Based on agency clout alone, aespa were always going to be successful. However, I recall their AI, lore-heavy concept raising many eyebrows pre-debut. And although it was a hit for me right away, the addictive Next Level took time to seep into public consciousness. But quicker than you can say “Kwangya,” we’ve arrived at the group’s second mini album and its 1.6 million pre-orders – a new record for a K-pop girl group. Of course, sales (especially preorders) don’t guarantee strong music. So, how does Girls stack up against past efforts?
My love for Next Level is undeniable. What a brilliant way to meld aespa’s attitude-fueled musical universe with lethal pop hooks. And although I was harsh on Savage when it was first released, the song grew on me quite a lot. I’m interested to see if Girls enjoys the same trajectory, because my initial thought is that it feels a little inscrutable. The attitude is there. The beats are certainly there. But, I keep wishing for an indelible hook to break through and grab me by the collar. This desire has colored my thoughts on many 2022 releases, but with SM’s budget I’d expect them to put as much effort into their songwriting as they do production and cinematic visuals.
This isn’t to say Girls is a bad song. Far from it, actually. The arrangement has a majestic badassery that feels emblematic of the SM Performance style (helped along, I’m sure, by co-producer Yoo Young-Jin). The rugged dance breakdown is exhilarating. And as always, aespa’s powerful vocals are unleashed in all the right climactic moments. The chanted chorus is effective, yet a little monotonous. However, agency history and legacy helps smooth over the rough edges. You could trace a direct through-line from SNSD’s 2011 hit The Boys to this song. That comparison doesn’t do Girls any favors, but it’s interesting to consider how SM has evolved over the decade.
In the end, Girls is more bombast than song, and that’s probably okay at this point. Rock guitar gives it plenty of crunch during the pre-choruses and the group sells the braggadocious energy. The percussion in the verses has a satisfying slap to it, and repeated listens are already drawing out more charms than first expected. However, as some famous super spider guy once said: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Aespa are on the leading edge of K-pop’s new generation. They deserve title tracks that feel as instantly iconic as their rapid ascent.