On November 11th, CHANGMO released UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR, his 2nd Studio album, 2 years after Boyhood, an album which earned him a nomination at the Korean Hip-hop Awards for the Hip-Hop Album of the Year, with the title track METEOR which won Hip-Hop Track of the Year.
With such a success, CHANGMO had pretty heavy pressure on his shoulders. Expectations were high, especially when you know that to these days, METEOR is still well ranked in the Korean Hip-Hop charts on Melon.
So yeah, there was a lot at stake with the release of this new album, and to me, the bet was won!
With UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR, CHANGMO undoubtedly shows an interesting growth, musically but also as a person. Compared to Boyhood, which was overall a bright and lively album encapsulating a strong ambition, UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR is sonically more complex, more mature. Some B-sides might feel unsettling at first, but the more you listen to them the more they grow on you.
UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR is not “obvious” like Boyhood could have been, but it’s also why this album is so interesting (like with Boyhood he (co)-produced the whole album by the way).
For Boyhood, CHANGMO explained in an interview with HIPHOPLE that he took the title from an eponymous movie (probably the one directed by Richard Linklater, released in 2014, and produced over 12 years) which records the life of a young boy until he matures into a grown man. Boyhood is about this young boy who dreamt to become an artist and rose to the top. UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR (UGRS) seems to be the logical continuity. A new chapter of his life filled with all that success involves.
And the young boy grew to become the Underground Rockstar
While Boyhood starts just like a tale with a narrator, UGRS begins with an introduction on 모래시계 (Hourglass) which probably reminded you/will remind you of the balls at the end of the Disney movies thanks to the orchestra. CHANGMO confided that when he was unknown he used to dream to ask for an orchestra rather than simply using virtual instruments. Thanks to Boyhood success, he is now wealthy enough to make this dream wome true. The song seems to be on a 3/4 Time Signature by the way, which means that there are 3 beats per measure (nowadays most songs have 4 beats per measure), a common type of structure for waltzes.
Therefore, this could confirm that UGRS is indeed a direct continuity of Boyhood! With the success of Boyhood and the projects that followed, he is at the top, the “They lived happily ever after” part of the tales.
This position of “Being at the top” is clearly asserted in several songs of the album, but the most striking one in that matter is definitely 태지 (TAIJI). For those who don’t know, TAIJI is a direct reference to Seo Taiji, a Korean cultural icon, who, with the group Seo Taiji and Boys contributed to introducing a new musical soundscape in South Korea by incorporating elements from ‘Western” pop music, with Rap segments incorporated into dance music and performance. If like MC Meta explained in personal communication from 2014, a part of the Korean Rappers rather sees Seo Taiji and Boys as the precursors of Rap Dance instead of Korean Hip-Hop, they still had an undeniable impact on the Korean Music Scene as a whole.
In TAIJI, CHANGMO not only sampled Come Back Home, one of these songs which made Korean Music History, but he also made some direct reference to Seo Taiji.
“Yeah 난 말하곤 했어 나는 new 서태지
내 비트 좆 되고 랩은 더 잘해
내 노래 가지고 히트 쳐
사고만다 첫 번째 집
그 위친 서태지 살던 그 산에”
“Yeah I used to say ‘I’m the new Seo Taiji
My beats are dope and my rap kill.
I’ll make a hit and buy a house on the mountain
which Seo Taiji used to live at”
Translation by Joshua Cho on YouTube
Here there is the idea that in the space of 8 years, 2920 days as he said in the lyrics, CHANGMO became the star he used to dream to be. Now he can afford to buy a house on the mountain Seo Taiji used to live in, in Pyeongchang-dong, which is seemingly the Korean Beverly Hills. It’s worth noting that there might be another nod to Boyhood, more specifically to the song Hotel Walkerhill featured by Hash Swan.
힘들 땐 옥상 위 올라서 그저 바라봐
아빠 말하시던 저 아차산 위로
이 서울시 속 최고라 불리는 곳
When I feel low, I go up to the rooftop just stare
What my dad told me, above the Achasan Mountain
The best venue in all of Seoul city
Translation by 옵티머스황 OptimusHwang on Youtube
Disclaimer, this one is very hypothetical, it’s basically a theory, but there might be similar symbolism in the MV itself. Not to Seo Taiji this time but to 1LLIONAIRE RECORDS which, if you don’t know, played a major role in Korean Hip-Hop History as well. To make it short, 1LLIONAIRE RECORDS was created on January 1, 2001, by Dok2 and The Quiett and they kind of induced a shift in the Korean HipHop scene, or at least they introduced an alternative interpretation of Hip Hop. From what I understood from Myoung-Sun Song’s book, Hanguk Hip Hop, Global Rap in South Korea, before 1LLIONAIRE, mainstream Korean HipHop was actually more pop-rap than strict Hip Hop, with prevailing themes in the lyrics such as break-up love stories. With 1LLIONAIRE, Dok2, and The Quiett wanted to explore sounds that were sonically identifiable as what was popular or trending in America. They also banalized showing off their wealth, something which was culturally frowned upon in Korean Society. As Myoung-Sun Song explained in her book, historically, Korea’s attitude toward consumption valued frugality, and even if things tended to change with the fast economic development of the country, today, Koreans’ attitude toward consumption remains ambivalent.
But well, the label shared a farewell post on Instagram in July 2020 followed the same year by the release of the double single BENTLEY 2 on November 11th, a symbolical date for the label. Just a little reminder, but UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR has been released on November 11th as well!
So to go back to the point, on BENTLEY 2 MV, performed by The Quiett and YUMDDA and directed by DearLiar (Jang Taeho), you can see this shot
And actually, you can see a similar shot on TAIJI MV, also directed by DearLiar. Now, I’m aware it can be a coincidence, but I watched – almost – all DearLiar’s MV on his Vimeo channel, and I might have missed it, but as far as I know, I didn’t see a similar angle on any of his productions.
Symbolically, those shots are pretty meaningful because they are literally on top of the spectator. They look down on us. CHANGMO’s shot in TAIJI is especially vertiginous and the fact that he is pouring champaign could reinforce this idea that he is at the top. Usually, when you pour champaign it’s to celebrate an accomplishment. Most importantly mirroring the shot in BENTLEY 2, might be a way to assert his position of ILLIONAIRE’s successor. In a way, it could be a way to say that he is embodying the new generation.
Again I might go too far with that one, I would be interested to have your thoughts on this!
There is a last point that I would like to highlight with TAIJI and it’s the reference to The Great Gatsby. In the lyrics, at some point, he says in English “I’m gats old sport”. And the more I think about it, the more I see the similarity between Gatsby and what could symbolize the “Underground Rockstar”, CHANGMO’s signature.
The last part of my video entitled Alternative Rock | The Rockstar Phenomenon in South Korea (from 22:35 min) is about this sort of fascination some rappers can have for the Rockstar status. It’s more detailed in the video, but basically, in Pop culture, Rockstars are known for their wealth, as well as their life field with parties. You can see CHANGMO’s Underground Rockstar like a lifestyle, but also an achievement, coming from a ‘regular’ family and rising to the top, showing off his wealth and living a lavish life, a life of parties. This is a bit like Gatsby’s history (even if the story is more complex obviously).
This is pretty much what he is saying in the vivid track Rockstar Lifestyle featured by 365Lit and Posadic, which directly follows TAIJI. Hyperstar conveys a similar idea and is on a similar tone!
Even at the Top, Life is not a quiet river
However, even if at the top, life is life, no one is free from the struggles humans have to bear. With the track Beretta featured by 안다영 (Ahn Dayoung), you can notice a shift of vibe. Sonically, it’s darker, almost gloomy. This is partly due to the sample CHANGMO used, a sample which is actually from the melody of Ahn Dayoung’s song 리볼버 (Revolver), from her album ANTIHERO unveiled in November 2020 (if you don’t know it a Beretta is an Italian firearm manufacturing company by the way). Besides, the drill influences on the beat in addition to the muted atmosphere truly contribute to creating a mysterious atmosphere.
Now, I sadly can’t speak Korean, so I had to rely on Papago which is obviously not 100% accurate… Thankfully, Jjino from the crew OS Vision kindly accepted to help me and he truly enlightened me about the meaning the lyrics of the following three tracks could have, make sure to check his music and to keep an eye on OS Vision!
Therefore, it seems that at some point, in Ahn Dayoung’s part, there is an allusion to the question of the identity, ‘Who am I’, and also of the reality “What is real”, with what seems to be a reference to the movie series Matrix and the Red Pill. Just a reminder but the Red Pill is about, to quote Wikipedia, “the willingness to learn a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by taking the red pill or remaining in contented ignorance with the blue pill”. But Changmo takes none, as Jjino translated:
니네들이 Web에 있어서
체감 안 되겠지만
네 월드는 매트릭스
빨간약 빨아 난 모델이 빨게 해
Since y’all are on the web
You can’t (physically) feel it
Your world is a matrix
You suck a red pill I make a model suck me
The verse “I think my breath ain’t real”, (in English) in Chronic Love featured by Jibin of Y2K92, seems to reinforce this idea. Whatever the reason might be, it seems that in some extent he is mentally suffering. That is the impression given by the following lyrics at least (I talked about this with Carole from K-Coffee Time and it seems that he implied something similar in Vivienne):
I think my breath ain’t real
너무 멀리 왔어
너무 멀리 왔어
my beautiful death
I think my breath ain’t real
Should I throw myself out that window?
I came so far, I came so far
I used to dream
My beautiful death
Translated by Jjino
More broadly speaking, Chronic Love is also probably one of the songs in which he experimented the most when it comes to the beat and the arrangements of the voices. There is a digital aspect in Chronic Love, it almost gives an asepticized feel. And then you have the screaming “Chronic Love”, which might remind you of heavy metal. But it doesn’t stop here. Chronic Love is a progressive track, which in the end is nothing less than epic, with drums and stringed instruments that are reminiscent of battle music. Besides, Chronic Love seems to talk about a failing or toxic relationship, something money cannot resolve. Therefore, it’s once again a supposition but CHANGMO might have chosen this title because the word Chronic is often used in the context of diseases, let’s just look at Google:
To complete the trilogy, then comes Vivienne. Vivienne is a very special song, probably my favorite of the album to be honest. There is such an intensity in Vivienne, the harmonization of the UK-Drill beat with the violins and CHANGMO’s raw flow is just so gripping. There is no way you listen to this song and feel nothing. It’s worth noting that the beat has almost entirely been done by Paul Blanco and as CHANGMO was working on some arrangements he then thought about sampling Epik High’s song Fan, the title track of their album Remapping The Human Soul released in 2007, and more precisely the violins. In an interview with HIPHOPLE in December 2021, he explained that he has been facing hatred from the very start of his career, with people saying that he would never make it. He thought that it would change with success, or at least that he would less suffer from it, but it did not and at some point, this led him to wonder if he should even keep on making music as he is getting increasingly exposed to this the more he gets famous.
여기가 네 Limit이니
더는 없단 소리를
커리어 내내 들어왔어
ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ 하나씩 해낸 후
만나게 되는 챕터는 미움이니
아예 끝을 향해 기어를 올리지
내 희열을 위해 Ay
“This is your limit”
I heard constantly in my career
But I do it one by one
And the chapter I met is hatred
So I pull my gear, for the very end
For my euphoria Ay
Translation by Joshua Cho
At some point, it seems that he is referring to the fact that ironically, with all the money he spent this year only, he could have graduated from College at least 4 times. This is linked to a true event in his life. CHANGMO applied to Berklee College of Music twice, at 18 and 19, however, he didn’t get the scholarship and sadly couldn’t pay the tuition fees. So maybe this song is cathartic to him, it could be a way for him to free himself from the anger he might have felt before getting successful?
After all, here is the beginning of the hook in Vivienne:
눈물 흘리던 땔 위해
난 흘려 열한 병쯤의 Henny
For all the times I shed tears I pour out 11 bottles of
Translation by Jjino
With success come responsibilities
However, whatever struggles CHANGMO might feel, it seems that he feels responsible for the people of the next generations who might look up to him. In the interview with HIPHOPLE mentioned above, he said that originally his little brothers were Posadic, UNEDUCATED KID, and Paul Blanco, but that as time went by, an increasing number of younger artists have been coming to him for advice, just like he was getting advice from The Quiett.
He realized that he liked dedicating a part of his energy to helping them, as much as he liked making music, as a consequence, he must stay strong. At least that is what the background vocals – also in English – in the song Little Brothers featured by LIL GIMCHI, seemed to indicate.
“I can’t stop
Little brothers watching me
I keep goin and goin
My Little brothers watching me
My little brothers watching me
I keep myself
Love for my little brothers”
In addition, compared to the three previous songs, Little Brothers is way brighter. Just like the title, the beat gives a youthful feel. It’s light and warm, like the first ray of light after a powerful storm. The fact that he seemingly recorded this song just after receiving his enlistment warrant might have contributed to this unique mood.
And as explained earlier, Hyperstar is totally in keeping with this thematic, whatever might happens he will keep on shining, just like a star:
“다 나를 겨눠댔지
내 본성 자체를 잃어버린 채
유일히 등진 내 모습
그건 네 눈엣가시겠지
난 평생 혼자랬지
비가 온대도 별을 봐”
Everyone aimed at me, they wanted me to kneel down, losing my true nature.
I’m the only one who turned by back on you that’s going to be in your eyes.
You said I’m alone for the rest of my life, right?
Don’t be mistaken, someone looks at the stars even if it rains
Translation by Lemoring on YouTube
On some aspects, No Regrets featured by Joe Layne seems to convey a similar message, with this song CHANGMO and Joe Layne would have tried to capture the vibe of the Britpop band Oasis, this idea of keeping a young mind.
Therefore, Hotel Room that is between Hyperstar and No Regrets in the tracklist could be about CHANGMO coming to term with everything. There is a feeling of nostalgia in this song, of loneliness even, but CHANGMO explained in an interview for IZM in November 2021 that even though there was this idea of ‘nothing last forever’, he should enjoy the moment rather than being depresed of the prospect of the ‘check-out’. A day a the hotel begins with check-in, but rather than thinking about the moment of the check-out that will inevitably happen, he decided to solely enjoy the time. It is worth noting that he would have been inspired by Elton John‘s Rocket Man for this song, but also old sound such as U2 or even ColdPlay.
There is a shift with Supernova featured by DUT2 which is seemingly in keeping with 우리 아가에게 쓰는 편지 (Letter To My Baby), a single from the Mixtape Deokso Kid, Time to Get Seijong that CHANGMO released in 2012. So if I understood well, it’s like an open letter to his future kid. If you watched HSR4, you might have a sense of déjà vu as SUPERNOVA has been originally performed by TRADE L, featured by CHANGMO, GSoul, and DUT2.
Life is like an hourglass… and CHANGMO is turning it as he pleases
It’s finally the time to talk about 모래시계 (Hourglass)!
With UGRS, CHANGMO shows that he is at the top and that he is strong-willed, that’s what Hourglass is about. He explained to HIPHOPLE that with this song he wanted to share about a cruel fairy tale.
If we try to define the literal meaning of the lyrics, Hourglass is seemingly about CHANGMO, or a character, who is having an affair/relationship with someone from a high status. However, he doesn’t care about his status. Real-life is not about status, about “Pasta Dinner, house wine” or “sweet deserts” as translated by and blue. on Youtube. Just like an hourglass, nothing is eternal, and that’s why we need to cherish the moment. More specifically, in the song, one of the literal meanings is that whatever they can be outside, they are “equal when two different bodies turn into one” as translated by 옵티머스황 OptimusHwang.
Even though he says they are equal, if you look closely at the lyrics, it feels as if CHANGMO is still leading the game. This extract is pretty commanding after all:
“I said hands up. You hands down. But I said a– up. You face down.”
You can check the MV, it’s written at 0:19, with the full stops and all.
This feeling is also perceptible in the MV, which seems to narrate the story even further. She is getting married. Is it a wedding of love or a wedding of status? We will never know. How did CHANGMO end playing the piano while he seems very well acquainted with the bride? That’s also a relevant question! What we do know though is that it’s not the best idea to upset him, as there is a possibility you end up blowing up just like a beautiful firework!
So yeah, seems that he is very much in command here.
On a side note, the shot at 1:40, could be a reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s Il Cenacolo or L’Ultima Cena (The Last Supper in English) which represents the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with the Twelve Apostles, after Jesus announced that one of them will betray him.
Now, the reason why I decided to talk about Hourglass the last, it’s because I have a rather crazy theory. It’s 100% speculation, very probably not what he meant at all but it’s also a good way to conclude this article.
Let’s go back to Boyhood, and more specifically to REMEDY featured by the KPop Idol 청하 (CHUNG HA). In the interview with HIPHOPLE, he explained that “this song is about a relationship between a female star and a male Rapstar.” He said that while he is from the hip-hop scene, Chung Ha represents the K-Pop scene. It’s about how they come from very different backgrounds.
Basically, in the song he is trying to court her, but like, at some point she says:
왜 너 멋대로 생각해 날
우린 정말 모든 게 달러
니 노래 안엔 딴 애가 살아
착각은 그만 마음을 따라 boy
“Why do you always think of me at your will?
We’re so different in every parts
Another man is living in your songs, don’t flatter yourself
Follow your heart, boy”
Translation by 에드위니 Edwinie
So, wouldn’t Hourglass be a continuation of this? With the high-status woman representing the K-Pop industry as a whole as it’s still very huge economically compared to the Korean Urban Scene. This Industry would look down on him, something which actually happened when METEOR topped the charts for weeks. K-Pop stans were so mad that they accused CHANGMO of cheating. It went to the point that he pretty much begged his fans to stop streaming the song…
As a consequence, what we could conclude from this MV is that he won’t let such a situation happen again. That his goal now is pretty much to conquer the whole Korean Music industry?
Well, whatever the fact this whole speculation could be true or not, because once again, it’s purely a theory, with UNDERGROUND ROCKSTAR CHANGMO is definitely showing a mature side. He shows how confident he is through incisive lyrics and bold beats, while also not hesitating to reveal a more vulnerable side of him. And to me, that might be where his strength really lies!
I hope you liked this review/analysis despite all the suppositions it involved. I would be curious to know what you thought about this album, how you liked it compared to Boyhood or any other of his past project? And also what is/are your favorite song(s)?
Do not hesitate to comment, and share, it would mean a lot! Take care!