Wow. THIS is Wanna One’s concept. I would never in a million years have expected a rookie project group to go melancholy so early in their run (this is only their second comeback!), especially since the upbeat concept of debut tracks “Energetic” and “Burn It Up” was so commercially successful. And yet, Wanna One are back with a ballad as a title track. And it’s incredible. I mean, it’s so good. Title track “Beautiful” and the rest of the repackage album, “1-1=0 (Nothing Without You),” land perfectly at the intersection of discerning pop simplicity, sophisticated attention to detail, and superb performance. It’s a dream combo that you don’t see often, because these days, everyone in K-pop wants to stay on top of trends or produce something with shock value. “Beautiful” takes the focus off of style and makes it about the music. I don’t know that I can express how refreshing that is.
I spent the last few weeks catching up on season 2 of Produce 101 to find out more about Wanna One’s musical identity, and this comeback made me very glad I did. The concept is plot-centered, conveying a story through a cinematic, eight-minute-long music video as well as a separate prologue film. Broken dreams, broken arms, and a broken relationship between brothers are only a few of the heart-rending elements of this music video, whose goal is not to present the song so much as to draw the viewer into the unfolding concept. So when I first watched “Beautiful,” the song didn’t hit me, although I was listening as closely as I could. It essentially serves as background music to the movie, obscured almost for the duration by voices speaking and ambient noise. You just can’t hear the track very well.
So after watching the MV, I sat back and thought, “Well, the song was…decent?” I had no idea that over the next few hours, I was about to fall hard for “Beautiful” and the rest of the repack. If you haven’t yet listened to the official audio, I can’t recommend enough that you do. The composition of “Beautiful” is wistful and yearning instead of saccharine, which takes the song itself a long way, providing sincerity where it might otherwise have fallen into sentimentality. Too often, ballads follow an unobtrusive and unremarkable tune for the sake of setting a gentle mood. But “Beautiful” has an assertive melody whose every note demands to be heard and noticed. It’s not fluid, but arresting, making each phrase feel like a full stop. The effect of this is hugely dramatic but never melodramatic, because it is derived from the music itself rather than from overperformance or cheesy production. And it’s not just the melody, but other high-tension dynamic moments that pack so much emotion into this composition—for example, the sudden hush after the buildup to the chorus, where a single measure’s worth of low vocals delays the chorus. Even this particular moment changes subtly across repetitions: the first time, member Daniel’s vocal is muted and distant; during the second chorus, the radio-static effect is removed and we unexpectedly hear Jihoon’s voice close and clear. The increasing vulnerability in these moments gives dimension to the song’s potent atmosphere.
Right, and that reminds me: Wanna One’s performance skills are not to be underestimated in this genre. It’s not that I dislike their earlier styles, though “Burn It Up” had a bit too much tough-guy bluster for me. And this may simply be an effect of having three more months’ worth of experience under their belts. But musically, Wanna One suits this concept so well. Can we talk about the vocal depth that is displayed in “Beautiful”? Obviously, main vocal Jaehwan is top notch. But vocalists such as Sungwoon, Minhyun, Daehwi and several others are huge assets to the team, as their diverse vocal styles provide the ballad with character and distinctiveness. Not only do the vocalists set “Beautiful” apart, but other members who are often assigned to rap positions—including the aforementioned Daniel and Jihoon as well as main rapper Woojin—propel the ballad forward instead of just taking up space with boring sing-talking, as some K-pop rappers do when they have to participate in a ballad. These members, while they’re not great singers, have a natural sense for how to bring gravity to their singing parts without performing enormous feats in regards to tone or pitch. Frankly, it surprised me—I didn’t know they were capable of such poignant delivery, but again, “Beautiful” has revealed that Wanna One is more suited to this concept than we could have known.
I could keep going on about this song—about the members’ performance; about the surprisingly vulnerable and intimate lyrics; about the arrangement and production details that add sonic complexity, such as the cascading piano over the prechorus, the subtle strings in the final refrain, the staggered vocal parts tensely trading on and off in the hook, the heart-wrenching unresolved a cappella ending. But I have to give due credit to the rest of the repackage, which is a gold mine. Not including the (wonderful! inspiring!) intro and outro, “1-1=0” features two new songs and two remixes. “Wanna” is a sparkling mid-tempo softie whose production deftly balances acoustic and pop sounds, even throwing in a brief break of future bass that somehow sounds completely at home amid the acoustic guitar. “Twilight” follows in the footsteps of its cotton candy predecessor “Wanna Be (My Baby),” the song I enjoyed the most from “1×1=1.” Though it’s not quite as clean as “Beautiful” and “Wanna,” I love “Twilight.” The melody is a feel-gooder, the beat is always evolving, and it’s not short on ear-pleasing details—take, for instance, the background vocals during the repetition of the word “twilight.” Yes, it’s a little much to sing the same word twelve times in a row, but if you listen closely there’s subtle compositional variation: during the final four “twilight”s, the background harmonies stop complementing the lead melody and instead rise against it. The final notes are dissonant, adding a new tint to the warmth of the melody. Details like these are what I love most about “1-1=0.”
Oh, and don’t—DON’T!—skip the remixes, because they’re killer. For me, “Burn It Up (Prequel Remix)” is even better than the original, because it strips a fair amount of that overly hardcore vibe, and also introduces new chords that make the melody more interesting. Plus, the beat’s sick. “Energetic (Prequel Remix)” is also worth a listen. The thing I didn’t love about the original was its lack of accessible melody (completely a matter of personal taste in this case, because the goal of “Energetic” was to focus more on texture than tune, and in that regard, everything about it was superb), but this remix gave back the melody in places. It also pushes the beat of the original into uncharted territory, with satisfying results.
In every way, this comeback was a success. Wanna One has seriously found their strength. I hope they continue to exploit their talent for emotionality, if not with ballads then with equally sincere material in future comebacks, because everything about “Beautiful” is just…well, just that! Beautiful. I couldn’t be happier about the direction the group took with “1-1=0,” and I can’t wait to see where the concept will go next.
BEAUTIFUL: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? Haven’t been this excited to call something a Kaybop in a long time.
Take a look at Wanna One’s “Beautiful” MV below: