2020 marks BoA‘s 20th anniversary in the music industry, which she and her agency SM Entertainment celebrated in the form of cover tributes, retrospective Instagram accounts, magazine spreads, classic music video remakes and documentary specials.
But she isn’t just using this year to celebrate the past.
On Tuesday (December 1), the prolific 34-year-old boundary-breaking South Korean solo superstar furthered her legacy with Better, her tenth Korean studio album, a set of songs as reliable and consistent as the performer herself.
“The people at my company feel pressured about the album, just as I do. To be honest, rather than wanting to create something more special for my 20th anniversary, our priority is making good music like we did for every album. Finding what I currently want to do and expressing that is the most important. In that way, it’ll become an album that is the most fitting for my 20th debut anniversary,” she previously told Vogue Korea of the expectations for her then-forthcoming record.
As much as the record is about the future, it’s still rooted in BoA’s past: lead single “Better,” which unexpectedly borrows from Swedish singer AWA‘s 2019 single “Like I Do,” is a full circle moment with the SM Entertainment producer and songwriter who kicked it all off with 2000’s “ID; Peace B”: Yoo Young-jin.
The two have teamed up a few times since – for 2005’s Girls on Top, and on 2018’s One Shot, Two Shot – and they’ve hit their stride together once more on the sleek, come-hither thumper not entirely unlike 2008’s “Eat You Up.” The string-filled bout of midtempo seduction leans into BoA’s R&B sweet spot, supplying ample Woman-ly confidence and a kind of Janet Jackson swagger, accompanied by a choreography-led visual that proves why the industry vet remains one of the best dancers in the game. It sounds both modern and appropriately mature, and avoids any obvious comparisons to anything that’s popular at radio in 2020.
“I don’t try to look young or force myself to do something because that doesn’t come across as cool. I’m currently trying to find what I’m good at,” she explained to Vogue Korea.
Luckily, the entertainer is good at a lot: as the same artist that’s gone from “No. 1” to “My Name” to “Hurricane Venus” to “Kiss My Lips” over the years, BoA doesn’t necessarily attempt to tackle any one vibe or style on Better, instead twirling her way through a genre-blurring blend of pop, R&B, jazz, disco, house and elements of EDM.
After running the game for so long, she’s astutely aware of what she’s got to offer as a Girl on Top: “I got everything you еver wanted, don’t be shy,” she seduces on the supremely sexy, somewhat ominous “Temptations,” helmed by Red Velvet‘s “Peek-a-Boo” producers, Moonshine, who return later on into the record on the shuffling, almost Disclosure-like “Got Me Good.”
The temptation continues on disco-tinged standout “L.O.V.E.” – not an Ashlee Simpson cover – an instantly addictive cut co-crafted by powerhouse duo and in-demand K-pop suppliers LDN Noiseand longtime BoA collaborator Kenzie.
“Are you a bad kind of lover? Just wanna givе my L.O.V.E.” she tempts across space-y synths and a slick four-to-the-floor pulse. “I feel ironic, chronic, full of contradictions.”
She also wrote those lyrics herself, and showcases her penmanship and melody composition skills throughout Better on several songs, including the appropriately airy and warm, piano-led R&B jam “Cloud,” perhaps the album’s most impressive display of BoA’s incredibly melodic voice which genuinely only seems to improve over time: “Even if everything is poorly done and insufficient, I prepared it just for you,” she coos on the sweetly humble ode.
As a “Jazzclub” attendee, it’s no surprise she’s back in her jazz groove with “All That Jazz,” another self-penned number with a former flame on the brain.
“These days, even my food feels weird / I don’t like the movies I once liked / Helplessly in lethargy / Is something missing? / Yes, this is because you are not here,” she laments on the otherwise lively track, as though sitting in the back corner of a bustling jazz club on a Saturday night all alone, hoping to spark the feeling again.
She goes deeper into the post-split feelings on the Marcus Andersson-produced “Start Over,” which aches with a kind of Nordic nostalgia and heartbreak styling, a la Dagny, or perhaps a little Carly Rae Jepsen as she cautions over and over again across vintage synths: “Start over, start over / You’re gonna want me when I get over, get over…” That bridge, (“Ooh-oh-OH-oh-oh…“) is pure powerful, sticky pop melody goodness.
Luckily, Better doesn’t settle into those bad or sad feelings for very long at all, ever. Mostly, she’s lusting: bouncy bop “Honey & Diamonds,” produced by OKAY! KENJI, provides a touch of trap hi-hats, groovy bass and tripping beats as she indulges in an ecstatic, evocative love affair full of metaphors that might raise an eyebrow or two: “Following this enchanting light, come to me now / The fantasy is growing and spreading in your eyes,” she coos. It’s also one of the album’s catchiest cuts – good luck getting “honey, honey, honey and diamonds” out of your brain anytime soon.
If there’s any comparison to draw to modern radio trends, it might be one of the album’s most surprising highlights: “Cut Me Off,” a near-whispered kiss-off set atop a gentle pulse that brings Billie Eilish‘s own brand of breathy ominousness to mind.
“Cut me off, erase me now / You can do it,” she urges on the ode to needing space. It’s unlike most anything BoA’s really done before, especially considering her penchant for big belting, but it absolutely works for her – and makes a case that she can absolutely hang with the teens without sounding at all like a trend-chaser.
Of all the songs BoA had a hand in, nothing has quite a reassuring touch as the album’s loving closer, “Little Bird,” penned with the pandemic in mind.
“I hope those who listen to the song will get to think of themselves in the past, present and future. Although we are having a hard time due to Covid-19, I hope we all get to achieve our dreams. What we need now is hope,” BoA explained of the song upon its announcement earlier this year as part of the Hope Project.
“Everything’s gonna be alright / Everything’s gonna be okay,” she sweetly offers. The song pairs perfectly with atmospheric comedown “Gravity” one song before: “I will always be by your side, for you like gravity.” For an artist who’s consistently stayed strong in the game this long, the promise is believable.
Twenty years and still thriving at any job is no small feat – let alone the hyper competitive, youth-obsessed, wildly volatile world of K-pop. But BoA continues to effortlessly excel (at least, that’s how she makes it appear on the outside), securing her icon status with Better. It’s easily one of the better (eh heh) BoA albums of the past decade, sounding thoroughly modern in a musical landscape dominated largely by acts at least a decade younger, providing ample proof that she’ll continue to pave the path for soloists in the industry.
Once a boundary-breaking example of how far Korean music could travel outside the country to other territories, she’s now proof that true talent has the ability to go the distance at home.
“I have been compared a lot to Madonna when it comes to the longevity of my career. So when I look to her and see her so active and releasing new music, putting on these amazing performances. I think I can also be doing that at that age too. Because the music industry is changing, I don’t think age is that important. It’s not that crucial,” she told Forbes earlier in the year while celebrating her 20th anniversary.
“Something tells me it ain’t over / It ain’t over yet,” she declares at the end of “Got Me Good.” She’s not wrong.
Better is out now in various CD versions.
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Photo credit: SM Entertainment / @BoaKwon