever. It ticks all the boxes that fans would want for a Red Velvet album and has, naturally, great replay value. Admittedly, it is a bit rough that we only received a mini-album after so long, but this doesn’t detract from its excellence and wonder. At last, they have opened the gates to their Queendom and we hope their reign lasts for some years yet, because K-Pop just isn’t the same without them.