From their conception, Red Velvet has taken on a position of juxtaposition under the guise of seeking middle ground: the bells and whistles of pop paired with R&B, the eclectic features of f(x) coupled with the approachability of SNSD, and the playfulness of Red alongside the demure and class of Velvet. They are the K-Pop manifestation of that person who orders juniper and lemon curd ice cream with spicy dark chocolate because she can’t make up her mind as to whether she wants sweet and tangy or spicy and bitter. In fact, this is the person who decides that she’s better off getting it with strawberry sauce, nuts, and whipped cream on top just to have everything. More is more, right?
As someone who has followed the group since the aforementioned beginning, it’s a bit surreal that Rookie is Red Velvet’s 4th Mini Album (and 5th overall). It feels like only yesterday when Ice Cream Cake came out and I became apprehensive of the Red Velvet brand of being everything and yet nothing at all. Those fears were quelled with the subsequent album; I was blown away by the thematic conviction the group brought forward with The Red and continued to pursue into their next few albums. That said, I have to admit that Rookie is the most haphazard album they’ve had since their first one—Ice Cream Cake—and even that has a consistent, melted ice-cream sheen. So here, I pose the question: can the sum of the parts be more than the whole?
The title track appropriately becomes a microcosm for the ideas that fight for sovereignty in Rookie, and I remain as confused now about how I feel about this song as I did when I first heard it. “Rookie” has had time to stew in my consciousness though, and like with most Red Velvet songs, I’m piqued by the tight production that carries a nonchalant cheekiness. I absolutely adore the generous use of bass, and the way it’s always there, simmering various renditions of the central riff, grounding the flourishes of guitar glissandos, quippy brass, and syncopated percussion. The gorgeous pre-chorus leaves a strong impression because it actually bothers to love itself, while its counterpart in many songs these days is impatient for the hook/chorus. The singer side of me particularly revels in it.
On that note, Seulgi has certainly blossomed through “Rookie,” with her timbre serving as (inadvertent?) contrast to the clunky and tacky efforts from Wendy and Joy. She elevates the song with conviction just as it threatens to collapse under the squeals and half-dissonance. I’m not going to pretend that “Rookie” has sought to do anything remarkable with its pleasant melody, but I did appreciate that it had quite a bit of technical weight to it.
And yes, we have come to the point where we acknowledge the elephant in the room: the verses, the chorus, and the many, many, “lookie, lookie”s. I’m always interested in songs that invert the melodic/percussion balance by dumping rhythmics on the vocals and the melody to the brass, but “rookie” has the right combination of consonants, vowels, and whine that leaves the repetitious hook as a borderline nails-on-chalkboard experience for me.
To make things worse, they managed to tack on a sing-songy element (by accident? on purpose? I have no clue) to the talk-rapping that inches the experience ever so slightly more into uncanny valley. The first verse (Irene and Joy) is entirely a-melodic, but Yeri’s intro into the parallel second verse throws in a melodic delivery that subsequently gets ignored by Irene’s portion. On one hand, I think that Yeri’s interpretation was brilliant against the abrasive talky setup, and on the other, the lack of melodic anchor annoys the heck out of me. In fact, it’s annoying me more than it ever would have without Yeri’s moment of asymmetry.
In the end, I think I managed to muster a sort of begrudging respect for “Rookie” and its kooky charms. I haven’t gotten to the “I’ve seen the light” moment that I had for the understated brilliance that is “Russian Roulette,” but maybe it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not too bad being the Raggedy Ann of the many dolls of Red Velvet’s discography.
Almost as though it anticipated the controversy of “Rookie,” the mid-tempo “Little Little” plays into the safe and dreamy pop that sustains K-Pop girl group B-sides. Retreating to safety is not inherently boring, however, and “Little Little” fully embraces what it is by letting all of its components bloom together.
That said, this would have been a 0 song due to a Kidz Bop vocal effort for 70% of the track were it not for a stunning, almost resigned, bridge and soaring ending. (For those who don’t know, Kidz Bop is a group of children who sing covers of Top 30 American hits.)
“Happily Ever After”
This can’t be a Red Velvet album without a toy store condensed into a song, and that job is fulfilled by “Happily Ever After.” With such a song, I always look forward to the dimension the back-and-forth between voices and harmonizing give the vocal melody. The real fun though is in finding the instrumental flourishes that frame the melody–and “Happily Ever After” delivers.
Here are few of them:
- A toy glockenspiel that gives depth to tired hand claps in the verses
- Off-beat clicks (drum sticks, I suppose) which drive forward the sigh that is the pre-chorus
- A “locking car” sound that is a subtle refinement of the song collapsing alarm of f(x)’s “Red Light.”
“Talk to Me”
Ariana Grande’s debut single parallels aside, “Talk to Me” is another great track in the album. It’s no-fuss, cleanly produced, glistening pop, and while not ground-breaking, it does the job it needs to do. The piano particularly is nice when it comes to cutting the juvenile vocals and bringing out the portions that are grounded within Red Velvet’s natural vocal range.
This is not the first time that Red Velvet has taken on EDM, and once again, in the context of the album’s character, it feels a bit awkward.
As for the song in and of itself, “Body Talk” has a sense of grace and substance that wasn’t apparent in Russian Roulette’s “Some Love.” R&B is where Wendy glows as a vocalist and its influences on “Body Talk” is not an exception to finding her at her finest. From the opening verse and the chorus to the ad-libs sprinkled throughout, she shows an intuition for the genre’s phrasing that sold the song, despite the clipped structure of the written melody.
Impressively, Seulgi and Joy don’t lag too far behind in capturing the same ebb and flow that Wendy does. The arpeggio of the verses has lightness and feather with all three singers while each manages to impose her personal style to her rendition.
(Side note: I’m convinced that the pseudo-booting jingle in the song is the reason we have Windows XP on the album cover.)
I’ll be upfront and just say that I usually want nothing to do with classic Korean filler ballads. Wendy sounds pretty, the piano sounds pretty, the melody sounds pretty…and I pretty much pretend like the song doesn’t exist. It doesn’t add anything to the Rookie experience. In fact, it detracts from it.
Overall, Rookie takes on the job of being a mosaic of much of what Red Velvet has been across all of their previous albums. While the tessellation doesn’t quite fit together, I think many will find the pieces something of interest. So is the sum of the parts better than the whole? I suppose, but it’s not too hard to take what you like from a wacky sundae.
(Save the juniper and lemon curd for me.)
Genre: R&B/Soul, Ballad, Dance | Release Date: 2/1/17