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Album Review: BoA - Better

Album Review: BoA - Better | Random J Pop

I've cussed BoA out many a time over the years. Not because I felt she was untalented or because I was a hater. But because I knew she was so much better than what she was putting out. But 10 years ago BoA turned a corner, and it's one she's been turning for the entire decade. BoA began to take more control of her career and her music, investing herself in becoming somebody who takes their music seriously and allowing it to stand on its own. BoA sought her own musical path. To create a new musical legacy which was a truer reflection of her, as opposed to a perception from fans or even her own boss at SM entertainment. And ever since then, BoA has gotten...well...better.

But BoA's betterness happened during a strange time in her career, because it occurred during a point at which she probably wasn't expected to still have it. BoA is one of very few artists who has managed to stay active through multiple generations of K-Pop itself. At one point, everybody in K-Pop, from artists to fans knew who BoA was, what she'd achieved and just how monumental she was. She was known as the Britney of K-Pop, which sounds just about right. But as BoA began to slow down, K-Pop began to go into overdrive. New groups were debuting left, right and centre, she was no longer the sole poster child of SM Entertainment. And when the wave that K-Pop was long waiting for finally came, a bunch of acts rode it to the US, but BoA herself was nowhere to be found.

Now there is a whole new generation of K-Pop fans who don't really know the impact BoA had made and just how vital she was to K-Pop as it exists now. BoA herself doesn't seem to care too much though. After all, she made the decision to pull the plug on the promotional activities for her US debut. And she decided to not only take more time for herself, but to start focusing on her music. Whilst long term fans and listeners of BoA's music will indeed see that BoA has grown and gotten better, it's not something that those whose K-Pop journey started at BTS or Blackpink will see or care about. So her 10th studio album Better is made to tow the line between celebrating the fact that BoA is still here, but also re-introducing her to those who don't know her legacy at all. But it's very clear that everybody else's vision of BoA, SM included, and how she see's herself are very different, and her album reflects just how much so.

Album Review: BoA - Better | Random J Pop

Better in many ways feels like a greatest hits album, but without the hits. Every song has a familiarity to it, which feels like a nod to something BoA has done before, whilst still being forward-facing and representing her as an artist here and now. Whether this was intentional given that it is the milestone album celebrating BoA's 20th anniversary, or just a coincidence; it makes for a great listening experience which feels whole. As a fan there's a lot here to admire and sink your teeth into. But it also provides a great starting point for those new to BoA, because the songs on this thing are just damn good songs. It's also very much an album that could only work for BoA now. Not only because she's released so much material over the course of her career, but because BoA didn't truly find her sound until only a few years ago to be able to be in a place to deliver an album like this.

It isn't perfect though. Better still falls prey to the SM machine and there are a couple of songs which sound like other songs from SM acts. Album closer "Little Bird" sounds like something intended for Taeyeon. "Temptation" has a very similar vibe and rhythm to Irene & Seulgi's "Monster". BoA had said in an interview that she wanted "Monster" originally, so the similarities in sound are probably deliberate. Whilst "Got Me Good" sounds like a far mellower version of Irene & Seulgi's "Naughty" (both "Got Me Good" and "Naughty" were helmed by Swedish production duo Moonshine). This is all due to SM A&R's favouring a select pool of producers and songwriters and giving all of their acts their songs, which is clever for establishing a sound - but can cause several acts to sound the same. Although one thing I'd always said was that Irene & Seulgi's EP reminded me a lot of BoA in the first place, so...there is that. But despite the cogs of the SM machine at work, Better still feels unequivocally BoA. She isn't as interchangeable on these songs as she was on say, Hurricane Venus or half of the Kiss My Lips album.

Album Review: BoA - Better | Random J Pop

R&B has always been pretty deep-rooted in BoA's sound, so it underpins several songs on the album, such as "Better" and the "One Shot, Two Shot" sound-alike pussy banger "Honey & Diamonds". But this is really a Pop album on the whole, as is the case with most of BoA's albums.

The album title track does pretty much everything you want from a lead BoA single, and nails what "One Shot, Two Shot" and "Woman" didn't. "One Shot, Two Shot" was a great song and a nice step change for BoA, giving us the lightest title track we'd gotten from her for a while. But it felt too fleeting. "Better" is everything that "Woman" and also "Nega Dola" tried to be. Dark, sultry and funky, but also fun and bubbly with a great hook. "Better" as a song feels so perfectly engineered for BoA; giving us everything that not only feels right for BoA at this point in her life and career, but also respects all that she's done before. As it should, given that it's produced by long-time collaborator Yoo Young-jin. He shows a very clear understanding of what makes a good BoA song at this point in her life and career. It has the tempo of "Kiss My Lips", but the sass of "My Name" and the dominance of "Girls On Top", but the brightness of a song like "One Shot, Two Shot". It's a perfect intersection of all things BoA in a song which is nostalgic, but still manages to sound fresh. And this is pretty much the energy which goes across the whole album.

I'm not sure what it is with BoA and jazz, but it's cropped up in a lot of her music ever since her album Identity, which played a major part in the shift in BoA's music and her becoming more hands as a songwriter and a producer. On her 2018 Japanese album release, the God awful Watashi Kono Mama de Ii no Kana, BoA was on the cover with a saxophone, and the album also featured a song called "Jazz Club". "Starry Night" had some jazz elements to it, and now we get "All That Jazz". It's a curveball on the album for sure, but it still fits, and is masterfully placed in between fellow jazz leaning "Cloud" and the funky disco inspired "L.O.V.E". A jazzy number into something disco isn't quite the mess it could and probably should be. 

Even K-Pop hasn't escaped the disco bulldozer with "L.O.V.E". Although BoA has given us a taste of disco before. "L.O.V.E" is surprisingly produced by LDN Noise, who are known primarily for their House cuts for SHINee and f(x), which led to them becoming fixtures at SM and giving this sound to the entire roster. It's a great song though. If K-Pop didn't move on from albums so quickly and gave album cuts music videos post release, this wouldn't be a great contender which would cut BoA across really nicely. I'm also waiting on somebody to give this song the mashup with Lady Gaga's "Replay" that it deserves.

The ballads on the album are a mixed bag, "Cloud" and "Gravity" are really nice, but album closer "Little Bird" causes the album to end pretty weak. It's a real shame that the album opens as strong as it does with "Better", to then end on such a whimper with two slow songs back-to-back. Especially when they come after the rousing and primed for US radio cut "Start Over". It would have been so much better to have closed the album with something joyous and upbeat, as BoA did on her previous album Woman with "I Want You Back". Or even ending the album with "Gravity" would have made more sense. But to have everything build with "Start Over" and then have this big song like "Gravity", to then suck every ounce of energy out with "Little Bird" was bizzare.

But generally Better flows nicely despite it's range of sounds. A strong finish is as important as a strong start though, so it's a shame BoA fumbles at the final hurdle and album kinda fizzles out after starting with such a bang.

If there is one thing that BoA's albums have seldom been in the past, it's cohesive. Non-cohesiveness albums is something that a whole bunch of SM Entertainment albums have suffered from over the years. But she and the team at SM have finally found a way to have all of the different styles and genres that BoA's done over the years fit together. I do however wish that BoA had eased up on the ballads. With her last couple of albums and EP's, BoA seemed to outright have neglected ballads in place of more soulful mid-tempo affairs or power ballad style songs such as "Recollection" on One Shot, Two Shot. All we needed was "Cloud" and "Start Over". "Gravity" and "Little Bird" could have been replaced with better songs. But I do like that this album runs a gamut of styles not by design or to fit a template. But because it is a complete reflection of what BoA has become as an artist. It shows BoA and how she feels in this moment as an artist 20 years into her career, as somebody who knows herself, and as a grown woman. And if a couple of ballads are a part of that, then okay bitch. But they still could've been better though.

Album Review: BoA - Better | Random J Pop

BoA's voice has always been somewhat of an acquired taste. She sounds...not so great on some of her earlier material. And even on her epiphanic 7th Japanese studio album Identity, her vocals were inconsistent and sometimes a straight up mess. As BoA started to align her talent as a pop star and performer with the quality and consistency of her music, she's also done the same with her vocals. BoA sounds really good on this album. BoA's vocals used to fall under bad and not bad. She's never been the best singer in K-Pop by a long shot. But her voice is noticeably good on this album. On the title track she hits some nice runs and a money note that's so big and placed so perfectly in the song that you can't help but notice it. Then there is her flow. BoA's sense of rhythm on songs has always been great, but it's highlighted on Better because every single song is so different from the last rhythmically, and not once is BoA caught out because of it. She takes every song in her stride and just glides on every song. Even sections which should feel clumsy come off smooth because of how BoA just takes it on. The 'Read my thoughts from a paradigm' line in English shoulda tripped a bitch and sounded clunky off the back of a verse which was so fluid in Korean, but it didn't. And the chorus of "Start Over" being in English may have spooked BoA 10 years ago, but she just handles that shit, hits every beat, gives perfect enunciation and does it with no heavy auto-tuning. BoA has clearly been spending time on her voice and how to best lay down songs in the studio and it really shows.

Album Review: BoA - Better | Random J Pop

When BoA made her return with One Shot, Two Shot, we got the first release from BoA which felt considered and was a good body of work. But there were still instances where it felt like SM was chasing a trend ("Nega Dola" felt like an SM response / take on Sunmi's "Gashina" both musically and visually) or trying to recapture a familiar BoA of the past ("Camo"). Then it was the same thing with Woman. Better finally feels like an album which encapsulates who BoA is, not only as an artist, but at this point in her life and her career. But Better also makes bold statements. It's so easy to write artists off on the belief that they can't change and get better after X amount of years, but BoA's music didn't get consistently good for me until she was 10 - 12 years into her career. And here she is in year 20 only just delivering what is easily one of her best albums. You are never too 'old' to change and grow, and this says a lot about BoA herself, who could have easily just kept doing the same thing - because despite how I personally felt about her music, it will still doing well for her, SM Entertainment and Avex commercially. But BoA doesn't think she's done it all or too good and too veteran to want to grow and evolve and it just makes me respect her artistry and what she allowed to happen on this album so much more. But one of the biggest statements that BoA makes with better is a K-Pop star doesn't just turn to dust when they hit 30. And women most certainly don't stop being able to perform, dance and be sexy once they exit out of their twenties. If anything, it's when it all begins. After all, BoA only started to take the reigns of her career when she turned 30, which is when she also settled into her womanhood, her image and seemed to truly own it and how she displayed it - which has led to this phase of her career where her image and her music are exactly where they should be.

Album Review: BoA - Better | Random J Pop

Better is one of BoA's better albums. It's a great refinement of sounds that BoA has been nailing since 2016's "Kiss My Lips", and a great display of confidence that BoA has in being able to release songs that she feels are right for her and how she wants to portray herself to the world. It shows that the step change we saw in BoA back in 2015 wasn't a fluke.

Better in itself a solid body of work, but it also creates this new starting point for BoA. Now that she's put out a body of work which is reflective of 20 years of her career and cements that she's found her musical lane, she has a chance to look forward and maybe dip her toe into styles she's not tried before without any real risk, because she has already built her legacy, and it would take a hell of a lot to tarnish it. And part of what has led BoA to putting out good music is caring less and doing what feels true to her. And as long as she continues to do that, she can only get better.

VERDICT: STEEL HERE

Highlights:
■ Better
■ Temptations
■ Cloud
■ All That Jazz
■ L.O.V.E
■ Cut Me Off
■ Got Me Good
■ Honey & Diamonds 🏆 J's fave
■ Start Over

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