Release Date: November 27, 2015
Label: S.M. Entertainment / KT Music
K-pop stardom is never a breeze, but the pressures facing f(x) seem like they’d be asphyxial. 4 Walls, the girl group’s fourth full-length since their 2009 debut under the top-tier SM agency in South Korea, has to follow a pair of predecessors – 2013’s Pink Tape and last year’s Red Light – that stand among the decade’s best pop albums from anywhere. They also have to measure up against their spry young label mates Red Velvet, whose recent The Red is f(x)’s prime competition for the best Korean pop album to date. But worst of all, this is the group’s first statement since the departure of long heels-dragging member Sulli, attracting added scrutiny towards how well they might function as a quartet – especially amid rumors that their days might be numbered.
Fortunately, 4 Walls houses some of the year’s most sophisticated and innovative pop. With its flush falsettos and Fairlight-esque synth bass, “X” is ‘80s funk perfection. “Glitter” warps a hypothetical Disney soundtrack staple into a paragon of heady, progressive R&B. “Traveler” smooths out coils of 8-bit arpeggios and tight vocal harmonies with guest rapper Zico’s liquid bars, and the cathartic piano house of “Rude Love” rewards the album’s many cerebral triumphs with a simpler kind of pleasure.
Not everything is so successful. “Deja Vu,” aptly titled, doesn’t quite reconcile its laminated hooks à la Aqua (or, say, PC Music) with an oddball impression of Blur’s “Song 2.” The shouty come-on “Papi” feels regrettable, and “Cash Me Out” – dated 2013, obviously post-“Starships” – would’ve sounded like yesterday’s news the night it was recorded. Penned by Carly Rae Jepsen and Bonnie McKee, “When I’m Alone” saves an E•MO•TION outtake from oblivion and sounds nice doing it, but as an album closer it smacks a bit of anticlimax – perhaps appropriate for a sanitized song that, in its English form, had been an ode to masturbation.
But these are minor misgivings, and ones well compensated by 4 Walls’ brighter spots. Nowhere moreso than its title track, a deft U.K. garage upgrade that becomes definitively K-pop with rapper Amber’s surprisingly fire verse and a visionary double-bridge that shifts time, feel and genre with a logic all its own. Taken with the poetry of its video and choreography – as much the art of it as the song, in SM’s estimation – it’s a moving meditation on commitment that could signal a surprise second life for the world’s greatest living pop group.