In sports, people use the term “undercard” to describe the matches that occur before the main event. To some it’s where all the filler goes – but to others, the undercard allows fresh faces and personalities to flourish. They may never make it to the brightest lights, but their presence goes towards making a sporting event a satisfying one.
It’s the same with music. When we talk about it, plenty of us turn to the cult acts, the underrated and the ignored. In a way, we are discussing the musical undercard, and the beloved and promising acts that never achieved the major successes of the headliners. Just recently, two different releases have emerged from two very different artists, albeit ones that have reliably grown into their roles in the undercard.
On June 27th, South Korean pop juggernaut SM Entertainment began posting cryptic images to the social media feeds of girl group f(x) (pictured, main) while sidestepping the matter of confirming their return. The next week, a single dropped onto the internet; then, on July 7th, f(x)’s third album ‘Red Light’ was released. Even by the standards of the K-pop industry’s shock-and-awe release schedule, this was a sudden roll-out.
- - -
f(x), ‘Red Light’
- - -
Due to their popularity in South Korea, f(x) would usually not be considered representatives of the pop music undercard. However, other K-pop groups often overshadow them. Their sales figures are healthy but are a mere fraction of those achieved by labelmates Girls’ Generation, a nine-member monolith with a dizzying number of endorsements across Eastern Asia. On an international level, f(x)’s cultural cache suffers in comparison to the hip marketing engine behind 2NE1. They may never reach the popular heights of their contemporaries, but ‘Red Light’ wants to have a swing at it regardless.
Last year, the group released ‘Pink Tape’ and quietly staked their claim as one of the world’s best pop acts. ‘Pink Tape’ was a dizzying release, showing the group as they moved away from the seasick genre-splicing that defined popular K-pop and towards a unified sound. The album’s eclecticism had a rationale – other than meme-ready shock, the genre experiments made sense when joined with the group’s eccentricity.
They compared love to dentistry, performed disco songs about being lost in space, found the perfect angle to hold a coffee cup for a paparazzi shot. It was a smart move. Korean pop music prides itself on a deluge of mini-albums, EPs, compilations and non-album singles; f(x) negated the need for this amount of product and were savvy enough to turn themselves into an album act.
‘Red Light’ has a hard act to follow then, but much of the record shows f(x) firing on all cylinders. The group’s eccentricity is present and accounted for – love is described as a virus, a hallucinogen and milk; there is a song about Dracula – but a palatable tension runs through the album. The title track is out-and-out havoc, an En Vogue-like inner-strength paean that swirls into war shrieks of “caterpillar!”
‘Rainbow’ is Jersey club music slowly morphing into a creepy siren song. ‘Milk’ begins with glass breaking (a mid-1990s trademark of visiting producer Teddy Riley), followed by the percussive cocking of a handgun. Other songs bridge together with abrasive blasts of raved-up noise, members yelling “RRRRAH!” like Melle Mel, and campy tracks are peppered with samples of horror movie screams. It’s remarkable how even the most fun efforts harbour an inkling of unease.
- - -
- - -
At the same time, f(x) show ambition of becoming bigger than they are, and show an eagerness to sand off their weirdest impulses. Sometimes it pays off – another Riley production, ‘All Night’, is the type of shiny roller disco perfected by his protégés in The Neptunes, and it sounds like a hit. In the case of ‘Red Light’’s final tracks, fewer risks are taken and you get an idea of what a boring f(x) song would be. Their positioning on the album appears to point to a potential future, which is worrying, especially when you hear how they dumb themselves down for the biggest audience possible.
I shouldn’t worry so much – ‘Red Light’ mostly proves that f(x) have the talent and the songs deserving of pop’s headliners. Yet you’re left with the nagging feeling that they maintain their idiosyncratic approach in their fight to the top.
Some artists attempt to be the greatest in their respective fields, only to be denied joining their peers at the proverbial mountain peak. Terius Nash tried. He is a remarkable songwriter, responsible for more great songs than maybe any other songwriter in R&B this decade – ‘Single Ladies’, ‘Umbrella’, Bieber’s ‘Baby’ to name a few.
Under the stage name The-Dream, Nash has become a one-man R&B cult, but at the expense of potential stardom. His four-album run (five if you count 2011’s post-divorce oddity ‘1977’, credited under his real name) from 2007’s ‘Love Hate’ to last year’s ‘IV Play’ shows an artist slowly coming to terms with his situation.
Early single ‘I Luv Your Girl’ begins with Nash cooing “the American Dream,” defining the cultural impact he believes he can make. But by the time 2013 single ‘Slow It Down’ rolled out, he was announcing his return with lines like, “I know they ain’t gon’ play this on top 40 radio.” At first he believed his success as a songwriter would catapult him to stardom as a solo artist, but by last year he was shrugging and making do with his lot.
The tepidly received ‘IV Play’ was an artistic acknowledgement that Nash had settled into an allotted spot. It also signalled the end of his relationship with long-time label Def Jam, which brings us to last week’s (July 7th) sudden release of ‘Royalty – The Prequel’.
Announced via his Instagram feed on the evening of the Sunday before, the EP is presented as a precursor to an upcoming full-length from Nash, working title ‘Fruition’, as well as an introduction to new label Contra Paris. As marketing for The-Dream cult, it works perfectly, and the shock arrival of the music helps remind these fans of his previous artistry. One listen to ‘Prequel’ delivers the exact same reminder.
- - -
The-Dream, ‘Royalty – The Prequel’ (full mixtape)
- - -
Nash’s newfound comfort in a role as cult artist has allowed him to flex his muscles as an auteur, and somewhat excuses him from repeating himself. The very moment ‘Prequel’ begins, Nash’s stylistic hallmarks start popping up: the way he sings “baby” as a percussive tick, the armies of digital voices chanting “YUP”, the slurred expletives.
It doesn’t stop there: ‘Culture’ but is essentially a rewrite of fan favourite ‘Fancy’, from its use of open space and Paris-set traipses through wealthy avenues. ‘Wedding Bells’ pokes holes into the concept of matrimony, just as Nash did on ‘1977’’s ‘Wedding Crasher’. ‘Pimp C Lives’ continues his run of bad rapping. If Nash is going through the motions, he’s making damn sure it’s via his catalogue.
There are moments of intrigue, most notably in the final tracks. ‘Lake Michigan’ is a moment of gorgeous, unabashed corny balladry, while closer ‘Cold’ is a passive aggressive take on Frank Ocean’s ‘Songs For Women’. Over the deathless crackle of Mobb Deep’s ‘Shook Ones (Pt II)’, Nash complains about his girlfriend listening to other R&B artists, just as Ocean did on his ‘nostalgia, ULTRA’ cut, but goes gloriously over the top with his jealousy (the word “earf*ck” is used).
Nash has already given enough great music to the world, which makes criticising ‘Prequel’ feel a little unnecessary. It’s a stopgap release, tried and true. Yet the last time he released a collection of music for free, it was the messy and fascinating ‘1977’. ‘Prequel’ is not bad music, but it’s bad for your expectations. Fascinatingly, its aim is the inverse of what ‘Red Light’ aims to do, with ambition replaced by comfort.
The sudden releases of the f(x) album and of the ‘Prequel’ EP alert you to the situations regarding both artists’ careers: f(x) jostle at the idea of being stuck on the undercard, while Nash begins to stretch out and enjoy his destiny in the same space. Their presence certainly helps to keep their respective genres interesting: watching them tussle with that status is just as fascinating to listen to.
- - -
Words: Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy