The individual songs on the K-pop girl group’s mini-album are perfectly adequate, but the release itself never reaches the group’s former heights.
When K-pop girl group Red Velvet debuted in 2014, it was unclear how well the then-quartet would fare. “Happiness” felt like a revamp of Miss A’s “Breathe”—quirky and fun but unconvincing as a first impression. It was followed by a cover of “Be Natural” that was too faithful to the original to showcase Red Velvet’s creativity. Then, half a year and one additional member later, they released two back-to-back singles that catapulted them into K-pop’s upper echelon: “Ice Cream Cake,” a sneering cheerleader romp with music box melodies, Brill Building girl-group harmonies, and a Skrillex-like buzz, and “Automatic,” a slick and sumptuous ’90s R&B track. These two songs were emblematic of their “red” (upbeat) and “velvet” (slower) sides, respectively, but more importantly, they foretold their impressive range.
Red Velvet’s discography serves as a convenient entry point for those interested in what contemporary K-pop does best. For a one-upping of a major Western pop single, there’s “Dumb Dumb,” which transforms “Bang Bang” into an even more boisterous kitchen-sink frenzy. For Korea’s undying love for Yours Truly-era Ariana Grande, there’s the unassailable “Talk to Me.” For a top-shelf K-pop song inspired by Ghost Town DJ’s’ “My Boo,” there’s the heartfelt “Blue Lemonade.” There are truly singular moments, too. “Bad Boy” is one of the only K-pop songs to actually feel sexy, its bassline and synths playfully grinding on each other, while “RBB (Really Bad Boy)” is built on an outrageous assortment of campy whistle-register shrieks and vocal warm-ups. The group’s first two albums, The Red and Perfect Velvet, are among the strongest albums in contemporary Korean music history, regardless of genre. Given such remarkable consistency, it’s fitting that Red Velvet’s latest mini-album is titled Queendom—they handily tower above their contemporaries.
Queendom doesn’t overflow with excellence, though, and its title track rarely offers the quintet the chance to flaunt their vocal prowess. After the year-and-a-half wait since their last single “Psycho,” the song’s uplifting dance-pop is too low-key and frustratingly one-dimensional. In the past, Red Velvet’s singles had specific textures and structures that bolstered their lyrics; the streamlined genre-blending of “Red Flavor” concluded with a sudden ritardando, suggesting a final savoring of summer love, while the stirring chord changes and strings of “One of These Nights” mirrored its uneasy navigation of heartbreak. Here, the message is one of direct encouragement, and without any risk-taking, cries to “be boss” fall flat. The pre-chorus stands out for its piano-house chords; they’re graceful and warm, like a friend clutching your hand, providing a wordless assurance of support. Yet this affection doesn’t register elsewhere, so the pep rings hollow.
Much of Queendom is similarly unambitious, but a couple of its other songs at least have everything in order. “Knock on Wood” traces the anxieties of falling in love, fleshing out the range of emotions felt with careful detail. The verses have sweet melodies, but sharp synth stabs reveal an undercurrent of nervousness. Later, the chorus’ staccato-like singing finds Red Velvet trying to appear composed. Even the titular line’s varied deliveries are important: When the members use a higher register, they sound giddy and hopeful, whereas confident moments present them as hotly determined to win over their crush. “Pushin’ N Pullin’” is the most brilliant track: After a referee whistle blows, piano chords bounce back and forth to signal fighting between lovers. When the chorus arrives, vocal harmonies blossom and push everything else aside. That the piano can be heard beneath this breathy, blissful cloud is moving; it’s a symbol of how this couple’s long-standing love and patience win over their quarreling. It’s the most striking depiction of romance in Red Velvet’s career.
Queendom both falters and thrives in simplicity. On “Better Be,” an elastic beat bubbles and squirms, but neither the vocal harmonies nor the instrumentation create enough tension to move the song past charmless cool. With its f(x) verses and ITZY synths, “Pose” convinces you of its poise despite the tepid energy level. “Hello, Sunset” actually nails a laid-back atmosphere, forming a gentle swaying rhythm with guitar strums. For a song about luxuriating in the joys of a long-lasting relationship, it’s an apt closer to this chapter of Red Velvet’s career.
In fact, right before Queendom’s release, the group celebrated their seventh anniversary with the “Queens Archive,” providing short video clips soundtracked by non-singles from their back catalog. Though it served as a reminder of how strong their music has always been, seeing these videos prior to Queendom’s release was bittersweet; it feels like Red Velvet are uninterested in proving their royal status on this mini-album. No song here is outright bad, and much of their best assets shine through the banalities, but Queendom feels like a signpost of Red Velvet’s former glory. You come to it expecting to meet the royals in the flesh, only to be confronted with their portraits instead.