Monsta X quickly returned on Feb. 18 with the release of their third album entitled Take.2 We Are Here., a return that closely followed their previous release with their second full-length album Take.1 Are You There? in October 2018.
Now if you don't know, I must be transparent. Monsta X is one of my favorite bands right beside Young the Giant, Paramore, and Flyleaf (Dreamcatcher's working hard to be included in this list). Over the years I've found I'm drawn to music with unique, powerhouse vocals and heavy and complex instrumentals. Listening to music is the only time when I appreciate sensory overload. Monsta X checks all these boxes with a plus side of incorporating elements of R&B, hip hop, and rap in their music which always elevates my listening experience.
So as you can imagine, I was extremely excited when I caught wind of their February return but concern loomed in the back of my mind. A brief interim period of four months between these two promotion periods or releases left Monsta X with little time to rest. And compared to the American bands that I listen to, Paramore for instance, there's yearly intervals between releases. I was worried Take.2 We Are Here. would feel rushed, that their title track Alligator would be heavily compared to their previous title track Shoot Out and most of all I was worried that Monsta X hadn't gotten enough rest and preparation.
There's plenty to talk about with Take.2 We Are Here. Plenty. I had what felt like a million thoughts on these tracks that it took me a month to get them altogether. For the life of me I could not garner a sense of the style and effect Monsta X was going for when I first collectively looked at the songs of Take.2 We Are Here. After deciding to do a review on the album, I ruminated for a while on my ideas as I wanted to give the most comprehensive explanation of my feelings on each new track. First I'll share my thoughts on the music video for Alligator and the live performances before breaking down every song on the album.
Ever since my Discovery Channel phase in my late high school years, alligators have been one of my favorite animals. I learned so much about alligators watching the Discovery Channel show Gator Boys (I was a big fan of Dual Survival and occasionally both Gators Boys and Dual Survival would consecutively air) that I wrote an entire essay on alligators for an introductory college course. So a Monsta X comeback with alligators as the conceptual focus is everything I could have asked for and they were fully committed to the concept.
The well-produced music video infuses alligator and swamp themes and motifs in the lyrics, the set design, the clothing, the water dance break at the end of the video, the choreography. There were brief shots of an alligator (or a caiman but who can tell the difference, right?) sinking into the water as well as a Jeep truck with an alligator skin paint job. After watching the music video, I admire the breadth with which they took the concept.
And I must mention that Monsta X's music videos have reached extreme levels of quality in production. Punchy and vibrant colors lit up their Livin' It Up music video. The music video for Jooheon's solo track, Red Carpet, was ambitious, artistic, and established in aesthetic. Shoot Out's music video had contrast in the sets (in choreography shots viewers moved from constrained to open spaces). Now Alligator seems to have a mixture of Monsta X's Beautiful, Dramarama, and Shoot Out in it's construction.
The shooting of this music video reminded me a lot of their Beautiful music video. Also, the impact of the water break dance at the end of Alligator mimics the end of Beautiful where Monsta X remove their suit jackets. Many other bands have danced in water for music videos but Alligator's water dance has to be one of the more epic takes I've seen in a while. Placing the shots of the water dance at the end with the fire in the background and the soft orange lighting, ends the video on a dramatic and suspenseful note. Alligator's story implements similar images and themes as Dramarama (Although the Monsta X mythology is so complex and complicated that I only have the barest understanding of it all). And lastly, Alligator is just as hard hitting as Shoot Out but feels a little less contained.
This music video has to be the best I've seen from Monsta X. They used a lot of cool colors (blue, teal, black, white) in the music video but these colors never fell flat. Maybe that's because production paired the cool colors with bright reds and soft oranges. The music video storyline was pretty difficult for me to follow but the general idea to be taken away–Monsta X was trapped in cells, jailed and on watch by the government who is exacting law and order through the seven deadly sins (which are apparently responsible for the apocalypse so think twice before you scarf down a tub of ice cream). By the end of the music video Monsta X escapes. The incorporation of all these narrative elements, occasionally gave the music video a cinematic flash.
Recently, Monsta X's been given many opportunities to display their epic performance skills and I'm loving it. Their M Countdown comeback stage featured not only their live performance of Alligator but an extended introduction where Jooheon and I.M. performed solo raps, Minhyuk and Hyungwon had a mini dance break, with the trio Kihyun, Shownu and Wonho also designated a dance break. Each different phase of the extended introduction fluidly transitioned. By having such an energetic introduction, they built suspense and anticipation for Alligator's live performance.
Their live performance is what really placed a seal of approval on Alligator for me. Watching Monsta X's live performance of Alligator reminds viewers of how the group is full of charismatic performers. Each band member has their own signature flair, their own dance style, voice, and play to the audience in ways suited to their characteristics as a performer. When all seven come together as a collective, somehow everything melds perfectly together. Seeing the song paired with each member's unique charisma, the choreography, the styling as well as the bells and whistles of the water dancing and the fog effects made this an unforgettable performance. I've been following K-pop for two years and I've yet to see a M Countdown comeback stage so epic, so entertaining, and so dramatic. Monsta X's comeback stage is currently sitting at 1.4 million views on YouTube.
Alligator's choreography also stands out. Not only are there thematically-fitting elements in the choreography but there's unique formations. Wonho has a dramatically entertaining dance solo at the start of the song. Satisfying parts of the choreography include Hyungwon's lunge to the center position during his lines and Minhyuk's center control of Kihyun and Wonho right before the final call and response rap with Jooheon and I.M in Alligator's bridge.
The choreography is so satisfying to watch. Maybe that's because the dance moves perfectly align with Alligator's rhythm, bass, and beats.
Now the styling, the alligator theme influenced the clothing for the music video and live performances. If you're a fan of Monsta X, you know that as of late, their stylists love leather. Leather came back into the styling again for Alligator but brought friends: lace, alligator print, and buckles. The lace, buckles, and alligator-textured textiles were all used to mimic the skin of an alligator furthermore pushing the idea that Monsta X members are the alligators drawing viewers into their swamp.
For their live performance of Play It Cool, also at M Countdown, Monsta X was having a blast. Wonho smiled so much during this performance and the Play It Cool's club-esque choreography invites viewers to dance along (although with way less finesse than the Monsta X members). There were refreshing formations and doubles dancing in the choreography which briefly paired Wonho and Jooehon as well as Hyungwon and Minhyuk together. Since Play It Cool is a collaboration track with American artist Steve Aoki, it's amazing that Monsta X was given a platform to perform and promote the song live.
Since Monsta X is one of my favorite bands, I'll share my reactions and analysis for just about every song in the album. In each song, sans the intro, I'll consider aspects like the lyrics and meaning, the instrumentals, the vocals, the title, the background of the song's creation, etc.
When I first heard Alligator, I felt unsure about the immense repetition. It reminded me a lot of WSJN's La La Love and at the start of Alligator, the repetition felt out of place. And for me as a listener, when a song has an overabundance of repetition, I usually need to be sold on another element working in tandem with the repetition to push the track to another level. In the final parts of Alligator, the outro with Kihyun's ad libs and the epic instrumentals along with the repetition brought everything together.
The repetition is what really gives the song its distinct K-pop color, however, everything else about the song is very indicative of Monsta X's style from the sirens or horns, the strong chemistry between Jooheon and I.M., the iconic line from Jooheon, Kihyun's ad libs, the powerful vocals in the chorus, Minhyuk and Hwungwon sharing the pre-chorus, the EDM drops. Everything about Alligator says Monsta X. As Wonho said in their appearance on MBC's variety show, Weekly Idol, Alligator is "Monsta X's K-pop." Actually, the further I listened to Alligator and unpacked the instrumentals and vocals, the more I felt whispers and shadows of other Monsta X songs like Intro: Are You There?, Jealousy, and Dramarama.
I also really love the parts of the vocalists. Hyungwon and Minhyuk sound so confident and I'm realizing more and more that their vocal tone is extremely soothing. Kihyun, Shownu, and Wonho's triplet passages in the chorus gave Alligator a hurried pace. It's also an interesting choice to create this vocal rhythm in the chorus rather than the verses (where you're most likely to see this rhythm). I also found that the "alligator" repetition gave contrast to the song. The repetition is sung in a low pitch, making it a solid transition from the higher-pitched chorus.
Alligator can't be discussed without talking about the rapping. Jooheon's and I.M. rap lines in the second verse and bridge offer intense amounts of energy. The two rappers always impressively mood-match one another. When they were passing the mic back and forth in the bridge, it reminded me of watching WWE as a child and seeing the wrestlers tag each other and swap positions in the ring. In Alligator's bridge, their rapping created so much tension, operating as a drop before the final moments of the song where the chorus emerges once more. I want to say that the rap verses in Alligator happen to be my favorite of the album but there are so many other solid rap verses that deciding is an impossible feat.
In the pre-release period, Monsta X released a highlight medley previewing tracks of Take.2 We Are Here. I found myself most drawn to Ghost after getting a brief glimpse of Ghost's pre-chorus and chorus in the highlight medley. The harmonization of "ghost," the lyrics, vocal execution, and the chorus' melody all caught my attention. I left the highlight medley assuming Ghost would be my favorite track, the favorite. After listening to the whole album multiple times, I suppose I know myself pretty well as Ghost is a favorite I'm always ready and eager to play on Spotify.
Ghost begins with disruptively loud and repetitive vocals and limited instrumentals–only some sort of windy or breathy sound effect along with a synth xylophone or chime–in the background. Beginning with quiet instrumentals and the repetition of "ghost" give the song it's haunting, dream-like quality. Accompanied by very minimal instrumentals, the verses give the effect of loneliness in a vast world that reflects the ghost experience.
You'll travel to so many places when listening to Ghost. You have Wonho and Shownu's echoey verses at the start, Jooheon's and I.M.'s rap verses, the pre-chorus with Hyungwon's heartfelt vocals, Kihyun's high notes in the chorus, the extended bridge with Kihyun's infamously smooth yet suspense-building shoo bi lu bi shoo bi lu bi shoo bi la, the unsettling hook with the harmonization of "ghost," and the fantastic ad libs as the song is wrapping up. There's so much to unpack.
Once again, Ghost is one of my favorite tracks (it's fighting with another track for the favorite). The notes and chords chosen provide the listener with a suspenseful experience. Hyungwon's best vocal lines are in Ghost as well as Kihyun's lovely execution of the chorus. Plus Jooheon's and I.M.'s raps are extremely fitting for Ghost.
Ever since last year, Monsta X teased a collaboration with an American artist, but never hinted at the artist's identity. When I saw the track list and the highlight medley for Take.2 We Are Here. and the "(ft. Steve Aoki)" next to Play It Cool, I got my answer. Steve Aoki has done over a hundred collaborations, including a collaboration with BTS, and the list still grows. Steve Aoki has worked with various artists from various genres and his style combined with Monsta X's made for a complementary fusion.
When I listened to the full song for the first time, I was so confused. I couldn't place the vocalist for the very first singer of the track. It didn't sound like any of the designated Monsta X vocalists. I began to wonder if Steve Aoki had some hidden vocal talent but then it dawned on me that main rapper Jooheon was starting off the verses. Although his main position is rapper, he's also a hidden vocalist as shown during Monsta X's live performance of Bruno Mars' Versace On the Floor where Jooheon blew everyone away with his high, sustained notes.
This song also blew me away with its seamless collaboration. Play It Cool sounds like a modern Monsta X song. It follows the trajectory of sound that Monsta X has been currently into–a retro mixture of funk, house, club, EDM, etc. If you want to know the epitome of laid-back and groovy, then blast Play It Cool from your speakers. The majority of the song stays in one vocal range, making you feel a tiny tick of irresolution. However, this effect feels purposely done. You want to listen to song more in search of that resolution and before you know it, you've listened to the track 20 times on repeat–not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.
Some ending side notes: The addition of the Spanish word "bailemos" in I.M.'s rap is a nice way to shout out and gain attention of Spanish speaking fans; the synth horn (it may not be a horn but it sure sounds like one) used at the end of Play It Cool effectively closes the song and the ending note projects an unresolved effect; everyone adds a dash of emotion to how their lines are sung–no robotic vocals here. The structure of the chorus being half vocals and half dance break establishes Play It Cool's groovy mood. In all kinds of aspects Play It Cool is an extremely effective track. It's exciting that Monsta X partnered with Steve Aoki and I hope this leads to more opportunities and collaborations with artists from around the globe.
As someone who's not generally fond of slow songs or ballads, I always get surprised when I come across said slow song or ballad and listen to the track in its entirety. So cue my listening to and enjoyment of No Reason, a song produced by Wonho of Monsta X. After proceeding tracks packed with intensity in both the vocals and instrumentals, No Reason is a necessary pallet cleanser. The gentility of No Reason in comparison to the tracks before and after it, set the song apart from the heavier, darker tracks. If there was ever a musical representation for a breath of fresh air, this is it.
Originally, only three members of Monsta X (Kihyun, Wonho, and Minhyuk) sang and performed No Reason. The refreshing trio performed No Reason as part of their set for the 2018 Golden Disc Awards (the same set that closes with a water break dance). I also remember their performance of No Reason when I saw Monsta X in concert during their 2018 world tour. Due to the fan's demand for a seven member studio version, No Reason was included in Take.2 We Are Here.
One interesting feature of No Reason I keep returning to is its start. It begins without any vocals, just instrumentals and almost sounds like the end of a song rather than the beginning. This structure makes you wonder where the song is heading. Interestingly enough, in a song so tender and sweet Monsta X still manages to incorporate some kind of EDM-worthy drop in the instrumentals, an example being the drop underlying Jooheon's rap lines just before the bridge.
However there are changes made to No Reason's seven member version such as Jooheon's and I.M.'s rap verses (which was calmly conducted to match the song's tone), Shownu's and Hyungwon's harmonization, and Shownu's solo lines. The addition of Shownu's voice really added vocal texture to the song since his voice has a deep, round, and soulful feel. Overall, I have to give Wonho props for producing a structurally deviant track and the whole group props though for successfully tackling the high vocal range and light mood of No Reason.
In their previous album and title track release with Shoot Out, there was a focus on the seven deadly sins in the Shoot Out music video. Since Monsta X's last two albums are connected (Take.1 and now Take.2) it's not a stretch to assume that the seven deadly sins concept still applies to this album especially with the promotional photos for Take.2 We Are Here. that heavily imply themes of temptation (Eve, temptation, and the Garden of Eden fall) through the usage and symbolism of apples.
Let's take a little break to discuss the mythology behind Monsta X's music. Their music video for Dramarama crafted a narrative of time travel. In the Dramarama music video storyline, time traveling is federally outlawed. Despite these laws, Monsta X continues to time travel to meet one another, save one another's lives, etc. In my own interpretation, I believe this time traveling idea is operating as an open door for new concepts a.k.a new worlds. In short, for every Monsta X comeback the members are traveling to a different time period to time period with a different culture, set of rules, etc. And it seems for this comeback, their time traveling got them stuck in a world where the seven deadly sins are national law. We even know that this music video is connected to their previous music videos and the time traveling concept due to Hyungwon's solo shot where he's surrounded by clocks and Kihyun's solo shot where the walls around him are covered in equations (I'm assuming he's portraying the genius role and hopes to solve the science of time traveling).
Since Monsta X's concept centers around the seven deadly sins, greed is most apparent in the lyrics and title of the rap-heavy track Give Me Dat which conveys desperation for something or someone. Kihyun's voice in the chorus contains hints of desperation while a forceful nature underlines I.M.'s raps in the wonderful call and response portion he shared with Wonho at the end of the song. In fact, these parts are so memorable (the chorus and call/response along with Minhyuk's "I can let go" and Kihyun's line in the pre-chorus) for me that I immediately mentally sing them whenever I think of this track. Give Me Dat's verses remind me of Turbulence in that both tracks contain attitude and sass in the lyric delivery.
Jooheon and I.M. established a lengthened flow and tone through their longer parts in Give Me Dat that they're not quite able to accomplish in the other tracks–a favorable Give Me Dat trait. I enjoyed seeing where they took the rhythm and flow of their verses. And once again in Give Me Dat we see the addition of Spanish words like "fuego" and "tango" which will charm Monsta X's Spanish-speaking fans. Another interesting aspect to this song was how I audibly unpacked some of the instrumentals after repeated listens. I really liked the added texture of the whoa, whoa, whoa(s) in the chorus; it gave the song a dash of soul and contrast when paired with Kihyun's high-pitched vocals.
Now it's time to discuss one of the wilder tracks on Take.2 We Are Here., Rodeo. I call it wild because it seems all inhibitions were thrown to the wind for this track. Rodeo begins with so many different sounds. We hear guitar, more windy sound effects, a horse neigh or bellow (who let BoJack Horseman take part in this production?), a heavy EDM beat, Kihyun and Jooheon's ad-libs. Twenty seconds into the song, you just know you're in for one hell of a ride.
And I felt like my senses were getting hit from every kind of direction, tumbleweeds attacking from the north, south east, and west, sensory overload. For one, the vocal delivery felt very purposeful and unique to the tone of Rodeo. Hyungwon, Wonho, and Minhyuk slightly manipulated their voices to fit the energy and mood of Rodeo. With Take.2 We Are Here. I realized how much Monsta X focuses on emoting their songs. Maybe this has always been the case or Monsta X recently pushed the emoting to another level but I've really noticed it with this album in particular.
Pacing. We have to discuss pacing. This song's pacing is all over the place similar to a rocky travel on horseback. I particularly liked the pauses in Shownu and Wonho's lines. You think the pauses will continue past Shownu and Wonho's parts but instead the verses travel to completely unexpected places especially with the back and forth between Minhyuk's vocals and I.M.'s rapping. Then the pre-chorus hits and the entire pace and feel of the song shifts once again.
Luckily, in this track, Kihyun has the pre-chorus. Although it's never a bad decision to have Kihyun sing in the chorus, he's almost always given the chorus. It's nice to see his vocals in a different tone and utilized for a different part. Since Kihyun is not singing the chorus for Rodeo, Jooheon got to shine. With the extreme energy of this song, it was an appropriate choice to have charisma expert Jooheon sing a large majority of the song. I also have to commend Jooheon for maintaining two ends of a vocal spectrum and adding a lot of contrast to the song. At one point in Rodeo he's whispering (a really unexpected and well-timed twist in the vocals) and in the chorus he's basically shouting.
I expect nothing less of this hype cinema-esque song than for it to be heavily played at concerts although it's in setlist competition with a couple of recent hype-inducing Monsta X songs like Oh My! and Fallin' (a.k.a Heavy Rain).
Oh Turbulence, my Take.2 We Are Here. baby, how I have been waiting to share my thoughts about you. Right beside Ghost, Turbulence has been another favorite of mine that's been playing on repeat. First off Turbulence's lyrics are being sexualized due to the lyrics in the chorus, which is slightly understandable. However, taking a deeper look into the lyrics you'll find lines like "You left me while I still have feelings on you" and "I want to fly and bump into your feelings." In my own interpretation, it sounds as if Turbulence is trying to communicate the vengeful thoughts someone has when they've been broken up with or hit a rocky path while in a relationship, any situation in which someone has shifted your emotional spectrum. Vegence came to mind simply because of the seven deadly sins or sinful concept of this comeback. When someone has rocked your world and emotions by breaking or chipping away at a serious bond, in return you may want them to experience those turbulent emotions.
Since the nature of this song feels vengeful, I can tell that Monsta X attempted to portray this in how they sung the lyrics. The lyric delivery is harsh and full of attitude. To represent plane turbulence, the vocals begin in a moderate range before taking a slight dip in pitch in the pre-chorus for Shownu and Jooheon's parts before raising in volume and pitch with Kihyun's part in the chorus. When you hit turbulence on an airplane, things get a little shaky. The use of monosyllabic words in the lyrics and Shownu's triplet lines reflect that feeling of trembling aircraft. And I really have to hand it to I.M. and Jooheon who assisted with crafting the lyrics alongside JQ and Sohn Hee because the lyrics, the melodies, the rhythm, everything seems made for each other.
I found myself surprised by aspects of Turbulence. The bridge surprised me in how many different members sung in it (R.I.P. Hyungwon and Minhyuk's lines). It was 30 seconds with a combination of vocals and rap. The bridge was all over the place with vocal texture from multiple Monsta X members, furthering the concept of an unstable emotional state. I did want more from the instrumentals in Turbulence. It seemed the instrumentals had a lot of rhythm yet lacked progression. But the melodies, the vocals, were enough to enhance Turbulence and make it an ultimate favorite.
So... I'm just going to say it. Out of all the Monsta X songs, and I've heard them all many times, Stealer would be near the bottom quarter of my rankings. Now, there are good features of the song that I'll unpack, but this track feels a bit incomplete. And maybe this is because I can feel a slight struggle in their performance of the unconventional routes Stealer takes, specifically in the verses.
On episode 147 of Idol Radio where Monsta X was being interviewed by Illhoon, a member of the K-pop group BTOB, Wonho said, "It's not the title but we recorded this song 3 times so we had some trouble with this song. The lyrics changed 3 times."
You can feel the trouble even in the song's final version and I can't clearly detail what feels off to me, since I'm no music expert. However, for me, the trouble lies in the verses. Whenever the verses arise, especially the first verse, the melodies and instrumentals just aren't syncing with my ear. It's unfortunate because once that first verse is over, I'm hooked into the rest of the song. The chorus has an epic Dance Dance Revolution quality to it. There's cool harmonies between Minhyuk and Hyungwon in the bridge. I wonder if Stealer was intended to be a track that blended old K-pop sounds with new generation sounds because I can definitely sense inklings of that past K-pop sound in the second verse.
What's unfortunate is that given more time to prepare this album, Monsta X might have continued working with Stealer, tweaking it until the track reached that finished status. It's a difficult, unique, and ambitious song. I never knew where the song was going in my first listen and they definitely tried some different techniques with the track. But, for me, Stealer needs one more push to reach its full potential.
Finally, it's Party Time. Maybe in discussion of the last track I sounded like a negative Nance, but we're going to end on a good note. I love this song. Whenever a Monsta X song is packed with R&B influence, it's qua-li-ty content. Upon first following Monsta X and looking into their discography, you'll surprising find a lot of slow R&B jams like Amen, Honestly, Perfect Girl, etc. I remember being astounded that I was drawn to these tracks as mentioned previously, it takes a lot for me to like a slower song–this was never the case with Monsta X. In current times, the R&B sounds of their music feel a bit drowned out by all the other influences (EDM, house, trap, etc.). So it's nice to see Monsta X going full-force with the R&B genre once again.
And even though this song is a slow jam, it hits hard. If there was one song on the album that gets me immediately dancing it's Party Time. The one song that could sing me to sleep with its soft vocals–Party Time. The one song where the vocals, the rap, everything just wrap me in some sort of warm cocoon of satisfaction and harmony