The OGs of Korean Hip-hop, the legendary trio that embodies the “no genre, just music” philosophy, Epik High has graced 2021 with their 10th studio album, ‘Epik High is Here 上 (Part 1)’. This album epitomizes the 17-year long legacy of these forerunners of the Korean Hip-hop Wave who have always vocalized all the hushed up sensitive topics in their tracks and even inspired the upcoming generations of Korean Music to lend their own voices to this exigent cause as well.
“I paved the way/ For everyone that is pavin’ the way.” – Tablo raps in ‘Rosario’
With a titillating reveal of the stellar lineup of featured artists like Zico, CL, Heize, B.I., etc. before the release date of 18th January 2021, Epik High created much hype and excitement among the listeners, especially since it followed their 2019 EP “Sleepless in __________” which in a way had marked the new beginning of the hip-hop trio.
‘Epik High is Here 上 (Part 1)’ consists of 10 thought-provoking, soul-stirring tracks; two of which (‘Rosario’ and ‘Based On A True Story’), are complemented by aesthetic music videos that give a visual insight into the ingenious world created by Epik High. The songs speak largely of dark somber topics but each of them carries a sliver of hope which conveys their message to their fans, “We’re all in the same boat. We’re all confused, but Epik High is here for you and with you.”
“I want our music to reflect whatever emotions you are really feeling because most likely we’re feeling that way too, and we really do know what it’s like. It can feel comforting to know that you’re not alone.” – Tablo in an Interview
The testimonial album kicks off with the track ‘Lesson Zero’ which is a continuation of the “Lesson series” of Epik High. With the instrumentation at it’s minimal, this short track sees lyrical genius, Tablo attuning to the common emotions of the millions around the globe and resonating with the strength to “unlearn” everything that society had taught him: “Teach you everything you want, but nothing you need/ That everything’s got a price, and nothing is free”. He boldly rejects all these hypocritical learnings of the world and vulnerably asserts in the end “No more lessons, please take me back to zero”.
This semi-beatless musing then gives way to the Latin-pop-tinged trap beats of ‘Rosario’ which features the lauded powerhouses of the Korean hip-hop industry in a vertical portrait-style music video, much reminiscent of the ‘Born Hater’ music video. The song imbibes the added texture of Zico rapping “Thank you, my haters/ All praises to you/ You wrote my epic tale with your hateful words” and CL blazoning “I am a legend, and I’m here to stay” as the lyrically sharp polished diction of Tablo and Mithra Jin gives proof of their proclaimed living legends status.
“I am hoping that anyone who hears this song can feel for a moment like a living legend like they are the greatest.” – DJ Tukutz in Epik High Is Here Documentary
Based On A True Story
After these undaunted, lofty claims of ‘Rosario’, the album takes on a softer, more vulnerable appeal as Heize’s soothing vocals flow over a subdued piano melody, weaving through the countless emotions in ‘Based On A True Story’ that connected all of us in the tense pandemic-struck times. The song provides the listeners with comfort and hope as it draws parallels between all the feelings of despair and heartbreak that everyone feels and tries to avoid by immersing themselves in the stories they see on TV or hear on the radio, which actually “hits too close to home”.
The next track, ‘Acceptance Speech’ documents the glorious rise and hard falls of an artist’s life and the emotions he is plagued with due to these; ironically mirroring the featured artist, B.I.’s journey who tenderly sings “I’m coming home/If you’re not going to help me, let me go”, hinting at his return to the industry since leaving boy-group IKON 2 years ago. The sensitive lyrics of Mithra Jin who had confessed to having battled panic disorders before, also add to the realistic, highly relevant feel of the track as he sings, “Instead of pointing fingers at me/ Please wave your hands at me/I have a long way to go for me to stop my feet.”
“People see the glorious moments but it’s the difficult moments that made us. And I wanted to talk about that…..The good always comes hand in hand with the bad. And that’s what this song is about.” – Mithra Jin in Epik High Is Here Documentary
‘Leica’, a tonically consistent track enters the spotlight next, painting an apt portrait of contemporary society that believes in recording moments than in living them. These veteran artists along with Vocalist Kim Sawol reject this practice, rapping: “Put the phone down. No more cameras. I live with all my might and every time I close my eyes, I save a smile. This is how you take a real picture to last a lifetime” and assert their well-being in doing so as the chorus rings, “I’m gonna be ok/ I’m gonna be ok.” Tablo also injects a beautiful dad-daughter moment from his life into the track as he confidently raps, “I’m proud of myself, proud of myself/ Makin’ my tenth full-length on my daughter’s tenth/ Got her arms around my neck, no chains/ This gold, none of y’all can flex”.
In Self Defense
A steady staccato rhythm weaves through the expertly cultivated and well-delivered verses of a powerful ensemble of Epik High, Woo, Nucksal and Changmo, in the track ‘In Self Defense’. The song’s impact banks heavily on the sharp commentary on the cyber haters and the naysayers who blight the lives of artists in the limelight, thinking it is their right to do so. Strong lyrics laden with COVID-19 references, like “Rather than social distancing, wanna distance myself from these pessimistic f**ks/ No difference between you and the virus/ cuz you only leave behind pain” are complemented by brazenly confident punchlines like, “Classic after classic, this is number ten”; hence balancing the aggressive emotional vehemence with cool and cocky counterparts. The end declaration of “If I’m guilty it was all in self-defense/BANG!” after this powerful emotional tirade leaves the listener speechless, still comprehending all that the track professed.
‘True Crime’ talks of a controversial but deep love that is spurned by the world who labels it as “Taboo”, “intoxication” and “Obsession”. The track however questions the established norms of the world as Tablo raps, “How could a world that’s turned it’s back on love/ Ever understand love that’s turned it’s back on the world?” It also ponders on the painful predicament of dealing with the “true crime” of being without the lover, till the sense of longing and the safety they get in each other reveals the disjointed answer in Miso’s tender voice: “I’d do any-/ It’s only us.”
The disjointedness is also brought forth by the clean music production of DJ Tukutz which cuts swiftly from a lo-fi intro to a soft melody, then building up to an EDM beat drop before slowly bringing it back down the same way again.
Social Distance 16
The moody composition of ‘True Crime’ gives way to ‘Social Distance 16’ which brings to the table a classic old-school beat and a short almost-freestyle like rap about the dual themes of the pandemic and the tainted music industry. The direct assault on this contaminated space while alluding to the overarching theme of the pandemic in lyrics like, “Quarantine, we in quarantine/ The industry makes me sick and there’s no vaccine/This damn scene got me from healthy to diseased/Ain’t nothing new, I have always been social distancing”, is what makes this short track standout.
End of The World
Next on the tracklist, ‘End of The World’ opens with the mellifluent vocals of G.Soul flowing over the beautiful acoustic guitar melody as he sings, “I want you to love me like it’s the end of the world.” The trap beats then kick in as Tablo takes over and talks of the hypocrisy and contamination of humankind who are “Living with both eyes and ears closed but asking for the truth”, declaring that as it stands, “Even God can’t save us”. Mithra Jin continues with the same subject matter, also signaling that the end of the world is nearer than ever: “Whenever I open my eyes, I see the end of a century stretched before me.”
Wish You Were
‘Wish You Were’ is the last track of part one of the Double Album, ‘Epik High is Here’ and ties everything together, fitting it in the larger frame of the album. It comprises mainly a slow sonorous lo-fi beat with only a short interposition from Tablo who despite being as “washed up” by the countless rigors of life as his peers, still wishes to be home with his family and states conclusively, “All my peers are drowning in their past/ So I’d rather be/ Right Here.”
“Maybe the map we drew all those years ago was merely meant to show us the vastness of this world, and just how many of us are lost – together – in it. Whatever the case, this is our current location.” – Message on the 1st page of the album package
Leaving with a concluding message to the album release, of, “Yeah, it really does feel like the end of the world sometimes, and we are living in uncertainty and fear. But if it’s the end, let’s love each other like it. Let’s live like it. Dream like it. That’s what I want. That’s what Epik High is really about…That’s what Epik High, since the first album till now, has been trying to say.”, Tablo perfectly captures the huge impact the album has made on the 2021’s listeners who have undergone a lot since the isolated, sometimes harsh times of living through the pandemic.
This brings us to the end of Part 1 release of this phenomenal album which started with Lesson Zero’s “Things can change in the pouring rain” and ended with Wish You Were’s “For the last few years/It’s been pourin’ rain”. This album hence once again attests to the superior poignant artistry of Epik High and how it still stands relevant and supreme, even after 17 long years of tough trials and rapid changes that the trio has always boldly faced and conquered.