I have to say, SF9 made a gutsy move tackling a cultural concept. While the song’s title is Italian (meaning “My Sun”), the most salient non-K-pop musical elements—that is to say, the cascading guitar as well as the chord progression—are markedly Spain-inspired, as is the bullfighting-reminiscent choreography. Aside from the repeated Italian of its name, “O Sole Mio” also includes Spanish, English and even Latin along with Korean. Honestly, I would never have expected a decent result out of so much culture-mashing, but the truth is that the cultural concept is elegantly executed. SF9 did not go overboard with the incorporation of traditional Spanish symbols in the music video; they did not cast a Latina-looking girl to chase after or dress up as toreros. They only used the pertinent elements of music and dance. Even so, the track itself has too much going on, and sonically it made my head spin.
The highlight of “O Sole Mio” is surely its chorus. The hook has plenty of color, which it owes largely to the Spanish chord progression, and incorporates multiple catchy melodies with success. While “O Sole Mio” is compositionally sound, the culture-mashing, as I’ll continue to call it, is disorienting. It may be that I’m the only one, but when SF9 leapfrogs through five different languages in the span of less than a minute, I feel like I’m getting whiplash. Even putting the languages aside, “O Sole Mio” is just too noisy. The song might have worked if FNC Entertainment had let the Spanish elements stand alone. But they piled on the more K-pop sounding electronic bells and whistles—perhaps to make the cultural concept more palatable for Korean audiences, perhaps aiming to generate some new fusion brand—and it’s too distracting to allow the listener to ever actually get into the song. There’s a particular rolling chirp sound, especially loud in the prechoruses, that I wish had been left out. Moments like those made it difficult for me to get with “O Sole Mio,” though I tried my damnedest.
The rest of “Knights of the Sun,” SF9’s third mini-album, makes moves towards the unique while never going all the way off the K-pop reservation. Each song has its charms, although none of them are flawless. There’s a habit of overproduction on this album (there always has been with SF9) but there is one place where this foible doesn’t reach: “00:00,” alternatively titled “Poem.” This introduction, barely 2 minutes long and performed exclusively by SF9’s rap line, is bizarrely good. After thirty seconds of Chani speaking pensively over a background of birdsong and spare acoustic guitar, a deliberate R&B beat comes barreling in with the three other rappers on its heels, each bringing varied hip-hop-style vocals and rap to the short track. The concept of “Poem,” which tells the story of a narrator trying to write a love poem with little success, takes the song a level higher as the lyrics poke fun at other K-pop and at themselves: “I see my cheeks red like the sun. You—ha, what am I doing? I have to sleep,” says Chani, and later, leader Youngbin raps, “My life changed overnight, you’re a unique star…I’m no good at this, I’m just putting it on, I just want to hear your voice.” The song serves both as a disclaimer and as the poem itself, which is wonderfully playful and also extremely authentic.
Aside from “Poem,” I enjoyed the jazzy “Blank” and hip-hop driven “Scold” quite a bit. I would love to see SF9 steer down the R&B and hip-hop route in upcoming comebacks, because I think their efforts in those directions have been much cleaner and more original than their more pop-leaning tracks. SF9 continues to work hard, and I’m sure their fearlessness in the face of K-pop boundaries will pay off in the near future.
O SOLE MIO: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? I applaud SF9’s bravery on “O Sole Mio,” but it didn’t come together for me. Flop.
Take a look at SF9’s “O Sole Mio” MV below: