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Normally, the release of a new K-pop project would inspire trending hashtags and a rapturous reception from avid fans online. This week was different, though not for a lack of enthusiasm: Powerhouse group TWICE dropped their new album MORE & MORE on June 1, as protests over George Floyd’s death and police brutality continued across the U.S. and members of the music industry prepared to pause business as usual for “Blackout Tuesday,” a demonstration met with a mixed response. K-pop fans, who comprise one of the most active communities on social media, in turn created their own strategies to support the Black Lives Matter movement—starting with refraining from collectively using the usual K-pop-related hashtags on Twitter to avoid their favorite groups and artists trending above #BlackLivesMatter. In another scenario, fans flooded the Dallas Police Department’s iWatch Dallas app with K-pop fancams after the department called for tips on crimes from the protests, in an attempt to reduce the number of protest-related arrests. (Shortly after, the app was “down temporarily” due to “technical difficulties.”) In yet another, fans spammed the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag with more fancams and other K-pop memes to drown out racist messages.

And so MORE & MORE fell on the ears of its own dedicated fanbase, referred to as “Once,” in a more subdued environment, albeit one still full of eagerness to dissect and discuss new output from the group.

Even without the same level of activity around promotion, the nine-member group’s new album topped charts and broke records—as expected from one of the top acts from South Korea. Jihyo, Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung and Tzuyu are once again promoting their work as a complete group as member Mina is back from a mental health-related hiatus, and the members make their return after more than eight months since their last project, Feel Special.

Here are our main takeaways from MORE & MORE.

A darker turn, but still bright

Too often, K-pop girl groups are placed into one of two oversimplified categories: sweet and cheery, often manifesting in bubblegum pop, or “girl crush” with a fierce, badass vibe, frequently expressed through booming anthems. TWICE has been widely labeled as the former, but MORE & MORE proves that an expansive gray area lies between the extremes. Throughout the new album, TWICE shows that it can embrace a darker, more mature concept without giving up its trademark bright demeanor.

The more ominous undertones of this release were clear from the moment the trailer for “MORE & MORE,” the album’s lead single of the same name, was dropped in May. After nearly a minute of portraying the nine members in a lush garden with bunnies and butterflies, the video suddenly flashes to a two-toned, black and red shot of a serpent wrapped around a tree. The complete version of the music video builds on the theme of the Garden of Eden, depicting the members reaching for apples and preparing to take a bite. The serpent, along with imagery of tarantulas and a black cat, suggest a peace disturbed.

Further down the track list, the lyrics for “Shadow” reflect the album’s more somber direction. The opening lines, “Even when it hurts, I pretend to be fine, pretend to be a grown-up/ Hide the real me” describe a lonely experience of concealing one’s pain, the rise and fall of the melodic lines reflecting this inner turmoil. The track “Don’t Call Me Again” also carries a solemn note with lyrics addressing the gloom of a breakup: “Everything that used to be warm… Has become cold ashes,” vocalist Jeongyeon sings.

But TWICE did not forsake its signature upbeat tunes. “Oxygen” and “Sweet Summer Day” are summery tracks with playful rhythms, the latter transporting the listener to the beach with sounds of chirping birds and crashing waves. Written by Jeongyeon and rapper Chaeyoung, the lyrics of “Sweet Summer Day” say “Today I want to play like a kid/ Bright smile and face (smile bigger)/ Make yourself free with hot sun.” Reminiscent of the 2018 track “Dance the Night Away,” whose music video began with waves crashing onto a beach, the song conveys that TWICE does not need to drop its bubbly, youthful energy as the group evolves in its sound and messaging.

A variety of genres, but a cohesive storyline

Similar to TWICE’s 2019 albums Fancy You and Feel Special, this release brings with it a variety of genres. The title track “MORE & MORE” is a tropical house song that features an EDM-heavy instrumental chorus. And while the Latin-inspired “Firework” opens with a smooth and sleek guitar line, “Don’t Call Me Again” starts with a booming refrain from brass instruments, cymbals and drums. The album might have been disjointed, yet MORE & MORE is one of TWICE’s most cohesive albums, in large part because its seven songs build on a progressing storyline.

If “MORE and MORE” acts as an opening on the theme of desire, the following tracks “Oxygen,” “Firework” and “Make Me Go” portray a romance that develops from a more innocent and dreamlike affection to a fiery love. In the next song, “Shadow,” a more serious tone conveys an underlying pain with lyrics like, “I don’t want to be seen as weak/ So I will hide obvious tears deep inside.” It’s as if the darker, hidden truths from the relationship described in the earlier songs are surfacing from the shadows.

The following number, “Don’t Call Me Again,” portrays a breakup in the most straightforward way. “Your apologies full of predictable stories and excuses again/ I’m not going to accept them, don’t call me again,” the intro reads. And while the closing track, “Sweet Summer Day,” appears to be disconnected as it does not reference love explicitly, the lyrics paint a picture of leaving behind the worries of yesterday and embracing a new beginning—a posture that could follow the end of a relationship. By illustrating the rise and fall of a romance followed by a fresh start, the messages in the seven tracks are more connected than their disparate sounds might suggest.

Their most passionate album yet

Two years ago, TWICE’s hit release “What Is Love?” featured the nine members drawing large question marks in the air as they repeatedly sang, “I wanna know know know know/ What is love?” That innocent curiosity has matured into a bold confidence as the lyrics in the new album openly express an unrestrained longing. “You’re gonna say more more more more more and more,” the pre-chorus goes, soon followed by “I wanna have more more more more more and more.” The repetition may sound excessive when written out, but it effectively conveys a kind of limitless desire between lovers.

In “Oxygen,” the artists sing that they yearn for someone more than they yearn for air, while in “Firework” they compare themselves to exploding pyrotechnics as they describe the burning sensation of love. But it’s the intimate beckoning in “Make Me Go,” a track with lyrics written by Nayeon, that particularly stokes the flame of passion. “Love me love me now/ Love me love me good/ Don’t need nobody else when it feels this good,” the members rap in deep voices—a departure from the more familiar high-pitched delivery. The sighs, oohs and ahhs peppered throughout “Make Me Go” only make the song more seductive. Plenty of songs on TWICE’s past few albums are filled with flirtatious lyrics, but this release kicks the heat up a notch.

Rappers sing and singers rap

Like most K-pop groups, TWICE has designated roles: vocalists, rappers, dancers. But its rappers sing and its singers rap. The group’s rappers, Dahyun and Chaeyoung, have sung in past releases. This album spotlights their versatility even more, beginning with the singing parts in the hook of “MORE & MORE.” The two members also sing in the tracks that follow, from “Oxygen” to “Shadow.”

The singers also rap in MORE & MORE. “Make Me Go” is the most notable example. Nayeon and Jihyo, known for their stable singing and high notes, both rap in the track’s chorus. “Ain’t nobody around, do it like you should,” they say in a low register barely above a whisper. Mina, a vocalist with a soft and mellow tone, also raps these lines—adding an element of surprise as the artist displays a different type of charm. The final track, “Sweet Summer Day,” highlights rap verses from vocalists as well. Nayeon once again shows off a new kind of swagger, and Momo, the group’s main dancer who usually sings, raps with attitude. No member is confined to one set of skills—showing, yet again, that TWICE is a versatile ensemble keen on surprising their audience.

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