Album Review: MBLAQ – ‘100% Ver.’

SOUTH KOREA: MBLAQ made their highly-anticipated comeback on Jan 10, after multiple teasers from J. Tune Camp with their dynamic 4th mini-album, ‘100% Ver.’, including the track, ‘It’s War’, the song they will be promoting for the next few weeks. The mini-album combines powerful electronic beats, catchy syncopated chords, and captivating lyrics, all tied together with MBLAQ’s trademark masculine concept.

Although MBLAQ’s mentor, Bi Rain, is currently away for his mandatory army duty, it looks like the boys are holding their own pretty well. Rain has been known to been very active in producing, composing and even choreographing songs for MBLAQ. However, it looks like they’ve matured enough to take on their own style even without the presence of their mentor.

Part 1: Heartbreak, MBLAQ style

It’s pretty obvious that MBLAQ are no stranger to the wonders of auto-tuning and synths–their previous singles, ‘Y’ and ‘Stay’, featured both liberally. However, the producers of the songs are experts at keeping the whole song from being drowned under a mess of noise and letting the actual singing become too processed. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why MBLAQ’s most popular singles are intense and powerful, giving them the extra “wow-factor”.

The opening track of the mini-album, ‘Run’, began with an interesting introduction of horror-movie-esque sound effects (including something that sounded a little like a girl screaming) and launched almost immediately into the first of Mir‘s multiple rap parts in the song. The overall beat of the song slightly resembles that of ‘Y’, MBLAQ’s track from 2010, rendering it one of their dance/pop works. However, with the rap parts, metallic sound effects and deliberately roughened quality and vocals, the song has a coarse, gritty feel to it that amplifies the boys’ masculine images and their “bad boy”-ness. It would have been nice to see the other members take on some solo parts besides Mir’s raps, but it is a strong opening track overall.

I like the fact that MBLAQ opened their mini-album with their one electronic track – it definitely catches the attention of listeners and raises expectations for the remaining songs. However, if the rest of the songs had sounded the same (which, thankfully, they didn’t), ‘Run’ would have blended into the background and been regarded as a merely mediocre selection instead of a compelling first track. As the boys move on to their promotional single, ‘It’s War’, it’s easy to see that the songs sound completely unlike each other.

The second track from the mini album is ‘It’s War’, a melancholy, angst-filled, surprisingly lyrical composition. It begins with a moody orchestral introduction, paired with a sparingly used, yet haunting piano melody, and flows smoothly into Lee Joon’s opening lines. The song gradually crescendos from a rap part to the chorus, which displays the strong vocals of MBLAQ. The arrangement of this song is brilliant – the strings and piano in the background add a nice touch to the unhappy tone of the song, and the sound effects toward the end (a gunshot and heartbeats) create a striking effect. The music video, with a darker colour palette, was also enhanced by Lee Joon and Thunder’s convincing portrayal of two best friends torn apart by their love for the same girl. The exceptionally aerodynamic bullet was a little too dramatic for my taste, but all in all, the song shows off the improved vocals of MBLAQ as a group. I’m very interested to see if the same effect will carry over onstage. But at the same time, I’m slightly worried that the choreography will dampen the boys’ vocals, which would be quite disappointing, as it be nice to see their improvement in live performances.

The rap parts in MBLAQ’s songs have always been something worth praising –Mir is definitely one of the more capable rappers in Kpop right now and the fact that this mini-album exemplifies that fact with more rap parts than before is a pleasant touch. ‘Scribble’ opens with another one of his raps with a guitar solo in the background. This track has an Italian feel to it, reminiscent of MBLAQ’s Latin-esque ‘Oh Yeah’ days. It’s a relief to see that they have truly stuck with the same funky European sound this whole time, keeping their songs from getting too formulaic and repetitive.

‘Scribble’ is also one of their slower tracks, not quite a ballad, complete with the crooning, heartbreaking voices, but not quite a dance track either. It sits perfectly between the two, letting the boys add a gentler touch to their mini-album but keeping listeners from falling asleep as well. If there was one track that captures MBLAQ’s distinctive flair of sexiness and R&B perfectly, ‘Scribble’ would be it.

I’m compelled to mention the lyrics of the songs in ‘100% Ver.’ at this point. ‘Run’ dripped with confidence and the typical masculinity that I’ve come to expect from MBLAQ. ‘It’s War’ was interesting because the lyrics were directed at the singer’s friend who stole his girl instead of at the girl. Filled with hurt and betrayal, the lines are sung poignantly by the boys and I actually felt somewhat emotionally drained after watching the music video.

My favuorite lyrics from the entire mini-album would have to be those of ‘Scribble’, however. The songwriters did an excellent job penning out well-phrased lines about heartache for the track, perfect for a softer R&B number. I didn’t feel like an emotional mess after listening to the song (unlike ‘It’s War’), but the muted sadness of the song left a lingering impression on me.

Part 2:  About Jitters and Exes, MBLAQ style

The fourth track, ‘Jittery Girl’, embraces a mellower tone, brightening up the mini-album after three heavier-sounding tracks. The upbeat piano chords and light swing style of the song is like a breath of fresh air after listening to the other tracks. MBLAQ is back to experimenting with different styles of music with this track and their creativity is impressive, as always. It doesn’t come as a surprise to see them include a sweeter-sounding, vocals-heavy selection, but their ability to prevent ‘Jittery Girl’ from veering too far from the bold, modern flavour of their music is commendable.

The fifth track, ‘Hello My EX’, resembles ‘Jittery Girl’ in that it also has more cheerful mood than the first three tracks. Something that was enjoyable about the song was that although the lyrics were about missing an ex-girlfriend and wishing that things were different, MBLAQ kept it from sounding whiny and overly dramatic. Instead, it seems to give post-breakup feelings an optimistic direction–the lyrics are encouraging and although regretful, not bitter. The introduction to the song was especially enjoyable, as the accompaniment to the vocals weren’t overbearing and truly allowed the voices of G.O and Seung Ho to shine through.

MBLAQ’s comeback fully satisfied me – they still have a long journey ahead of them before they reach near-perfection, but I thought that ‘100% Ver.’ did a wonderful job showcasing their improvements, especially since they are notoriously famous for bad vocals (this is a step in the right direction), and experimenting with new genres. It’s a glimpse at what’s coming for the group in 2012, and I feel like their future is promising with this release. Just like 2011 was the year of the B2UTYs with B2ST reaching all-time highs in terms of success, perhaps 2012 will be the year of the A+’s.

All in all, fans of MBLAQ definitely won’t be disappointed by the mini-album and it looks like the boys spent a lot of time on it. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates about their performances of ‘It’s War’!

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