“Do you have trouble sleeping”, asks the robotic voice introducing Epik High’s comeback album sleepless in __________. The newest album by the alternative hip hop group composed of rappers Tablo and Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz is dedicated to all those insomnious and troubled.
For their first independently-produced album, sleepless in __________ didn’t quite capture Epik High’s newly found freedom. Experimentation distinguishes them from all other hip hop groups in the country. It is known for toying with genres in its songs, like the reggae-inspired “Burj Khalifa” in its Shoebox album. And, with its decision to leave YG, its label for 15 years, the group seemed to be ready to get a bigger toy box. However, despite having said that it wanted total control of its music to grow into different directions, the group held onto one toy throughout the seven songs of its new release: lofi hip hop.
For those lucky or unlucky enough — depends on who you ask — to escape YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, lofi hip hop, from “low fidelity”, is a subgenre of hip hop characterized by its simple beats, “chill” aesthetics, and deliberately low sound quality. In the last couple of years, the genre exploded into popularity thanks to the millions of students who grew sick of listening to classical music or ambient sounds while studying. Lofi hip hop playlists and “radios” with some sort of combination of the words “chill”, “relax”, “study”, and “sleep” in their titles are a common sight on YouTube.
In an interview, Tablo mentioned that he wanted the album to become his fans’ “driving playlist, study playlist, and bedside playlist.” And the inspiration Epik High drew from the subgenre is apparent throughout the album. For one, Epik High emulates the use of movie narration sound bites in lofi hip hop songs with the robotic monologue in “Sleepless”. Additionally, the use of synths and white noise, common for the subgenre, can be seen in the songs “In Seoul” and “No Different” respectively.
It might be too much lofi, however. All the songs share the same tone of calm melancholy. And with simple, unchanging beats and piano melody in almost every song, none of them particularly stands out.
Fans will defend the album’s monotony by arguing that it is intentional. If the past two albums, Shoebox and We’ve Done Something Wonderful, were collections of diverse short stories, sleepless in __________ is a short novella. Past albums’ songs excelled individually, but listening to the whole album did not significantly add to the experience. However, this album was designed to be listened to as a whole.
The chord progression at the end of “Sleepless” continues into the beginning of “In Seoul”, and the beat slows down at the end of “Rain Again Tomorrow” for the album’s final song “Lullaby For A Cat” to pick up from. The soft vocals of Sunwoo JungA from the chorus of “In Seoul” can even be heard in the background of “Lullaby For A Cat”. Like any good novel, the tone of the album is clearly set by its introduction “Sleepless” and is brought to a satisfying closure through the soothing and serene strings of the album’s final song. Fans would argue that the experimental beats and genre jumping of the past albums would have broken this experience.
Indeed, drastic changes of tone and genre between songs would have disrupted the overall concept planned for the album. However, these are not the only aspects the group could have tinkered with. Despite their lyrical ability which is evident again in this album, Tablo’s and Mithra Jin’s raps tended to feel underwhelming. Slight meanders of contemporary flows and rhyme schemes can be heard in the album. But, overall, the duo’s styles have been relatively constant in the five years since its Shoebox album. Considering the waves — the genre entering the mainstream and the consequent massive flocking of diverse newcomers into the scene — that have rocked the Korean hip hop scene during that time, it’s a worry whether the group will sink under the surface.
From the above, one might think that I hated the album, but that’s far from the truth. As expected, Tablo’s lyrics hit just the right spot. The album explores themes of anxiety, heartbreak, and depression through vivid and relatable lyrics. And, surprisingly, Mithra Jin doesn’t fall too far from Tablo in this album. Plus, with the could-not-be-more-fitting featurings of Sunwoo JungA, Crush, and Yuna, there is no doubt that the album will be adored by many — currently, “Lovedrunk” is at the top of the charts and all other six songs are within the top 100.
The criticism comes from my own high expectations. Epik High was my first hit of Korean hip hop. And, with every release, I hope to relive that first trip. sleepless in __________ didn’t quite do it, but I’ll still giddily await the next rip.