It’s no secret that, in K-pop, it’s the girl groups who are leading the way right now. Each release over the last 18 months or so has felt like a new levelling up, a consistent raising of the bar with multiple different approaches to creating world-beating music – healthy competition from which we all benefit. As the stakes continue to ascend, SM Entertainment’s aespa are – after months of delays – here to add their latest release to the mix and, hopefully, set a new standard in the process.
‘MY WORLD’ marks the four-piece’s third mini-album and – other than the Tetris OST contribution ‘Hold On Tight’ – their first new material of 2023. After the mixed bag of its predecessor, 2022’s ‘Girls’, it also signals the group truly coming good on their early promise with a collection of six songs that each try to out-do the others.
Although this is aespa’s first big outing this year, four of ‘MY WORLD’’s number might be familiar. The bulk of the tracklist was premiered at the group’s ‘SYNK: Hyper Line’ concerts in Seoul in February, where fans were teased with a setlist that was almost half made up of fresh songs. But that doesn’t stop the recorded versions from being exciting additions to the aespa canon, showing their versatility and helping the quartet make a bid for main pop girl status with their infectious hooks and impeccable performances.
‘Salty & Sweet’ leads the pack, throbbing with industrial synth grinds and the kind of unconventional instrumental approaches that have become a key party of aespa’s DNA. It’s dark and all the more delicious for it, a seductive slink through the shadows of the group’s world. “’Cause I am salty and sweet / You can’t resist this fresh new treat,” they hum in the chorus – a self-fulfilling prophecy given how hard it is to get the song out of your head afterward.
‘Thirsty’ opens with a rippling melody reminiscent of Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’, but aespa are deep in the throes of flirtation, rather than moving on from someone. It’s fluffily soft, encapsulating the head-in-the-clouds feeling of a new crush. Bringing things back down to Earth with a bump is ‘I’m Unhappy’ – ‘Salty & Sweet’’s biggest rival for best track. As its title suggests, it captures melancholy and longing, but gives the subject a unique, aespa spin on things. They use the digital world as a metaphor for feeling disconnected from those around them and, as the women long for “the real thing” instead of social media’s fake facades, Karina observes: “Everyone looks perfect every day / As if I’m the only one logged out / The distance between the world and my heart is / So far.”
By the song’s end, the group have settled on some form of happiness, and that emotion carries on through to ‘MY WORLD’’s final track, ‘Til We Meet Again’. It’s pretty and sparkling, a gentle ballad that could be a message to their fans or fellow members. “Til we meet again / Remember when you’re alone / The power of the music / Will connect us,” the four-piece reminds us, although the sweet message doesn’t make the song itself more memorable.
‘Til We Meet Again’ could also be directed at aespa’s new collaborator, nævis, who appears on ‘Welcome To MY World’, one of the pair of brand new songs on the record. In the group’s lore – which has been heavily referenced in their previous tracks – nævis is an AI system that lets the quartet’s æs be seen in the real world by the members. The character was supposedly debuting at SXSW in March as part of a VR concert from aespa, but failed to appear.
Here, she does show up – but is easily missed. Her contribution to ‘Welcome To MY World’ – a song that builds from whispered foundations to a grand epic – is minimal, only reportedly singing a series of “da ra ra di da da” backing vocals and echoing the human members in the bridge. It’s in line with the way aespa’s lore feels much more subtle in this batch of songs – traceable if you look hard enough, but with no mentions of Kwangya to confuse or overcomplicate things for the casual listener.
‘MY WORLD’ might water down the layers of SM Culture Universe in its songs, but it doesn’t dilute the sound that aespa have become known for. Title track ‘Spicy’ is a prime example of that, a burst of attitude-filled pop that zips and revs and roars. It’s confident and cool – the kind of song that makes you feel like the main character via self-assured lyrics (“Tell me what you see / When you look at me / ‘Cause I am a 10 out of 10, honestly”) and a healthy dose of ’90s girl power spirit. So far, aespa have been the main characters in the SMCU; now, ‘MY WORLD’ is proving they could dominate other cosmoses too.
- Release date: May 8, 2023
- Record label: SM Entertainment