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Amongst all the hip-hop trios in the world, you’ll struggle to find one more consistent than Epik High. Forming back in 2001, the threesome—Tablo, Mithra Jin, DJ Tukutz—has dominated both national and international markets over the last decade or so. Their successful brand of thought-provoking music remains just as resonant in 2019, and their unique methodology seemingly develops to greater heights with each passing year.
And now, after a departure from YG Entertainment, the group has released their latest offering, Sleepless in __________. A tremendous cocktail of inspired collaborations, poignant lyrics, and polished instrumentals, this could be one of their best releases yet.
Opener “Sleepless” starts the album off interestingly, with a barrage of hard-hitting questions layered over simplistic instrumentation. The background noise of the piano is beautifully soothing, but the text-to-speech sounding questions, “Are you heartbroken?” and “Do you have nightmares?” to name but two are chilling. The questions convey symptoms of insomnia (the crux and inspiration for this album), but still manage to pack a punch to the average listener who may have differing struggles of their own, partly down to the emotionless nature of the haunting vocals.
From there, it seamlessly transitions into “In Seoul,” featuring singer-songwriter/record producer Sunwoo Junga. The beats, much like the introduction’s, are condensed, but the complexity comes from the astute lyricism and effortless rapping which add spark and vigour to the song. The clever word-play combining the title of the first two tracks into the refrain is smile-inducing, and one of the many identifiably shrewd moments on the record.
Lead-single “Lovedrunk,” featuring Korean R&B megastar Crush, follows, and is a ballad of seismic proportions. Epik High once again surrender the chorus to the featured artist, but the Uber-smooth talents of Crush, particularly in the delicately vulnerable post-chorus, shine through, and riff perfectly with the raging vocals of Tablo and Mithra Jin. This enables the song to feel much more refined, and helps layer it perfectly, in turn carving the perfect track to fly the flag for the overall project.
In a contrast to the melancholic vibe painted by the opening offerings, “Eternal Sunshine” has almost summer-inspired instrumentals, and feels uplifting in its essence. However, the lyrical content remains heavy on the mind, with lines such as “From the moment we’re born, we walk towards death, and life has us accelerate,” setting up an intense disparity between the sound of the track and the texture underneath the surface level. Still, there are some moments of positivity, thanks to the comforting “Same here” repeated after more questioning, this one as to whether the listener feels lonely, or sick with anxiety. It’s a song that is masterfully pieced together from both a production and performance standpoint, and will no doubt be one fans look towards when they feel low due to the almost familial style of its composition.
“No Different” continues with the introspective look into Tablo’s mind, and once again bears a heart-on-sleeve kind of feeling. Yuna’s powerful delivery of the chorus adds weight to the song, but in general the sonically restrained nature of the offering allows for the track’s meaning to shine through unobstructed. It’s a difficult song to shake off due to the gut-punch of emotional vehemence, but it stands out as one of the highlights of the EP.
In terms of production, penultimate effort “Rain Again Tomorrow” is the most glossy, with the soothing finesse of the modern hip-hop beats feeling emphatically relaxing. All of the rap verses are well-paced, adding some gravitas and shine to a record that needed one final push to solidify itself as part of the “great” category of releases.
And finally, the album comes to a finish with “Lullaby for a Cat,” a slow, plodding ending to a record full of flurries of genius. The string section compliments the piano perfectly and ensures that the release finishes in a similar subdued fashion to its beginning, partly down to the instrumental loop back to the song “In Seoul.” A perfect curtain-closer, it ties a well-crafted bow onto the seven tracks, and has you yearning for more.
All in all, Sleepless in __________ shows the fruits of experience coupled with a detailed look into the psyches of creative masterminds. The intense vulnerability and poignant look into love, loss, and loneliness (all reasons why a person may be struck with sleeplessness, the overriding theme of the record) hit with tremendous accuracy, and each song feels almost elegant in its melancholic essence. Almost two decades in, Epik High are showing no signs of slowing down, and if this inward-looking self-reflection is anything to go by, the trio may just be hitting a completely new stride.
Album Rating: 9/10