Album Review: TWICE – Formula of Love: O+T=<3

[JYP; 2021]

Even for TWICE’s delightfully delirious standards, 2021 has been a ride. While the vast majority of the world continues to limp in the shadow of COVID-19, it’s as if the happiest group on Earth took it as a challenge: sunshine at any cost, work harder, push further. Hence, this year has seen them release both a Korean language EP and a Japanese language LP. Clearly, that wasn’t even nearly enough, as they’ve now returned with their third proper Korean language LP, Formula of Love: O+T=<3. To put things in even clearer context, they released their sophomore album just late last year – it took the group nearly three years to follow up their debut album with Eyes Wide Open, so this swift leap forward is somewhat surprising, even for a group that cranks out as many ace mini-albums as TWICE.

Even so, it displays the group’s ability to crank out pop bliss with nearly superhuman speed: even with the quick turnaround, they haven’t missed a step. Indeed, Formula of Love: O+T=<3, mines new territory for TWICE. If the focus on Eyes Wide Open was to show how much they’d matured, things this time around have revolved completely to a point where the group are simply following their every whim, exploring every potential nook and cranny that their sound is able to bound into.

There’s an irresistible eclecticism on display, with each and every track serving as a unique adventure into some different corner. If there’s any (somewhat) consistent thread, it’s a surprising funkiness which lead single “Scientist” gently nudges and the likes of “Moonlight” dives head first into (truly, it doesn’t sound all too removed from Dâm-Funk gone K-pop).

“F.I.L.A” even takes these influences a step further, sounding like a Korean take on mellowed out G-Funk. Meanwhile, “Hello” may well be the heaviest they’ve fully delved into hip hop, boasting a beat over which it’s truly not the least bit hard to imagine 2 Chainz offering a verse. “1, 3, 2”, meanwhile, blends an undeniably Asian sound with a Reggaeton-esque backing for a gloriously off-kilter jam. Other influences range from City pop to Nu-Disco to their more usual K-pop meets R&B blend: suffice to say, musical inquiry is the name of the game. There’s a striking romanticism to the promise “Kiss you when the mood’s right,” on “Moonlight”, yet moments later, they’re taking on a mature, and even grave, spin on a relationship via “Cruel”. “Cactus”, meanwhile, hits with all the power of an all-out IU ballad.

As JYP’s partnership with Republic Records comes ever more into focus, the album also displays a newfound focus on English wordplay. TWICE swap between their native tongue and English seamlessly, and the ladies prove as confident in their second language (hell, third, lest we forget their Japanese efforts) as they do in Korean. The entirely English “Icon” displays just the sort of confidence TWICE have more than earned, but previously omitted in favor of displaying their sweeter sides. 

This speaks to a general feeling prominent across Formula of Love: O+T=<3: across their years in the game, TWICE have gradually, reliably, and without much fanfare, established perhaps just about the strongest girl group discography in K-pop. Yet, until now, they’ve never really been able to stop and admire the view from the spire they’ve constructed, brick by brick. In that sense, the album plays like something of a victory lap, and a well-earned one, at that.

This mood also allows the group time to split off into different pairings, splitting off into the most natural possible subunits, each perfectly complementing each other. Jihyo, Sana, and Dahyun glide through the playful “Push & Pull”; Nayeon, Momo, and Chaeyoung stunt across the aforementioned “Hello” (a surprising, energetic highlight); and, finally, Jeongyeon, Mina and Tzuyu taking on the Easternized Reggaeton of “1, 3, 2”. The members prove they can shine just as brightly taking turns as together.

The group who once asked “What is Love?” have grown to the point where they not only answer their own question – they’re literally writing that formula out. In short, this is the moment where they feel both above it all and lost in it. After years of playing things the nicest way possible, TWICE are in a position in which they know exactly what they’re worth – and exactly what they want. Having topped themselves yet again with Formula of Love: O+T=<3, it’s all theirs for the taking.