Forgive me. I need a moment. Breathe. Breathe. After 20 years (five as a quintet, 15 as a duo), nine Korean albums, 10 Japanese albums, countless singles, awards and major tours, the men of TVXQ have come back with an anniversary album for the ages.
It’s no secret that this group is, was and will always be my favorite music group from South Korea. Full stop. Not pop group. Not K-pop group. Group. Period. The end. Even with that being said, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Those who know me well also know about my love/hate relationship with SM Entertainment. This tumultuous and oftentimes frustrating relationship is a result of the way in which TVXQ was handled at the peak of their domination in 2008. I won’t go into it here because that’s not what this is about. Despite the chaos, the loss of their vocal foundation, controversies and sometimes devastating uncertainty, the two men who remain have carried the legacy of this band with undeniable strength and even more exceptional talent.
20&2 (petty as the title may be) is an absolutely unreal culmination of 15 years of all the nonsense this industry could possibly throw at a group, 15 years of creativity, exploration and discovery, and above all else unwavering dedication to the craft that they love. This is a testament to the staying power of a group that since their debut was considered a huge gamble. They’ve proven themselves time and again. With this 20th anniversary album, they’ve done it once more, and with some of their most compelling, ferocious and brilliant music.
This is an absolute master class in pop music. Construction, production and vocals that, while not outside of their wheelhouse, are some of the most technically precise they’ve produced in their 20-year history. And that’s saying something considering these men (in all their permutations, but certainly as a duo) are The Standard that all pop groups are based on in South Korea. I mean, come on. The audacity to use “Carol of the Bells” as the foundation of lead single “Rebel”! Giving us the K-pop equivalent of country-pop on “Rodeo”? I’m sorry, what? While most groups who’ve hit a milestone like 20 years (in an industry that chews up and spits out groups and artists like Fruit Stripe) would opt for sentimentality, these crazy fuckers decided they wanted to come out swinging. They proclaim, “Say you want me cuz I’m down,” on the opening track, then go on to let you know they don’t give a good hot damn about your expectations.
The duo has certainly carved out a thick space for themselves in the electronic-pop subgenre, and they’ve done it classically: rough, crunchy distorted bass; heavy, thumping beats; and vocal harmonies tighter than your boss’s purse strings when it’s time for a raise. The producers really do go out of their way to give listeners something that’s both familiar yet from a different planet completely.
On these vocals… Let me just say this: If you didn’t know before, you sure as hell will know now! Changmin’s voice has a fullness of range to it that he’s cultivated over 20 years. Being known more because of that vicious high note he can whip out at will, he pulls off some of the most demanding, most physical vocals in the industry on this album. Tonally, he’s reserved the nasality of his tone for moments when he needs a little more height on that falsetto. Otherwise, he’s reaching through that diaphragm down to his damn kneecaps to get earthiness that I’ve not ever heard from him, okay! Yunho! Sir! Where…? How…? In 20 years, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him give a vocal performance this clean, this confident. Talk about reaching through the diaphragm. This man proves why he’s the quintessential K-pop group leader. He has worked tirelessly over the years for that depth, for that breadth of vocal range. While he does tap out at his higher tenor, he understands how to sit in his pocket, and he’s so damn deep in the pocket on this album that I had to clutch my pearls a few times.
Listen, I need a moment to digest “Jungle.” The way it comes on in an absolutely filthy bass crunch, voice distortion still has me vexed. So, yeah, I’m not touching that one today.
I could take a deeper dive into the intricacies of this album, but we’d be here for a minute, and in a world where people like their instant gratification, I’ll simply say this is one of the most interesting pop albums to come out of the last decade or so years, easily ethering most pop music from South Korea, including their own work. These men continuously set the bar, then go out of their way to obliterate the bar and reach for something about 150 miles beyond it.
Though I may not have known what to expect with this late-year release, I should’ve known to expect something of this magnitude from a group who have since their inception lived up to and exceeded their namesake. Not since 2015’s Rise As God (another milestone anniversary album) have I experienced something so…the word doesn’t exist in my brain to describe the brilliance of this piece from them. Just as they did for their 15th anniversary, these dudes absolutely meant it with their 20th anniversary album. Ladies and gentlemen, they were, they are and they will forever be the Rising Gods of the East.