Since Winner lived up to their name by taking the #1 spot on both M!Countdown, Music Bank and Inkigayo this week, thereby joining the labelmate Lee Hi by winning on their debut stage, I thought it would be appropriate to dissect YG's new boy group and their awaited debut.
Teaser photos and videos of Winner have been constantly released since way back in June, and while I haven't counted how many there are it certainly feels like they've at least reached the same level as EXO with the teasing-madness. Of course, as people familiar with YG's tactics are aware of, we never get what we're promised on time. Ever. CEO and official troll Yang Hyun Suk stated numerous times that the winning team of "WIN: Who Is Next" would debut immediately after the show's end, and I'm not sure what kind of calendar he uses but that was 10 months ago. It's fair to say that fans have been waiting a long time, me included, so when the day finally arrived I was both excited and nervous.
They have, to this day, released two videos for their two title tracks: "Empty" and "Color Ring", both of which left a slightly disappointed aftertaste. I guess I just wasn't prepared for their official debut songs to be ballads, because most of the music I've seen them try out have been more pop-rock influenced thanks to Seungyoon's composing preferences. Both songs are also quite sad, which I will talk about more in the album review below, so the accompanying videos were fittingly dark and gloomy as well. Let's just say my expectations weren't met even a little bit, because I never thought a YG group would debut with something so bleak and melodramatic. I don't think the teasers gave anything away about how the music would sound either, so I really didn't know that this what was going to happen.
Now about the album, suitably titled "2014 S/S" since they've been working a model-inspired concept for all the various photos and videos. When I first listened to it, I didn't like it at all. No song stood out to me and I thought it was a weak effort from a group that has so much talent and potential. The second time I listened to it, because I had to give it a second chance hoping I would change my mind, I didn't think it was that bad and by the third time I genuinely liked it. It's probably my least favorite YG album of the year, but it's pretty consistent and manages to convey the sound and approach this group is taking. Members Minho, Taehyun and leader Seungyoon have had quite a hand in the making of the majority of the songs, which I'm always supportive of, and it seems as if they do have some talent for it as well.
The album opens up with one of the two title tracks, "Empty", which is kind of a slightly faster type of ballad, if you get my drift. It's not entirely a Beast style mid-tempo ballad, but it's not based solely on a piano and orchestra to carry it forward. There are many good points about the song, such as Minho's husky rapping voice and the falsetto in chorus, which is obviously the song's highlight, and it has a melody that is easy to remember. The lyrics are just plain and sheer heartbreak, explaining the emptyness left by a former lover and the overwhelming sadness that follows. It's generally a bit too dramatic for my taste, but that's why I like the instrumental because it balances out the seriousness in the lyrics. "Color Ring" is probably the title track that I prefer, although they are both good. All the member sound great here, even the rapper line consisting of Minho and Seunghoon get to try their hand in singing, and harmonizing with each other on top of that. I love the bridge part, as well as the chorus sung by Seungyoon and Taehyun, but my favorite section is definitely the climax at the end where all strings are tied together in a mix of regret and frustration. The lyrics here are sad too, but unlike the former's hopelessness this one refuses to let go of what's already lost. They keep on calling and calling but get no reply, only the sad song playing on the other side of the line.
The mood completely switches for next song called "Don't Flirt", as it has a cheerful reggae sound that provides a nice break from the emotional opening of the album. The song doesn't do very much for me, but it's nice to see another side of the group that's not represented by their title tracks. Despite it's upbeat sound though, the lyrics are about a cheating girlfriend and the aggression that comes from being angry at her yet still big wanting to dump her. Next song is Minho's solo "I'm Him", and I can literally not begin to explain what this song does to me. Minho's deep, raspy voice takes center stage in this almost entirely self-composed hip-hop track, and although Winner hasn't been promoted as a hip-hop group, they sure have one hell of a rapper. This is what it's all about, boosting yourself in various creative ways and actually selling it without it coming off as gimmicky, and Minho has succeeded in turning me into a raging fangirl by doing just so.
I was honestly let down a bit by "Love Is A Lie" although I'm under the impression that it's somewhat of a fan favorite, but I can't seem to get into it. It sounds, in my opinion, generic and uninspiring and despite there being some good elements in it I find it a bit boring. Both Minho and Seungyoon contributed a lot in the making of it, but I suppose being in YG has its side-effect because this sounds exactly like a typical YG pop song and I'm not a huge fan of that particular style. I can imagine it being a great song to perform live, since it's really fun and upbeat, contrasting the lyrics, but on record it doesn't do it for me. Next up is Taehyun's solo "Confession", which is a traditional ballad about love and devotion. He helped compose the song and wrote the lyrics all by himself, so what you're hearing is something that is truly his. The song is piano-based for the most part but is kept dynamic by adding in some orchestra elements at certain parts, thus preventing the song from falling too much in either direction. It's neither boring nor over-dramatic and that's one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. I guess it must be something with YG and ballads, because every single YG release this year has had a ballad that I liked and that is remarkable if anything. Following tracks "But" and "Different" are very similar both in sound and lyrics, but the latter seems to have impressed more fans judging by the comments I've read. They are both guitar-driven, follow a calm, pleasant pace throughout and provide great vocals and rap. The lyrics are what catches my eye though, as they both beg for the counterpart to stay with them although they're "bad" and can't seem to change their behavior. The members themselves wrote the lyrics for the songs, so I'm wondering how their past relationships have worked out since the lyrics tell quite a story.
"Tonight" was first seen on "Win: Who Is Next?" as one of Taehyun's projects, and was given the green light by YG himself as he heard it. This is the slow, sensual track of the album and the group's vocalists are the ones that shine the most as I listen to it. I especially enjoy Seungyoon's voice, but then again I always do, and Taehyun's high note at the end where the saxophone kicks in is pretty great too. The final track is the one I had anticipated the most, because it's a a song I hold a lot of personal attachment to. It also first appeared on the reality show as gave the then-called Team A their first victory. It was also what made me begin to root for them and want them to win, all because of "Smile Again". I really liked the pop-rock sound that felt fresh and unique, as well as the melody and chord structure that had me hooked at first listen. For this newly recorded studio version though, they've completely removed the rock element making it more of an "electro pop" kind of tune. Don't get me wrong, it's still great but I think it's a shame that they got rid of what made it stand out. However, I'm happy they even put it on the album because it's still their best song to date and by far the best song on the album.
Like I said at the beginning, it took me some listens to get into it but now that I've familiar with it I think it's a great debut album. Sure, some songs don't leave as much of an impression on me, but I can still tell that there's genuine effort and dedication behind it and that they've made clear what kind of group they are and what kind of music they want to make. Also, they've been doing great with their live performances so far and look absolutely fantastic too. This entire debut has been very thoughtfully nurtured, polished and executed, and they already have made an image for themselves with their classy, clean-cut styling and posture. The focus clearly lies on showing the members' musical talents as well as the music itself and the emotions it conveys, which is a refreshing change and a bit unlike YG as we know it, which is why I was a bit surprised.
As I've been following them for almost a year, it feels amazing to be able to watch them on music shows and go through with all the promotional events and activities just like any other band. They truly are a bunch of great kids and I hope they can maintain their humbleness and modesty although they've had such a great start. This reminds me that I have to go re-watch "Winner TV" and I suggest you do too because otherwise you're truly missing out.
Least Favorite: "Love Is A Lie"
Highlights: "Color Ring", "I'm Him", "Confession", "Smile Again"