Since debuting as a soloist, Sunmi has been a reliable producer of high-quality, slightly left-of-center K-pop. She had a particularly strong 2018, perfecting a musical style that drew heavily on 80’s inspirations. She’s been quieter this year, spending more time on tour than on music shows. During her concerts, she’s unveiled a couple new tracks that seem to complement the vibes of past singles like Heroine and Siren. Surprisingly, though, new single Lalalay (날라리) is a much closer sibling to her 2017 comeback Gashina, built around an aggressive instrumental loop rather than traditional chorus.
Inspired by the Latin leg of her tour, Lalalay is definitive Sunmi, but sacrifices melody for attitude. This isn’t always a bad approach. After all, Gashina ended up being a slow burn hit for me, as well as one of its year’s most iconic (and oft-imitated) tracks. In comparison, Lalalay feels more like a retread. Sunmi’s charisma is strong enough to propel nearly any song into greatness, but I miss hearing her arresting voice attack a full-throated chorus.
Co-written with producer Frants, who also worked on Siren, Lalalay is most compelling during its verses. The instrumental twists its Latin influences just enough to make them feel fresh, and offers a satisfying sense of propulsion as Sunmi weaves through a maze of guitar, gurgling electronics and stomping percussion. The melody here isn’t as strong as most of her 2018 work, but at least it gives her voice the opportunity to take center stage. Unfortunately, the noisy loop at Lalalay‘s center (courtesy of traditional instrument taepyeongso) is a bit of a buzzkill. It renders the song hollow right when it needs to explode. At just under three minutes, there’s not enough meat around this melodic chasm to compensate. I have no doubt that Lalalay will ingratiate itself in time (it’s Sunmi, after all!), but after a long hiatus I would have loved to hear her deliver something more ambitious.
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