MUSIC

Scarlet Royalty: Red Velvet’s Journey to “Queendom”

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20 months after their last group release, Red Velvet is back with their much anticipated sixth mini album, “Queendom.” Photo courtesy of SM ENTERTAINMENT

“Bae Joo-hyun! Kang Seulgi! Son Seung-wan! Park Soo-young! Kim Ye-rim! Red Velvet! Psycho!”

That’s how the fanchant goes, and how it was seen in this version of “Psycho,” Red Velvet’s last release as a group (which we selected as one of the best K-pop songs of 2020). Seeing the members of the girl group react to the intimately set atmosphere with their fans was refreshing in two different ways — first, because we know that something like that may not happen anytime soon, and because of how it took 20 months before Red Velvet got together for another new release.

Of course, those 20 months — which can be considered long in K-pop where groups churn out albums every few months or so — were caused by other factors, such as Wendy getting injured in Gayo Daejeon in 2019, Irene’s gapjil (“the arrogant and authoritarian attitude of people holding positions of power over others”) controversy — which she has acknowledged and apologized in what has seemingly been her last post on social media, and of course, the pandemic.

Despite the long break between the two album releases, we’ve been treated to over twenty Red Velvet tracks — five from Irene & Seulgi’s “Monster,” another five from Wendy’s much-awaited comeback and solo debut, “Like Water,” six from Joy’s covers album “Hello,” their divine cover of BoA’s “Milky Way,” and their K-drama soundtracks for “Start-Up:” ”Future” and Wendy’s “Two Words,” and their participation in “Trolls World Tour,” for the song “Just Sing,” among other notable covers and appearances.

It’s exactly that reason — an undeniable presence felt throughout their extensive discography that plays for over five hours — that drew me in. My first exposure to the group was their appearance in “Descendants of the Sun,” where they performed for their oppas in the Special Forces, and what is possibly Song Joong-ki’s most relatable performance.

I went deeper into the world of Red Velvet. It was just one of those YouTube videos that were suggested after playing a music video, but that appearance on K-Rush Idol Weekly — where they were interviewed by MC Wendy — introduced me to a different side of the girl group.

The author’s growing Red Velvet collection, awaiting several other copies of Queendom.

For me, what sets them apart is not how concepts are executed and turned into song. There are title tracks like “Zimzalabim,” which is a magic spell like “Abra Kadabra;” songs entitled “Dumb Dumb,” and “Umpah Umpah,” which you would not immediately understand and may not attract casual listeners right away. But once you do, you might not even need to get halfway to appreciate the earworm.

In Vox’s Explained: K-pop episode (available on Netflix or could be read through their website), it’s K-pop’s hook that draws in several other genres into pop music that creates addictive melodies. For Red Velvet, that’s their “Red” side: intense, captivating, colorful. That’s how “Red Flavor” became their first summer anthem, one that got recognized so easily, they even performed it in Pyongyang for Kim Jong-un. The other track they performed? “Bad Boy.”

For each of those title tracks that become immensely popular, they also have the soulful B-tracks that showcase their vocals in timeless R&B and ballad songs. Smooth and fine, which also refer to their “Velvet” side. These were recently highlighted in the leadup to their seventh anniversary.

I remember scrolling on Instagram on a Sunday night and got surprised by this random piece, a part of those grid-sized posts with a caption that read “You can find ‘NEW YOU’ in Queens Mystic General Store.” I thought it was a shop I followed from Queens, New York, but when I read the username, it was @redvelvet.smtown.

It turns out that it was the first part of their promotions for “Queendom,” an archive of sorts that took fans back through memorabilia from previous music videos. On the same night, they released a teaser that played “Something Kinda Crazy,” a B-track from their first mini album, “Ice Cream Cake.” For the next few days, it was each member going through other B-sides: the chameleon Wendy going grunge for “I Just,” the charming maknae Yeri for “Talk To Me,” the Original Visual Irene for “Perfect 10,” the Sexy Dynamite Joy for “Bad Dracula,” and Seulgi playing tennis for “So Good.”

It was quite a nod for fans, both old and new. ReVeluvs were treated to a lot of easter eggs from previous videos and eras. For the new ones, it was an introduction into their other signatures that may not have been explored or as familiar as the title tracks. It’s been a journey of a couple of weeks, one that has brought us back to their Queendom.

Yeri, Joy, Irene, Seulgi and Wendy welcome you to their “Queendom.” Photo courtesy of SM ENTERTAINMENT

The teaser for the title track “Queendom” has already been released a few days prior, and its “La di la du ba ba di la” spell has been stuck on our heads since. A definitive Red song, it’s a track that’s sure to contend as one of the best songs of 2021. And where else would they reign as queens than in the hearts of their fans, which is perfectly encapsulated in the verse “the moment our hands touch, that’s our queendom.”

It’s followed by another uptempo pop song, “Pose.” Reminiscent of their tracks “Look” and “Red Dress,” it’s only fitting that a record named after royalty has a fashion reference. There’s a reason why they were called the “standard bearer for girl groups’ conceptual versatility” by Billboard. They can go from girl scout uniforms to high fashion and still exude the signature confidence and vibe they bring.

The last of their three upbeat tracks is “Knock On Wood,” an electro-punk interpretation of a fairy tale asking for good luck, like a mix between the lyrics of “Lucky Girl” and the beats of “Talk To Me” and “Blue Lemonade.” The Red side features an edgier, more mature Yeri, who delivers on each of her rap lines.

As for the Velvet side of things, the three R&B tracks kick off with “Better Be.” The cat that has been present since “Ice Cream Cake” and throughout the Queens Archive promotions finally gets explained through this song, as its characteristics are compared to charming your way into someone’s heart, without necessarily giving up your own. There better be a music video for this.

The penultimate track of the mini-album, “Pushin’ N Pullin” is reminiscent of “Would U” and their favorite, “Kingdom Come.” The lyrics tell a partner who has anxiety about relationships: “Trust our time together. You’ll be like your usual self again.” It’s one of those songs that you save for when you need a pick-me-upper.

They close with 다시, 여름 (Hello, Sunset). What the Hangul translates to is “again, summer,” which makes it like a sequel to 안녕, 여름 Parade from “Reve Festival Day 1.” It winds down through its combination of the relaxed drum rhythm, dreamy piano, and light electric guitar, that despite our reunion coming to close, “we’ll always end up together in the end.”

Red Velvet concepts always point out their two sides: the Red (intense and captivating), and the Velvet (feminine and soft). Photo courtesy of SM ENTERTAINMENT

And by saying we’ll stay together, they mean business. Yeri’s web drama with Pentagon’s Hongseok “Blue Birthday” is already underway. Joy is currently shooting for her drama, “Only One Person.” Wendy is a daily DJ on Youngstreet, and is reported to join the regular cast of the South Korean version of “Saturday Night Live.” Seulgi is an MC for two online shows, “Seulgi.zip” and “The Wise Music Encyclopedia.” All our fingers are crossed that there is another project coming for Irene after her movie, “Double Patty.”

Once you go deeper into Red Velvet's catalog, you’d find gems like “Butterflies” which would’ve been the perfect OST for “Nevertheless,” or appreciating how “One Of These Nights” theorized as a tribute to the Sewol Ferry Incident, or finding that their range and sound actually make their songs more timeless — like being taken from decade to decade through their beautiful voices, impeccable blending, and a sound that you could truly say belongs only to them.

Seven wonderful years in the industry. Here’s hoping that their queendom will last for much more.