Making a comeback with their EP Checkmate on July 15, the K-pop girl group ITZY embraces a new image of rebellious young queens with sneakers instead of heels.
After playing highway outlaws on “Not Shy,” urban mafias on “마.피.아. In the morning,” and romantic diehards on “LOCO,” ITZY moves to slightly soften their wild edges on Checkmate to just the right extent. Within the comfort zone of their signature high teen style, ITZY impresses audiences with sparkling teen pop songs set to a refreshing aesthetic.
Fortunately for anxious ITZY fans, the opener “Sneakers” is not for a sneakers commercial. Instead, it functions as a colorful and effortlessly catchy hit that promises to resurrect the group’s declining popularity.
The song provides a rollercoaster listening experience by skillfully balancing heavy hip hop with light vocals. Ryujin kicks off the song rapping, backed by forceful base drums and ad-libs — then, the pre-chorus suddenly ascends with ringing piano and melodious background vocals. After the chorus descends again, Yuna and Lia’s sweet, soft voices create a dynamic tension against the jumpy beats in the back.
Such experimental production highlights the group’s spirited, rebellious image — it emphasizes not an intimidating and assertive kind of boldness, but the naturally goofy and charming boldness one would expect from an energetic, cheerful teenager.
The successful musical experimentation, however, is matched with rather juvenile lyrics. “Put my sneakers on,” “ready, get, set, go” — the lyrics often fall into repetitive cheerleading, as if drawing upon the energy of lyrics like “Hey kids, spelling is fun!” from Taylor Swift’s “ME!.”
“Sneakers” also delivers a simple message of being brave and staying true to oneself which is similar to the group’s older tracks, “ICY” and “Wannabe.” Yet, this time, the central concept of sneakers fails to excavate much complexity, providing only a basic image of five rebel teen girls wearing cool sneakers.
Every song on the EP, including “Sneakers,” also lacks a dance break, a special section in most K-pop songs that consists of only background music. For a girl group famous for dancing, the seven songs on Checkmate are perhaps not ideal for stage performances, as members cannot fully showcase their dancing talents.
Thankfully, compared to “Sneakers,” the succeeding tracks, “Racer,” “What I Want,” “Free Fall” and “365,” are more sonically and stylistically consistent, to the extent that the title track appears like the odd one out in this album. If the members of ITZY are just five charming schoolgirls on “Sneakers,” they evolve into fearless car racers and valiant warriors on the four following tracks.
These following tracks uniformly employ futuristic synthesizers and artificial sound effects. Among them, “Racer” stands out as a powerful anthem, reminiscent of “Power” by Little Mix. Incorporating the sounds of roaring engines and racing cars, the song has ITZY put away their sneakers and put on the racing uniforms of champions.
“365” showcases the girls rapping with an effortless flow, marking a mature and monumental improvement from the dry and awkward rapping of “마.피.아. In the morning.” Produced by KENZIE, “365” borrows a prickling neo style from K-pop groups such as NCT 127, allowing ITZY to use their sneakers to run outside their musical comfort zones.
Despite its occasional pitfalls, Checkmate is still an energetic teen pop album that restores ITZY’s rebellious edge and youthful energy. Perhaps learning from lessons from “마.피.아. In the morning” and “LOCO,” ITZY has decided to play it cool in the safest way, which is essential to reverse the group’s diminishing popularity during its past three comebacks in Korea.
Checkmate might have scored high by furthering ITZY’s defiant teenage energy, but for an actual victorious checkmate, there is still enough room for ITZY to make more unexpected moves.