Red Velvet: Peek-A-Boo Review

Out of all the groups in the stacked comeback lineup this November, it was Red Velvet I was most excited for by far. The hype was unreal, with SM Entertainment hinting at a unique combination of Red Velvet’s upbeat “red” concepts with their mature “velvet” concepts and dropping photo, audio, and video teasers for “Perfect Velvet” every day for over a week. The girls’ second full-length album lives up to every bit of that hype. It’s easy to tell that the approach to concept is different from past releases, because the sound of “Perfect Velvet” is significantly evolved. While past Red Velvet albums have operated within an occasionally R&B- or funk-touched realm of creative pop, this album adds a heavy dose of chill electronica into the mix. That may sound eclectic or even disorganized, but actually, it’s Red Velvet’s most cohesive record ever. In fact, it’s highly reminiscent of sister group f(x)’s latest album, “4 Walls,” only it’s weirder—making a return, after the more normative pop of Red Velvet’s previous release “The Red Summer,” to the girls’ established tradition of strangeness. Whereas songs like “Dumb Dumb,” “Rookie,” and others were stylistically and conceptually strange, this album elegantly refocuses the lens of weirdness on composition. This very sophisticated choice demonstrates a growth I’ve been waiting to see in Red Velvet since this time last year when “Russian Roulette” dropped, and it’s thrilling to finally be watching it happen.

So let’s talk about title track “Peek-A-Boo.” Before “Perfect Velvet” dropped, I only watched one teaser: the first music video teaser, which revealed the opening instrumental of “Peek-A-Boo.” I knew from those eight and a half measures alone that I was going to love the song. That sprinkle of synths might as well be fairy dust, it’s so pleasing to the ears. You’ve got the frothy, almost chalky sound that kicks the song off, which is followed by a lower, echoing, grounding synth, and very shortly after a methodical, slightly uncomfortable blink that adds a dash of the sinister. These three elements play off each other to construct a rhythm, a melody, and a dimensional soundscape. When you listen with earphones, each of the sounds lands on your ear from a different angle, giving the sensation that they all serendipitously have happened to intersect precisely in a way that created music. That it’s a stroke of luck or something. Not only is the production a bubbly textural delight, but the combination of notes utilizes the contrasting flavors of minor and major chords to create a technicolor melody that immediately sets an enigmatic mood. I’ve got a weakness for this distinctive compositional choice, and before I knew it I was smitten with the first ten seconds of “Peek-A-Boo.”

When the song finally dropped, it was game over for me. There’s a unique combination of catchy and alluring here (again—that’s “red” concept meets “velvet” concept), and it leaves a deep impression with just one listen. At first I was a little disappointed with the hook, only because the energy in the verses is so tightly wound that I wanted it to explode into a full, atmospheric chorus—something with the dramatic impact of, say, NCT 127’s “Limitless” or EXO’s “Monster.” Maybe I was expecting something richer because of SM’s history of going big, and perhaps also because “The Red Summer” had such exciting and expansive choruses throughout. However, the goal of “Peek-A-Boo” is not to be exciting and expansive. Rather, this chorus is restrained, operating in an understated dance space where percussion and synths are minimal and the bass features heavily. This minimalist dance hook is becoming a trend in K-pop, and while it’s not my personal favorite thing in the world, it does make for unexpected dynamics. This surprising dynamic structure is where the core of “Peek-A-Boo” takes root, rolling at a restless pace over rhythmically melodious verses with the occasional soundbite of texture-enhancing rap and into the startling, slightly creepy airiness of the chorus. My favorite part of the song is Irene’s “peekaboo, peekaboo, peekaboo” at the very end. By now the listener is accustomed to hearing the word “peekaboo” delivered again and again in high-pitched rap that passes in a blink, so the suddenly low, melodic sound of the word has an ominous feeling.

As much as I loved “Peek-A-Boo,” I loved the album as a whole even more. Not a single song was dissatisfying or even boring, even though more songs share a similar style than any of Red Velvet’s past releases. If I went into detail about each song, as I’d like to, this review might never end, so I’ll only discuss the biggest highlights. “I Just” in all its hefty R&B glory just may be my favorite. The blunt, weighty beat is fairly uniform through almost the entire song, only letting up in the bridge before the last chorus. It’s usually almost impossible to have dynamic ups and downs in a song where the beat doesn’t change significantly, but “I Just” is one of the most dynamic songs on the album. This feat is accomplished largely by the stunning vocal arrangement. The best example of this—and one of the best moments on the album—is the very end, where the double hook’s two elements are reversed and all the overlying percussion suddenly falls away, leaving only a stark, deliberate vocal rendering of the first half of the hook. The tension in this moment is just through the roof, making for an explosive conclusion to the track.

“I Just” is the most representative of the album’s sound out of the three B-sides I’m going to mention, with its measured pace and heavy atmosphere that recalls past “velvet” concept tracks such as “Automatic” and “Cool Hot Sweet Love.” But “Attaboy,” on the other hand, steps away from the “velvet” side of “Perfect Velvet” and into the “red.” This track is decidedly peculiar—the production takes hip-hop and trap elements and compresses them until they all fit into the track at once, and the result is as dumbfounding as it is addicting. It’s rap-heavy, which is only natural with this type of instrumental, but the best part is the vocal “ah-yah”s in the creative chorus. They have a flat, almost industrial production, which paired with the circular melody give them an irresistibly danceable feel. Really. You can’t help but move.

I’d be remiss not to bring up the imaginative “My Second Date,” which really threw me for a loop when I first heard it. The sweet opening and the cute title made me think that “My Second Date” would take us back to the sound of the first album “The Red.” But “My Second Date” actually becomes a more and more unhinged creation over the course of the song, kicking off the moment it becomes clear that the bell melody is sharp. Sharp. That’s wild. It’s no mistake—SM doesn’t make errors—so the off-key bells must have been included on purpose. It’s distracting, certainly, but this disruptiveness serves a purpose in “My Second Date,” which layers a new strange element over the mellow vocal melody with each passing verse or chorus. Vocal distortions and a zappy rattling noise are among the sonic oddities that appear in this track, and while it’s not exactly ear-pleasing, it’s absolutely fascinating, and miles better than any old sweet mid-tempo track.

2017 really has proved to be Red Velvet’s year. They’ve been unstoppably prolific, putting out two mini-albums and one full-length between February and now, and not a single comeback has been half-baked (anyone who thinks “Rookie” is a bad song—let’s talk). While I’d hesitate to jump to the conclusion right away that this is my favorite Red Velvet album, I have no doubts that this comeback, with its sophisticated sound and off-the-wall concept (have you watched the music video? What a TRIP!) is my favorite yet. Red Velvet’s rise can only get steeper from here on out, and I can’t wait to see how high they will go.

 

PEEK-A-BOO: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? The boppiest of bops.

 


Take a look at Red Velvet’s “Peek-A-Boo” MV below:

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