Towards the end of How You Like That, the braggadocious, head-knocking lead single from BLACKPINK’s debut global album, The Album, they toy with a well-known phrase. “Look up in the sky it’s a bird, it’s a plane,” they coo, before a squelchy marching band beat takes the song stratospheric.
It’s an appropriate allusion, not least because so much of K‑pop’s myth-making is built around creating well-trained cavalries of pop superheroes. Side-stepping music’s current climate of relatable oversharing, fuelled by the daily confessional content of social media, the likes of BTS and BLACKPINK – whose hyper-glossy, big-budget videos have often felt like trailers for unreleased Marvel blockbusters – project a perfectly manicured, monolithic facade.
Maybe that will change with BLACKPINK’s forthcoming Netflix documentary, Light Up the Sky, which promises a peek behind the curtain with candid interviews exploring Lisa, Jisoo, Jennie and Rosé’s meteoric four-year rise. The documentary is a sign of their accelerating cultural cache – the group featured on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and their own singles have constantly bettered each other chart-wise, with last month’s Selena Gomez collaboration, Ice Cream, reaching No.13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
But the rawer elements of this eight track release feel like carefully-crafted contributions to BLACKPINK’s iron-clad brand. Recorded in lockdown with the aim of sharing “a lot of light and energy to everybody stuck at home”, even the most confrontational moments are a bit PG-13. Pretty Savage is BLACKPINK on relatively edgy form, with rapid-fire Korean raps that are mixed with a liberal sprinkling of “bitch”. On Bet You Wanna, featuring a WAP-less Cardi B on her best behaviour, love, as is so often the case in pop, is compared to a drug, while sex is alluded to with a coy, “Give me an all night hug, I bet you wanna”.
Shorn of the dazzling visuals, listening to a BLACKPINK body of work over, say, three songs can feel disconcerting. The sudden drops and sonic fireworks – K‑pop song structures are malleable and often bend and flex on a whim – are exhilarating the first time around. But on repeated listens, with the production dominating, you realise you need the videos to make the 2D feel like something approaching 3D.
As with 2019’s Kill This Love EP, a lot of The Album sounds dated. Lovesick Girls, which features David Guetta as one of its songwriters alongside two members of the band, fuses flimsy EDM drops with dollar sign-era Kesha, while the trap-adjacent Ice Cream utilises a whistle riff that Flo Rida might have used in the early 2010s.
Some of the greatest pop of the last few decades has promoted glorious style over substance, with a lot of pop stars only cravenly showcasing the latter if it chimes with the prevailing mood. Pop should be big and bold, but it’s often elevated by a little grit, too. And a little personality. BLACKPINK, rapper Lisa aside, tend to blend into one well-oiled pop machine on record, churning out bangers that hit the spot but with an efficiency that can deflate the excitement. They’re not a bird, or a plane, but an impressive statue of pop superheroes. Look but don’t touch.