Friday, June 11th, 2021

aespa – Next Level

“Next” is merely a concept relative to the position from which it follows…


Crystal Leww: Song production and engineering: $5. Music: $2. Songwriting: $0.10. Choreography: $10. Writing the lore: $834,029. Video: $32,094,802… Someone please help me budget this — my girl group is dying. 

Rose Stuart: I’m not going to write off aespa this early. All SM artists have teething problems at the start of their careers, with the exception of maybe BoA, and they all (well, most) eventually found their footing. aespa needs time to find their sound and their style, after which I’m sure they’ll be just as successful as other SM groups (or not, considering all the trouble the company has been in lately). But “Black Mamba” was just an underwhelming debut song and easy to recover from. “Next Level” is outright bad. The song is dominated by something that falls uncomfortably between rapping, speaking, and chanting, which is supposed to sound cool but instead sounds disdainful and bored. When the track does switch things up, the new musical elements sound out of place and lackluster. SM Entertainment has always pioneered the K-Pop sound of practically changing songs halfway through, for better or worse, but even in the worst examples there is at least a small part of the song that works. Nothing about “Next Level” works. Even the bridge, which finally shows that the girls have some of those famed “SM vocals”, is limp and uninteresting. More than anything, it sounds like what small companies were putting out in the early 2010s, and it was dated then. For a song called “Next Level”, it’s impressive how much it seems out of touch. 

Dede Akolo: Unfortunately, this beat drop feels completely unearned and unfulfilling. This song becomes better with every listen, but that doesn’t say much when at first listen I wanted to swear off it. SM Entertainment needs to understand its limits and know that not every song needs to jumpcut into another stratosphere of genre.

Kayla Beardslee: I feel like we’re collectively watching SM Entertainment go through a mid-life crisis. Their spouse (aka their status as the undisputed top K-pop company) left them for a younger woman (aka HYBE), and now SM is staying out late and drinking in crowds of much younger people (aka debuting a new group) to try and escape their problems. On one of those nights, they did mushrooms for the first time and hallucinated a magical world called the Kwangya. You go over to their house to check on them and find that they’ve bought a shiny, expensive new car (…aka the rights to a song from the Fast & Furious soundtrack), and they keep insisting that their best friend from high school (some high-level creative director[s] willing to go along with Lee Soo Man’s shenanigans) has stumbled upon a perfect get-rich quick scheme (aka imitating Blackpink’s image-first and music-second marketing while using L O R E as a Venus fly trap for stans) that will finally turn their life around and get them back on track. beat drop You leave their house and drop your smile as soon as you’re out the door. After you’re gone, SM sits on their couch, drinking a warm beer and staring at the TV as it plays BTS and Blackpink US television performances on a loop. “Soon,” SM mutters, “soon I’ll be on the next level. No one knows what the K-pop world needs better than me. They’ll see… they’ll all see.”

Alfred Soto: Ignorant of the behind-the-scenes machinations at SM Entertainment, I approached “Next Level” as a moderately entertaining quasi-rocker garnished with a moderately entertaining beat drop interesting for its own sake rather than where it takes the song — certainly not to another level.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: It’s ridiculously ambitious for a single even if you aren’t playing into the Sherry-Turkle-Life-On-The-Screen-meets-Code-Lyoko persona work that aespa’s doing in their girl group worldbuilding. And yet, despite the world-conquering reach of “Next Level”, there’s something slightly threadbare about its construction — the linkage between the Fast & Furious soundtracking bit and the new jack swing bit is amateurish, and the individual sections lack the drama required to stand on their own. “Next Level” doesn’t quite work as a pocket symphony — but as pure auditory entertainment it’s undeniable, a wave of hooks that can’t stop itself.

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Ruckus, extra, Bruno Mars-level-vibes silliness that unfurls with the subtlety of a stick of rainbow dynamite exploding.

Dorian Sinclair: I badly want “Next Level” to work better than it does. There’s some really excellent details here: I love the rubberiness of the bass ostinato, and the swagger all the vocalists bring. But it’s a weirdly static song. This is an odd complaint when midway through there’s a deliberate and drastic switchup, but the secondary theme introduced at the “beat drop” is so different that it feels like someone abruptly changed the radio station — and when we return to the original theme, nothing from the interlude is carried forward. Things just carry on as though it never happened, and we end in essentially the same place we started. Some fun notions, but without a strong structure they fail to make an impression.

Will Adams: See, what worked about the gimmick in “I Got a Boy” was that the tempo change felt like a shot in the arm, like getting a power-up in the middle of a Mario Kart race. I cannot fathom why anyone thought having a slower breakdown in the middle of a solid — if swiped — midtempo electro groove would be exciting. It’s less “next level” and more “character died and respawned at the last checkpoint.”

Juana Giaimo: I wish the proportion of the Fast & Furious cover to the original songwriting was the other way round. aespa has really good vocals that I feel are not taken into account by their team. The way they sharply emphasize words — “I’m on the next level”, “I see the nuuu evo” — is addictive, but a little bit repetitive. When the beat drops and the song suddenly turns jazzier, their vocals sound so fresh: they are playful, effortlessly going from singing to rapping, with the loose beat making it all really dynamic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long and when the main track comes back again, it sounds even more structured than before — I feel it needed something new, maybe a slight variation of the melody to complement that interlude.

Nortey Dowuona: The snarling bass and scattered drums circle aespa, the percussion trailing and then chomping but waved away by the bass, which slings in synth horns that bring in plush JJTL keyboards, then sweep in aespa. They climb upon it, riding it carefully, before pulling down the snarling bass into the scarred and scattered drums, spinning them amongst their hands, then leapin upon it and riding away.

Rachel Saywitz: So, I came into this review ready to comment on the absurdity of aespa’s entire concept and drag the horrible “I Got A Boy” callback that we should have left back in 2013. I was even ready to sing a few praises — I enjoyed the bubbling sputters of personality, heard in a defiant Ning Ning (“watch me while I work it”), and the robotic yet assertive hook of “I’m on the next level.” But then I remembered that “Next Level” was advertised as a rework of a song from the Fast & Furious: Presents Hobbs and Shaw soundtrack, almost donning a badge of honor. I hadn’t heard the song; I assumed aespa wouldn’t actually be reworking this beat-for-beat. Well, no less than three minutes ago had I pulled up this aforementioned song on my MacBook and immediately resisted an urge to throw it against the wall. Even now, my fingers are trembling, turning this would-be three-to-five sentence review into a vengeful diatribe. THEY TOOK! THE WHOLE SONG! THEY LITERALLY JUST COPIED THE SONG AND PASTED IT INTO GARAGEBAND, HAD THE GIRLS SPEAK WORDS LIKE “KOSMO” AND “THAT’S MY NÆVIS” IN A VOCODER, AND ADDED A LITTLE JAZZ BREAK IN THERE FOR SHITS AND GIGGLES AND CALLED IT A BRAND NEW GREAT SONG WHY?!?! I am both fast and furious, the hobbs and shaw colliding into my body, fighting to break free from my temptation to drive a fucking used station-wagon with a horrible paint job into the SM building and demand some answers because THIS? THIS is a travesty. As the Hobbsman and Shawster would say — this calls for a furiously fast exit out of your entertainment agency. (Full disclosure: I have not seen any Fast & Furious movies.)

Michael Hong: Too “Fast & Furious playing with the little car parts in the garage” not enough “Fast & Furious racing through the city.”

Reader average: [4] (3 votes)

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12 Responses to “aespa – Next Level”

  1. The thing that stood out to me was the ‘similarity’ to Jain’s “Makeba”

  2. I started writing a digression with some further thoughts in the alt-text of one of my links, but then it turned out I had MANY thoughts and it ballooned into this 1400 word ramble about a whole bunch of Aespa/SM/K-pop-related things. I do want to share it ~for the discourse~, but I’m feeling extremely self-conscious about flooding the comments with a self-serving wall of text, so I might just put it up as a blog post in a bit and link to it to spare everyone lol.

    Anyway I can’t believe I’m the only person below a [3], this song is humiliating.

  3. contrariwise I’m a little surprised that I’m the only score above 6— this is so frothy and try-hard that I can’t help but be endeared by it

  4. I started hating this song, but for some reason I kept listening to it and watching all their performances and now I have no idea how I feel about it (a [6] seemed right)

  5. I’m a little surprised by the extreme reactions to this song – to me it sounds very old skool SM Ent – harsh synths, sharp edges, sudden shifts into rnb jamming . Personally I love it.

  6. Jacob, I kinda did end up unironically loving it after initially going in ironically, I just wasn’t feeling brave enough to officially attach a score to it haha

  7. Ok gonna drop this and run away. Sorry I’m so mad lmao, unbranded voice assistant play “Why So Serious” by SHINee.

  8. Incidentally, “gonna drop this and run away” was also exactly how SM handled the marketing for Baekhyun and Taemin’s most recent comebacks.

  9. Never in my life did I think I’d hear someone crib the melody to Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock,” and yet.

  10. just wanna say the part where she goes “beat drop” is good, feels very fast, very furious

  11. Kayla your blurb was the best piece of flash fiction I’ve read in a bit…

  12. Japan’s idol market had to live through 48G to get to more interesting things. Hang in there!