Though aespa are still rookies, I get the sense they’re poised to become one of K-pop’s next big groups. They exploded onto the scene with “Black Mamba” last year, and people have been talking about them ever since. (Including my elementary school students, which I take as a good sign since they only know the trendiest groups.) No matter what you think about their futuristic virtual reality world or SM giving them AI counterparts and “virtual members,” you can’t deny that their whole concept is incredibly ambitious. I fully admit that I don’t fully understand this universe quite yet, but it ultimately doesn’t stop me from enjoying aespa like I do any other K-pop group. I’m really rooting for them, and I was super curious about their first ever comeback.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that although “Next Level” is a girl crush concept, it’s completely different from “Black Mamba.” Aespa’s debut was proud and fierce with an edgy sound, powerful bursts of energy in the chorus, and dramatic dance moves. “Next Level” is almost the opposite – it’s calm and collected with a consistently steady yet addicting beat. I also get very chic vibes from it; the arrangement reminds me of the kind of music you might hear at fashion shows as models walk the runway. I feel like the aura of this song is basically saying, “I’m cooler than you and I know it” – and honestly, I’m here for it. (I love the way the members say “next level,” because they manage to imbue those two words with so much attitude.)
“Next Level” is actually a remake of a song that was on the soundtrack for Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, modeled to fit aespa’s concept and universe. (You can listen to that version here.) And while there are those who might feel some kind of way about aespa not getting their own song for this comeback, it’s worth noting that this “Next Level” isn’t a carbon copy of the original. SM kept the essence of the track and its attractive qualities, but they also experimented a bit and added some new elements: there’s a bridge where Ning Ning and Winter deliver on the power vocals, and a significantly jazzy sounding interlude that contrasts nicely with Giselle and Karina’s charismatic rap. (The song structure is a little all over the place, so sorry if my terminology is off.) So, the aespa version of “Next Level” does have a couple of unexpected and fun surprises.
I imagine that some people might be turned off of “Next Level” because it’s mostly rap. Or if we want to get technical, it’s a mix of rap and talk-singing. Personally, it’s not a problem for me because I don’t mind talk-singing. It didn’t bother me with ITZY’s “In the Morning” (a current love that most people I know weren’t wild about), and it doesn’t bother me here. Plus it’s the way the original song is – aespa’s rendition just sounds a little more feminine to have more of a K-pop girl group vibe. And speaking of rap, I’m beyond thrilled that Giselle has so many parts and owns them all. I personally feel like she got the least attention of the four in “Black Mamba,” so I just wanted to shine the spotlight on her a bit. But honestly, all of them did a great job with the chorus and the hook. Is there anything they aren’t good at?
As expected of a group that’s currently building a whole cinematic universe, the music video for “Next Level” is top-tier. It continues the story that aespa introduced in their debut, and it’s filled with hints and clues about the overarching narrative. I won’t go into details because that could take up a whole post in on its own, but you should watch the short film they recently released here if you want to know more about aespa’s universe. I’m very impressed by how extensive this world and its lore are, and I’m curious to learn more with every new comeback… BUT, I have to say I’m not really happy that SM is going down the “tease everything but confirm nothing” route of visual storytelling.
While I’m not a fan of this method, I do understand the intent behind it. I actually love media that has a huge and detailed universe, and I’m a big fan of lots of series that do this: movies, TV, books, anime/manga, etc. And I know how fun it is to find those hidden clues that will be revealed somewhere further down the line. But there has to be a balance between showing and telling – you can keep your audience interested and engaged without being secretive and making them perpetually guess pretty much everything. I’m truly interested in aespa’s whole cinematic world, and I enjoy Easter eggs and making fan theories… but I still think the really important parts of the narrative should be spelled out more clearly.
That being said, I still think the music video for “Next Level” is absolutely stunning. The sets, the special effects, the color correction, the costumes, the camera shots, the editing – it’s all amazing. I don’t rewatch music videos often, but I’d happily watch this dozens of times. And I do appreciate that you can enjoy it as a regular K-pop music video without having to know everything about aespa and their concept. I guess it just bothers me because SM has made a big deal of how there’s this major storyline aespa’s comebacks will be following – if they’re going to talk about it so much and go to all this trouble, then I should actually be able to SEE a story in the music video. But that’s my personal pet peeve (and probably the film school snob in me rearing her head again), so it doesn’t affect how I feel about aespa at all.
Last but not least, let’s talk about choreography. I specifically waited until aespa dropped a performance video so I could get the full picture, and I was NOT disappointed. We all know I love my K-pop dances, but this one is so incredibly satisfying to watch. I like how everything is very deliberate and emphasizes a specific movement or shape. There’s so much power-posing, which is perfect for delivering on the attitude this song and performance requires. I also think it really highlights how talented aespa’s dancing is – all of their movements are so sharp and clean, and their lines are practically perfect. This just might have become my favorite choreography of the year so far.
MY OVERALL INTEREST LEVEL
(NOTE: My options for each category are “Love,” “Like,” “Neutral,” “Not My Style,” or “Dislike.” But I rarely dislike anything, so I’ll mostly be using the other four.)
It’s only been a few days since “Next Level” was released, and I’ve had it on repeat pretty much the whole time. And now that more performance videos will be coming out, I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time on those too. While I’m not thrilled that SM is making us figure out most of the story on our own – which is why I labeled the music video a “like” instead of a “love” – I admit that I’ve fallen for their strategy because I’m going to go back through all the videos and try to piece everything together. (*Maybe* I will do some posts about it in the future… probably not now, but I’ll think about it for their next comeback.) I liked aespa from the beginning, but this comeback has most definitely made me even more interested. It’s succeeded in becoming my latest K-pop obsession, and I’m fully ready to enjoy this era.
(“Knee Jerk Reaction” is a column I created to talk about comebacks or debuts when I don’t have a lot of time to write in-depth reviews. A knee jerk reaction is like an automatic response, so it’s a post about my initial thoughts on the song, the music video, and the performance if it’s available. Compared to my reviews, everything is more stream of consciousness and less analytical. And everything is 100% my own opinion!)
SOURCES: Music video and featured image belong to SM Entertainment.