It’s been quite a year for NU’EST. Though they started 2017 on the verge of disbandment, they’re ending it more popular than ever before. They saw joining Produce 101 as a last-ditch effort, but in reality the show brought them more love and attention than they could have ever expected. With Minhyun in Wanna One, many were anticipating what NU’EST W’s comeback would be like. I’ll admit that I’m highly biased, but I think everything about “Where You At” is excellent. In fact, it’s one of my favorite releases of this entire year – perhaps even the favorite.
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*WARNING!* This review assumes the reader has listened to the music and/or seen the music video!
Music by: Baekho, Bumzu, Royal Dive / Arranged by: Bumzu, Royal Dive
NU’EST is certainly no stranger to EDM; they often introduce themselves as an “urban electro band.” However, the way they interpret its influence is unique from other groups. EDM usually makes a song energetic and powerful through driving the beat. NU’EST, however, focuses more on making emotional and evocative music. For example, their previous album Canvas is designed so each song reminds you of a different time of day. They use synth and percussion to set the mood rather than the pace, and the result gives them a distinct signature sound. Normally I’d never associate EDM with easy listening music, but that’s exactly what NU’EST’s brand is.
“Where You At” has the same smooth and sensual quality as “Overcome” and “Love Paint,” but there’s a more powerful feel. The chorus features an instrumental drop instead of a sung melody, which gives it a very intense sound. I imagine some people are becoming tired of those – I’m not one of them, but I get it. However, I think this is a very smart move for NU’EST W because of Minhyun’s absence. Ren and Aron have very nice voices, but Minhyun’s falsetto is pretty hard to copy (although Ren does come close). Since their songs usually rely on the contrast between him and Baekho, it’s wise to substitute in a more instrumental hook.
I love everything about “Where You At.” It’s so dreamy and ethereal. I could listen to it a hundred times in a row, and I probably already have. I don’t mind songs that are a little all over the place (as K-Pop tracks often are), but you can just play “Where You At” and let it take you away. I also think all the members sound great here. Aron and Ren’s mellow voices ground the song, while Baekho’s power vocals send it soaring. And JR’s rap often determines the pace, speeding it up and giving it an urgent quality. Many K-Pop songs chart well because of fans tirelessly streaming them, but I think “Where You At” had everything it needed to be successful on its own.
Lyrics by: JR, Baekho, Bumzu
“Where You At” is about longing for
Minhyun a lover who is long gone. Most break-up songs are either about hitting rock bottom or trying to move on. “Where You At” is different because it addresses that in-between period of denial (“I don’t feel a thing, I don’t feel a thing, I keep lying to myself every day”). While the singer is clearly in a bad place, it doesn’t seem like he actually wants to get better. It’s almost as if he’d prefer to stay in this mindset that will only bring him pain. We can see this in JR’s opening lines:
“My heart that longs for you while you aren’t here is black and blue
But my scarred heart doesn’t feel any pain, so it has no plans to heal itself”
There’s a restless energy you hear in the song and see in the music video, and the lyrics often reflect that (“When I open my eyes, the first thing I do is look for traces of you”). But though the singer is active and motivated in his desire, he refuses to acknowledge that he is in fact very stuck (“No matter how much I run to find you, I’m still in my room”). That contrast is really interesting, and it gives some nuance to a popular theme. It’s also very relatable: we all need that time where we can freely wallow in our misery before we start to pick up the pieces.
I was worried how NU’EST W would address their line distribution without Minhyun, since he usually has a lot of important lines. Like I said, his vocal tone is so unique that having Ren or Aron fill in could be risky. Luckily, they arranged things in a way that covers up any potential weak points. First, there’s the aforementioned instrumental drop. Second, JR has a lot more lines instead of appearing at the bridge. This is partially political, seeing as he arguably got the most attention during Produce 101. It always pays off to give the more popular members the spotlight. But in this case, it also helps balance out the song. Third, Baekho’s presence is greatly diminished as a main vocal. This might seem counterintuitive, but I think it’s smart because he has such a different vocal tone from the others. And let’s be honest, he still makes himself heard.
“Where You At” isn’t your typical K-pop dance. There are hardly any key points or prominent centers, which are generally pretty distinctive features. There’s some synchronization, but in general each member has his own part. K-pop dances also usually prioritize either choreography or formations, but it’s very hard to separate the two here. It’s very much about painting a picture and telling a story, which means a lot less pandering to the audience. Because of this, it often feels like a performance piece at a dance recital, instead of a music show or concert stage.
The dancing itself is very interesting. The whole result looks smooth and polished, but there’s actually a lot of variety. The verses tend towards large dramatic gestures, while the chorus focuses on tight and punctuated moves – which creates good contrast. My only small critique is that there’s a lot of filler for my taste. I like my dances to have more movement, but I do understand that it’s for the sake of creating an ambiance. Having a couple static moments in such an emotionally song is actually a nice effect.
Though there’s no point move to carry the song, there is a certain part that’s caught a lot of attention from Produce 101 viewers. I haven’t seen any confirmation that the choreographer was inspired by Seongwu’s version of the thigh dance, but it’s an awfully big coincidence…
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of backup dancers because I don’t think they get used properly. Unless it’s for a soloist or a small group, they usually just end up crowding the stage. NU’EST, however, really makes their background dancers part of the performance. In fact, they’re essential to this song. They dance along with the members like usual, but they actually make up the bulk of the formations. They create walls and barriers for the members to try and break, and they really fill up the space.
As a former dancer who’s dancer-biased, I’m usually pretty adamant about proper center distribution. I always want to make sure those members get their proper due. But in this case, I kind of like that there’s no definite center. It forgoes the fan service aspect of K-pop dances where you cheer for your favorites, and it allows you to focus more on the performance itself. That being said, I’m kind of a hypocrite because I like that JR comes out at the end. He doesn’t get enough credit as a dancer!
I tend to come down hard on music videos with minimalist narratives. To be clear, I don’t think music videos need stories to be interesting or appealing (it’s not like we’re watching movies here). But most of them like to include one, only to sacrifice it in favor of some cool-looking aesthetic. As a result, the narratives are either half-hearted and muddled or so cryptic you don’t understand a thing. Maybe it’s because I’m a film school
snob graduate, but it’s just a huge pet peeve of mine.
“Where You At” strikes a nice balance: it has more of a premise than a plot, but the dream setting accommodates that. Anything can happen in dreams, so it’s easier for us to suspend disbelief. At the same time, the music video doesn’t let it get too out of control. It lays down the groundwork with common visual references, like the butterflies and the real/subconscious versions of each member. From there, the idea is clear enough: NU’EST are searching for their lost lovers while they’re asleep. That simple perspective is all you really need, but there are lots of lovely details if you care to look closely. Most of my theories are just conjecture, but it’s nice that everything is so open to interpretation.
Production design is always a key part of a music video, and “Where You At” is no exception. Setting is everything here. Though the mountain and desert locations are visually appealing, the most eye-catching places are the bedrooms that the members dream in. The rooms are so unique and stunning, and they definitely have character. I like the subtle references to the four elements: Baekho’s is covered in water, JR’s is filled with candles, and Aron’s is overrun with vines and plants. Ren’s is a bit more of a stretch because it’s hard to visualize wind in a enclosed space. But the blowing curtain does the trick, and the abundance of sand suggest mountains – which are pretty windy spots.
I think the locations give clues to each member’s background story. What happens in their dreams hints at what might have caused each relationship to end. JR is in a church, and it’s easy to bridge the gap to feelings of guilt and repentance. It also looks like he’s being chased sometimes, which perhaps signifies his actions are haunting him. The dilapidated state of Aron’s room and the empty hallways he wanders through suggest abandonment and neglect, most likely on the lover’s part. It’s interesting that he appears to be locked in his room (and that the key only exists in his dream). This could support that idea of isolation, or it could conversely mean that he feels trapped.
Baekho and Ren’s settings are a little more abstract. The water scenes with Baekho seem like a metaphor for feeling like you’re drowning or suffocating. The vast and dry desert suggest loneliness, similar to Aron’s situation. But I think it also represents that feeling of being overwhelmed and out of your comfort zone. Ren’s scenes are filled with blindfolds, women in jeweled masks, and mirrors – all things that have to do with sight. It could mean that he had illusions and was blind to things about his relationship, or it could be that he was the one being false.
Dreams are really hard to depict in media – especially when there isn’t any dialogue – but “Where You At” is spot on. Thanks to the production design, everything feels both real and unreal at the same time. The cinematography helps establish that dreamy mood, alternating seamlessly between large sweeping shots and close-ups of the members. And the editing sets the pace and gives it that restless feeling. We rarely stay on a shot for more than a couple seconds, which subtly instills a sense of need and urgency. All in all, it’s an excellent music video that’s well-thought out in every aspect.
Simplicity is the key here. Most of the focus is on locations and settings in the video, so the costumes are wisely minimal in comparison. Though the outfits are quite low-key, I think they look really nice. And I’m absolutely so here for those suits that they’re dancing it. It’s literally my exact favorite shade of red. They look so sophisticated!
STYLING MVP: Aron, who’s been getting a lot of attention for his visuals lately.
Song – 20
Lyrics – 10
Line Distribution – 10
Choreography – 19
Center and Formations – 10
Music Video – 19
Styling – 9
CONCLUSION: This is the highest score that I’ve given so far! I won’t lie; my love for NU’EST probably is a key factor. However, “Where You At” is still objectively an excellent comeback. It’s very high quality, and everything comes together well. It’s clear that NU’EST and their team put a lot of thought into what they wanted to do, and it paid off.
Here’s the thing about NU’EST (and many other groups out there): They’ve always been good. Their music is unique, their performances leave an impact, and their music videos are eye-catching. They deserve to chart high and win at music shows, and many people -myself included – would argue that it’s been a long time coming. But the lesson we’ve all learned this year is that success isn’t just due to talent. There are so many groups with potential out there that are buried due to lack of promotions and small fandoms. So I’m very glad for their Produce 101 miracle. I’m delighted that they have an abundance of new fans now, and I proudly count myself as one of them. Their star can only rise from here, and I’m thrilled to see it.
SOURCES: Pledis Entertainment, Youtube, Wikipedia, Tumblr, MBC Every1 (Weekly Idol)