With Red Velvet‘s recent comeback, let’s take a moment to reflect on their groundbreaking first full-length album, The Red.
Red Velvet exist on the hectic frontline of K-pop. The industry feels exponentially bigger since “Gangnam Style” blew up, and the S.M. Entertainment label quintet have to compete with a huge multitude of other girl groups as a result. Although they have fared better than the average group, they have certainly fought to get to that position, even with the advantage of being from a bigger company.
You can’t help but mention f(x) when you talk about Red Velvet. They are often the most immediate comparison since they are Red Velvet’s seniors in their company, and were also known for their experimental take on K-pop. The matter of the comparisons they get musically I’ll cover later, but that’s certainly something that’s been a lingering shadow over Red Velvet’s existence.
In K-pop, it’s inevitable that you get compared to the groups that came before you in your company (we’re seeing it now with BLACKPINK being crowned a new 2NE1, or CLC being rebranded as Cube Entertainment’s replacement to the recently disbanded 4Minute). f(x) were compared to Girls’ Generation when they debuted, and likewise Red Velvet face f(x) comparisons. The one big difference is the gap between Girls’ Generation and f(x) was two years, while the equivalent gap for f(x) to Red Velvet has been five. More than any girl group before them, Red Velvet had something to prove.
Just before their 4 Walls promotions, f(x) went from five to four with the departure of member Sulli, something I already touched on in length when talking about 4 Walls. She had been on hiatus since July 2014 however, effectively making f(x) a quartet for an additional year. This was just before Red Velvet’s debut that August. Even before Red Velvet were out of the gates, their comparisons to f(x) went from simply simmering to boiling over entirely (and although I won’t touch on it in too much detail, Red Velvet did go from four to five during their “Ice Cream Cake” promotions, yet another interesting development considering the drama within the company).
When their debut single “Happiness” came out, it felt somewhat rushed. First of all, It was almost entirely overshadowed by the internal dramas in S.M. Entertainment, whether it was f(x)’s turmoil or the very start of the issues in boy band EXO, when Chinese member Kris filed a lawsuit against the label. Secondly, response to the actual song itself was mixed.
Certainly nothing hugely wrong with the song, but the ‘Red’ concept felt washed out in the cheerleader-y, slightly novel, dare-I-say-it slightly f(x)-like chorus. Or that they had basically immediately become a meme with their offbeat pronunciation of “Happiness!”. Or most worryingly of all, it quickly came out that the music video had imagery of 9/11 and Hiroshima buried in it: perhaps an honest mistake, perhaps a tactic to divert attention from Sulli and f(x), but either way, something that detracted from what should have been a good debut and certainly something that was never the fault of the girls in the group.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room. Does Red Velvet sound like f(x)? Simply, to some extent, yes. But does that mean that they’re interchangeable groups? Absolutely not. While they share some musical DNA (you can probably put that on sharing similar songwriters and producers), they have distinct influences and trends that are unique to their respective groups.
One is particularly important: Red Velvet’s R&B influence (something that f(x) doesn’t really touch in comparison). While the influence of R&B is absolutely everywhere in pop music (both East and West), very few K-pop acts have claimed the genre for themselves as intentionally as Red Velvet: it’s no coincidence that the second single Red Velvet released was a cover of S.E.S.’s “Be Natural”, a jazzy R&B track that linked Red Velvet to their label’s intricate history).
You can also hear the hallmarks of R&B immediately from the group’s vocals, for instance. Let’s compare Red Velvet’s main vocalist, Wendy, with f(x)’s, Luna. Both Luna and Wendy are incredibly strong powerhouse vocalists, but Wendy has always had a far, far stronger leaning towards R&B and soul than Luna does.
Luna‘s bright, crisp soprano voice lends itself well both to the upbeat busy pop of f(x)’s material pre-4 Walls and much of the more UK-centric material on 4 Walls or her solo mini-album, Free Somebody. But f(x) rarely puts R&B-style runs into their songs, and there are very few R&B-style slower songs either, playing best into Luna’s strengths (see how it’s predominantly Amber who sings the lower parts of “Traveler” on 4 Walls, since she has an earthier, less bright register than Luna). She’s capable on sustaining long, powerful notes as expected of a lyric soprano, but her strength lies in concrete consistency, rather than vocal agility.
On the other hand, consider Wendy. She perhaps doesn’t quite have the stadium-filling pipes that Luna does (although she’s pretty close), but what she does have is a malleable, versatile voice. As said, it’s much more suited to R&B and straight pop material: she’s been recorded singing Beyoncé’s “Halo” in her pre-debut days, and did a short cover of Jessie J’s “Who You Are”, yet another song that requires a lot of vocal agility. It makes sense after all: half of Red Velvet’s concept revolves around that sultry R&B sound, so Wendy fits into that position just as well as Luna fits into f(x)’s needs.
The Red was a turning point for Red Velvet. They certainly got some mild success with their previous material such as their Ice Cream Cake EP, but their debut album with The Red was both a domestic and international success, something that very few K-pop acts achieve these days.
Much of that success can probably be placed on the single, “Dumb Dumb”. It felt precisely what a Red Velvet Red-concept single should feel like: energetic, playful but brimming with attitude. Importantly, it didn’t feel like something f(x) could release, with its horn-heavy sound, trap hi-hats and incessant claps.
A lot of people compared the song to Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”, and while you can see the resemblance particularly in the first few moments of the song, the song does diverge quite radically from there out on out. Where “Bang Bang” mines gospel for its chorus, “Dumb Dumb” feels altogether more dissonant in its execution. Several moments in the song simply couldn’t exist in a Western song, such as the ludicrous rap verse, which is a series of Michael Jackson song name-drops (and they even get a deep cut with “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” from Dangerous in there as well!). As if that weren’t enough, it’s immediately followed by a bridge that feels like it was plucked out of an altogether different song.
The music video was equally as frenetic as the song. Where some criticised “Ice Cream Cake” and “Automatic” for making the members unrecognisable and indistinguishable in their uniformly blonde look, the video for “Dumb Dumb” almost consciously plays with that, casting the girls as mass-produced mannequins in a factory. A comment on the state of the highly competitive and lucrative K-pop industry itself, or just a fun concept? Your choice, it works either way.
Beyond the lead single itself, The Red has earned a reputation for being a prime example of a consistent, cohesive K-pop album, something that only feels like a real development in recent years. As said, the industry has grown hugely, and the increased professionalism of the musical output from big marquee groups like Red Velvet reflects that.
It’s an unwaveringly energetic album from top to bottom, and just as catchy to boot. One could quite easily see a variety of songs being the lead single in the place of “Dumb Dumb”: “Huff n Puff”, “Red Dress” and “Oh Boy” to name three of the most obviously suitable contenders (and in the teaser videos for “Dumb Dumb”, fans were mislead, thinking that the sound snippets of the quirky, mechanical “Huff n Puff” was the title track instead). In previous years, it may have been difficult to see this many potential singles on one album, with labels fairly content to pad out albums with filler tracks instead. Compare that to The Red’s relatively modest 10-track length, with the whole album basically being devoid of filler.
Hook first. That is the philosophy of K-pop, and it is nowhere more apparent than on The Red. Melodies are workshopped, fiddled with, stripped apart, put back together like individual Frankenstein’s Monsters. The album’s ten tracks are misleading, with inevitably tens of other songs that did not make the cut for every one that did. Each song has to make their way through songwriting camps, through the label, through the Korean lyricists, through the actual recording process. Only the catchiest songs will make their way through.
Where do the songs even come from? Some come from native Korean songwriters: prolific songwriting team MonoTree are solely responsible for “Day 1”, for instance, whose bossa nova vibe is reminiscent of Japanese and Korean coffee shop ditties—in many ways, it’s likely the most traditional song on the album.
As is often the case, many will come from Scandinavian songwriting camps. As you expect from a region with such a rich pop history (ABBA, Max Martin, just to name some of the goliath names that have been produced there), they have an unmistakable touch when it comes to songwriting. Of course, their hooks are massive and easy to sing along to, but often provide a healthy dose of weirdness into the pop. In 2012, A Swedish culture television show called Kobra did an episode looking at K-pop and the Swedish songwriters working on it. In particular, they looked at a team of songwriters responsible for the likes of Girls’ Generation’s “Flower Power” and many other hits from SM artists. Every morning, they get a brief from the higher-ups at the label with the songs that they want for the day, then they make songs to that brief in their subteams. In one part of the episode, you can hear a few seconds of the demo of Red Velvet’s “Ice Cream Cake”, almost three whole years before it actually saw the light of day on the Ice Cream Cake EP.
“We’re told how they want the eurythmics, what songs they want the lyrics to resemble,” the team says at one point, an interesting thing to think about considering that the English demos get translated back into native Korean at some point. At another point, “We always put in really sharp harmonies, cause it seems like [the label bosses] always like it.” That particular sentiment often rings true: songs such as “Ice Cream Cake” avoid the usual four chord trope with success and feature modulating, bizarre progressions that are off-beat without being alienating. On The Red itself, check out the dissonant harmonies towards the beginning of the new jack swing-style “Lady’s Room” for a good example of where this comes into play.
As with many of the late 2015 releases from S.M. Entertainment, The Red features production from UK production duo, LDN Noise. While they certainly made the sound of the UK dance scene apparent on both SHINee’s Odd and f(x)’s 4 Walls, their approach on Red Velvet’s album was less dance-orientated, and more towards the sound of American R&B. Still, even without their signature British sound, their sharp and bright production is incredibly recognisable on the four cuts they provided to the album (“Dumb Dumb”, “Campfire”, “Red Dress”, “Oh Boy”).
A lot of late 00s and early 10s K-pop was very electro-heavy and synth-orientated, if you consider huge hits such as Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys” or SHINee’s “Ring Ding Dong”. A song like “Campfire” feels a million years away from that trend, which starts off with real guitars and is punctuated with bursts of brass and healthy wallops of funk bass. T-Pain style autotune effects are out in favour of vocal acrobatics and pristine harmonies too.
It’s interesting to see how fast some of the songs on this album are. American pop at the moment is sometimes bemoaned as being too slow, with very few songs in the charts at the moment being above 100 beats-per-minute. Two songs on the album breach that speed on The Red, yet another sign of its high energy: “Dumb Dumb” sitting at an intense 145 BPM, and “Red Dress” at 120 BPM. Interestingly, while the verses on “Red Dress” are rapid and unstoppable, the beat essentially halves in speed for the chorus, which is a heavier affair all around.
“Oh Boy” is probably the singular song that shows off the R&B influence of the album the most. The song’s opening is unwaveringly bold: 90s piano and an impressive upwards vocal run from Wendy (a change from the majority of Red Velvet songs, where Seulgi tends to be the first to sing without fail). The organ and disc scratches are huge throwbacks to 90s R&B (Mariah Carey, En Vogue, and so on): a genre that the likes of LDN Noise and indeed Wendy of Red Velvet herself (considering she grew up in Ontario, Canada) must have grown up with extensively.
There are a few curiosities on the album. “Time Slip” is essentially two completely different songs stitched together, and despite that, it sounds totally normal. The verses utilise a DJ Mustard-style beat (something that has been a popular trend in the West as well with the likes of “Fancy” and “Classic Man” as well) and hip-hop style shouts, but the chorus turns into a perfectly contained piece of romantic old-school R&B out of nowhere, and before you settle into its groove, the song quickly returns to its edgier verses.
It’s a Frankenstein-style songwriting style that has never made itself present in America, but has found a welcome home in K-pop (although, with that said, it also had a strong presence in 00s UK pop, with producers Xenomania and their similar DIY approach to songwriting defining a lot of the sounds that dominated the country via Girls Aloud and so on).
“Don’t U Wait No More” showcases a more playful side to the group with its nursery rhyme chant-style opening and playground game clapping, a side that has been a constant of the group during Red-concept promotions. You can consider them the middle point between the two other huge girl groups of the moment: TWICE and BLACKPINK. TWICE are firmly set on a persistent light-hearted vibe, and BLACKPINK are edgier and more serious. Red Velvet’s approach mostly tries to balance the two out.
The Red has no ballads. That is simply not how this album goes about things. At least at this point in time, Red Velvet were very conscious about segregating the two musical sides that gave them their name (even though that’s toned down a bit since then). The philosophy has led to more focused tracks all around: the Red tracks are more obviously Red, the Velvet tracks more obviously Velvet. The closest thing to a ballad on The Red is its closer, “Cool World”, with its wistful chord progression and tender vocals, but is still propelled by an exaggerated huge beat and whirring synths as if to purposefully remove all accusations of having a sleepy ballad on the album (something that a lot of other K-pop albums just tend to automatically have at least one of).
It’s all these little things that lend to the strength of The Red. There’s certainly an argument for it being revolutionary: a K-pop album with a coherent vision is still a rarity, although the success of albums such as The Red has led to more and more in the past year. In 2015, we saw Western publications finally mentioning K-pop in a more serious way (with Red Velvet being one of the main names bounced around), from Rolling Stone Magazine putting “Dumb Dumb” in its “10 Best Music Videos of 2015” to the extensive coverage that Red Velvet got from publications like Noisey and Spin.
This is all written in the wake of another Red Velvet comeback, with their 4th mini album, Rookie. Between The Red and now, Red Velvet have already had a few comebacks. Their complimentary piece to their debut album, The Velvet EP, didn’t perform nearly as well. Its focus on ballads wasn’t quite what people were expecting from the group’s Velvet side after the throwback lounge soul of “Automatic”. While many were fans of that comeback and its single, “One Of These Nights”, a lush, trap-tinged ballad brimming with key changes, it’s ultimately unsurprising that it underperformed the way it did.
On the other hand, the comeback after that with “Russian Roulette” happened to be incredibly successful indeed, essentially replicating the impact of “Dumb Dumb”. It’s worth noting that even this comeback had its fair share of problems. It was delayed a while, likely because of S.M. Entertainment’s focus on pushing their new boy band concept, NCT. The promotions for “Russian Roulette” were barely two weeks long, a very short period for a relatively big girl group from a ‘big three’ company.
It’s been a little difficult to see S.M.’s rationale up until now. Despite the lack of focus on their other girl groups, Red Velvet was hardly getting any proper attention either. In all likelihood, It took “Russian Roulette” to blow up for the label to finally take the group seriously.
This comeback with “Rookie” seems to be putting things right where injustice had previously been done. Many of the things Red Velvet fans have been asking for—a fandom name, more variety presence—are finally being addressed. The single itself, a gloriously funk-laden piece of pop, has been polarising, but has seen strong domestic success. This comeback is finally the first where they can be comfortable in their success rather than having to prove something. They’ve proven people wrong, now they can show them what’s right.
Listen to Red Velvet’s The Red album on Apple Music or Spotify below:
Part III — Wonder Girls’ Reboot (Coming Soon)