It is the opinion of this reviewer (and not K-Pop Answers as a whole) that K-pop groups are groups for a reason and that the vast majority of idols cannot shoulder the burden of being a solo artist. (Rare exceptions include Hyolyn and Ailee, but let’s be honest: Ailee is being sabotaged by her producers.) I am a bit skeptical of the concept of Twice members dabbling in solo acts, as we are used to having nine of them collectively handling the load of a superstar group. Can Dear Leader Jihyo deliver on her own? Let’s find out in this review of the first Twice Jihyo solo album, Zone, from JYP Entertainment.
Zone EP Analysis: “Killin’ Me Good,” “Wishing on You,” and More
1. “Killin’ Me Good” – I want to offer a disclaimer that I’m not well versed in the totality of K-pop and am trying not to speak out of turn. That being said, “Killin’ Me Good” features an early ‘90s R&B / swing-beat style that I haven’t heard many other groups dabble in; it is certainly a departure from dance-pop / disco tracks that I would normally associate with Twice. The song’s structure is straightforward, and the composition is consistent thematically, lacking in any unnecessary curve balls. To me, the intended focus of this track is to showcase Jihyo’s relatively powerful vocals, which it does quite well. The instrumentation might be a little too busy for me, and I would have preferred the backing keys / synths a little more subdued. Currently, they are just barely overwhelming. Overall, it’s a fun dance track, a welcome departure from the more ‘80s-inspired tracks that seemed to have oversaturated K-pop as of late, and Jihyo does a good job delivering some “oomph” in her vocal performance.
2. “Talkin’ About It” (feat. 24kGoldn) – Upon first listen, I thought this song was similar in vibe to Dua Lipa’s “New Rules.” Although, I am always very nervous when idols dabble with all-English lyrics. A major reason I like K-pop is that not only is Korean a phonetically pleasing and musical language, but I usually can’t understand what they’re saying — so I’m not distracted by the horrible lyrics that often plague pop music. Having said that, there is nothing egregious or super cringey here. (This is high praise.) The highlight of this song is the “Whoa oh oh” chorus, which is unfortunately interrupted needlessly by two bars of a much more subdued “Mmm mm mm” part. I feel silly typing that out, but I’m confident that you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. We get a feature from Generic Processed Male Rapper Voice (GPMRV), and I don’t hate it (again, very high praise for GPMRVs!). Jihyo provides some octave duets with rapper guy and it actually sounds pretty cool. Review verdict: I like this song better than “New Rules,” but the inexplicable “Mmm mm mm” part keeps it from achieving greatness in Zone.
3. “Closer” – My initial reaction is that I would expect to hear this song in your neighborhood’s newest upscale bar / lounge or designer clothing store at your local mall. The song has a chill vibe and seems to be going for a more ethereal or atmospheric direction than the other tracks. I lack the musical jargon to effectively describe the vocal melody of this song, but I want to say it’s more of a cruise than it is a journey to a destination. It’s pleasant, but I wouldn’t say that it’s catchy or anything that you would want to sing along with or to yourself. Jihyo opts for an airier voice, rather than the belting we received on the first two songs, and enhances it with some pleasant vocal harmonies. A Calypso / Soca drum beat joins in on the chorus, cementing the heavy Caribbean influence on this song. The track is capped off with a nice “La la la” vocal chorus on the outro, which is the most memorable melody in the song. This is definitely not lead-single material, but it doesn’t need to be. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but filler tracks and change-ups are needed on an album — and this one is pretty good.
4. “Wishing on You” – Interesting that the first two tracks are stylized with “-in’” and this one gets the full “-ing” treatment. This is my favorite song on Zone, which is strange because I usually like up-tempo dance bangers. This one is a slow, sultry, sexy R&B baby-making banger. I enjoy all of the compositional decisions made, and the instrumentation strikes a perfect balance between being scaled back and busy. Something I really like about this song is that, rather than going with a straight-up rap for the second verse, Jihyo is singing but in a double-time syncopated rhythmic manner. I think more artists should dabble in this melodic rapping rather than defaulting to a monotonous spoken rap. Another thing I really appreciate is that the song is unsullied from unnecessary additions, like a featured artist, another GPMRV, or too many vocal embellishments. The only mild criticism I will give “Wishing on You” is that the dial tone sound effect in the beginning and end of the song is unnecessary.
5. “Don’t Wanna Go Back” (Duet with Heize) – Any mention of Heize is a good excuse to link this absolute legend. I don’t have much to say about this song in review, as it’s another very solid but not spectacular R&B track for Jihyo on Zone. It does, however, reinforce that this genre suits Jihyo well and that perhaps this could be her solo career niche going forward. I’m indifferent about Heize’s featured role on this track. From a vocal performance perspective, I don’t think she provides a sufficiently contrasting voice to really add to the song, but she doesn’t take away from it either. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that she was integral to the songwriting process and thus absolutely necessary.
6. “Room” – The second verse of “Room” is another shining example of the benefits of melodic rapping. Whereas many other K-pop songs force in a rap section to accommodate less vocally talented members, Jihyo’s melodic rapping gets to feature the speedy syllables and interesting rhythms that the listener would want from a rap section while retaining more musicality. I understand there are songs where a spoken rap would be better, but oftentimes in K-pop a spoken rap is done as a concession and doesn’t actually serve the song. Otherwise, “Room” is well produced, but it lacks a very catchy hook and doesn’t have much of a journey or climax to it. I still enjoy it quite a bit and would group it with “Closer” in being a good change-up track for Zone.
7. “Nightmare” – This song goes for a darker, heavier, and more epic sound than the rest of Zone. “Dark, heavy, and epic” is how I would describe legendary Finnish metal band Wintersun, but “Nightmare” falls incredibly short of that. The instrumental track on its own is pedestrian and really hampered by some curious design decisions. A drum fill that is rhythmically similar but significantly inferior to that of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” is one example, but the kick drum rhythm in the chorus is also too busy. As the Emperor told Mozart in Amadeus: “(T)here are simply too many notes… Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”
Generally, the song just doesn’t do it for me and is my least favorite on the album. The track isn’t particularly cohesive and does not offer any memorable melodies or interesting rhythms. I do appreciate the darker direction they tried to pursue, but I think they stumbled a bit. The track could have really benefited from some distorted guitar chords or much heavier layered synths in the chorus. Currently, the instrumentation during the chorus is quite lacking when compared to Jihyo’s anthemic belting. The most egregious compositional blunder is on the pre-chorus, where it sounds like the producer put some generic placeholder loops in that do not effectively accompany the vocals at all. The vocal lines had potential, but the instrumentation was the real “Nightmare” all along.
JYP Album Production Has Some Issues to Work Out
Overall, I think in review that Zone is a solid but not spectacular album from Jihyo. It is certainly more memorable than Nayeon’s IM NAYEON. I think the R&B focus was a good choice and complements her vocal tone well, but I’m still not really sure if there is anything about the album that is so distinctly Jihyo and couldn’t have been done by a multitude of other K-pop singers. I would be interested to see the full extent to which Jihyo was involved in the compositional process, beyond what is listed in the credits.
I have one major complaint about Zone: Jihyo’s breaths before she sings each line are so loud and distracting that it is pretty much all I can focus on. Jihyo never learned from Tay Zonday to move away from the mic to breathe in when laying down vocals, but I think this is more of a failure for the producer and sound engineers. In the days of Logic and Pro Tools, I don’t see any reason why they didn’t cut the gasps of air out of the vocal tracks when mastering. I even went back to listen to a bunch of other K-pop songs, and it’s never as prominent as it is here. There are times where the sound of the breath is unavoidable, but something I noticed with other groups is that they manage to have a subtler breath and not an overbearing gasp sound. Once I notice that, it really ruins a song for me. (I can’t listen to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem for the same reason). Furthermore, this issue isn’t present on other Twice tracks. Take a listen to Nayeon’s “Pop!” as a comparison, and you’ll see the difference in breathing sounds is quite stark.
The other issue that I have is more endemic of JYP’s production of Twice in general. I found that recent Twice songs are over-engineered when it comes to the vocal tracks, to the point where their singing sounds uncanny and artificial compared to the vocal production of a group like Blackpink, which to my ears sounds more organic. This is not to say that Blackpink are better singers than Jihyo or Twice; it wouldn’t be a controversial statement to say that Blackpink are not strong vocalists at all. This is just to say that the team at YG is more effective at making their singers sound like humans and less like humans being autotuned. The engineering and mixing decisions by the producers at JYP are very confusing to me. With the abundant resources at JYP’s disposal, the mastering shouldn’t sound this amateurish — unless it is intentional, which is a more perplexing and concerning explanation.
The Review Verdict on the Jihyo Zone Album
Ultimately, it is mostly production decisions that hold Zone back. While regular Twice tracks are also afflicted by this, they usually have easily digestible and catchy enough hooks to overcome the shackles of the production choices. Unfortunately for Zone, the songs are good, but none are great enough to get me to look past the mastering shortcomings. I still enjoyed six of the seven songs and will definitely listen to them when they show up in shuffle, but I doubt any of the songs will earn a spot in my “Top Played” list.
The Twice Jihyo Zone album was purchased by K-Pop Answers at its own expense for the purpose of this review.