Coffee Break: Epik High (the underrated version)
In the midst of all the cliche, superficial songs that tend to dominate the KPop scene, the three members of Epik High--Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz--as a hip hop unit, have become one of the most popular mainstream artists. Heralded as "lyrical geniuses" and winners of multiple awards, Epik High is acknowledged by Korea for not only opening the country's eyes to its once unappreciated hip hop genre, but for also providing material that is poetic, profound, and very honest, to the point of being blunt.
Ever since the beginning of their career, with their first album 'Map the Soul' (2003), Epik High was bold about their visions of the world, as they criticized the seemingly lost members of society such as the prostitutes, the bums, the corrupt yet wealthy, and the vain celebrities in the entertainment business.
In their collaboration with Digiri, Yankie, and Double K in "Watch Ya Self", the members of Epik High even attacked other rappers, referring to them as "fake MCs" for focusing on their sales rather than their mission as artists to "split open and fix the world." Epik High, however, identified itself as a group ready to "unfold the hip hop culture's future path," thus claiming that it was different from those yearning for mere commercial success, and was prepared to make its mark upon the realm of music, even upon society.
"Lesson 1", the sole English song written and rapped by Tablo on the 'Map the Human Soul' album, grants us English-speakers a peek into the powerful way in which Epik High attempts to fulfill that goal, as Tablo prods us to speculate the standards and methods of the societal institutions of the world. "Lady", Epik High's title song from their second album, 'High Society' (2004), is another great song to sample, as it shows that even in their silliest and most cheerful of songs, Epik High continues with their social critique, questioning whether the usage of the term "gentleman" as a natural label for the rich is appropriate.
After introducing themselves as a force seeking to make a great influence, Epik High succeeded in getting noticed and soared in terms of popularity in 2004-2005. Yet, rather than getting known for one of their upfront and sarcastic singles at first, Epik High found favor with two of their more emotional, melodic tunes from their third album 'Swan Songs' (2005), "Fly" and "Paris".
While "Fly" expresses the idea that even in the lowest points of one's life, one can still "fly, no matter what the world says," "Paris" speaks of love as a tragic phenomena that can lead one into a mindless downfall. Both are songs with which listeners can sympathize and in which they can find comfort. Still, both songs maintain Epik High's signature genuine sound that refrains from being sugarcoated or half-hearted.
For an emotional piece, I personally prefer "Let it Rain" ft. Nell's Kim Jong Wan from the same album. Although it tells a similar message as that of "Paris" in that love is something to which one commits everything, its narrative structure, its trickling piano sounds, its repeated and regretful "I know"s, its desperate, "I love you to death," whispers in the background, combined with featured singer Kim Jong Wan's haunting voice makes it a beautiful single on its own.
"Let it Rain" ft. Nell's Kim Jong Wan
Despite their growing popularity, or perhaps, because of it, Epik High took their usual honest lyrics to an even more brutal level in their fourth album, 'Remapping the Human Soul' (2007). Although the title single, "Fan", was received well by the public, many of the other songs on the album were banned across radio channels due their bold and controversial subjects.While Epik High made references to the Illuminati and Satan in "Mr. Doctor", the group also criticized the religious and even God in "Scapegoat".
Epik High risked depicting an even darker image of the world, an image listeners might have not wanted to hear about. Yet, they had many hooked with chilling songs such as "Nocturne", rapped by Tablo ("Supreme T") and written by DJ Tukutz ("Street T"). This song, with its eery string sounds, its addictive hooks, Tukutz's allusion-and-image-riddled poetry, and Tablo's well-placed tones and stresses, really captures you in a trance at the first listen. It's an enjoyable piece, despite its daunting implication that humanity, as a whole, is corrupt.
By 2009, Epik High has produced hit after hit, with "One" and "Umbrella" ft. Younha from their 'Pieces, Part 1' album, and then "Wannabe" from their '[e]' album. Sometime in the midst of these releases, Epik High parted ways with their agency Woolim Entertainment, and attempted to start their own record label, Map the Soul Inc., housing other rappers such as MYK, Planet Shiver, and Dok2. Under this newfound label, Epik High claimed their independence as artists and released their album, 'Map the Soul', as well as their amazing title song under the same name.
Although "Map the Soul" is certainly not one of the most underrated songs in the album, it's a song that deserves every bit of appreciation it gets. Accompanied by a beautifully crafted music video, the song expresses a message that combines the bold, dark, yet empathetic themes from Epik High's earlier albums: that despite the sad and corrupt state of the world, our thoughts, art, religion, and fellow companions make it all worth living for. Aware of their international fans, Epik High has even supplied us a softened, "Worldwide Version" in English to enjoy.
"Map the Soul" Korean Version
"Map the Soul" Worldwide Version, ft. Kero One & MYK
Epik High's recent move in signing with YG Entertainment is bound to bring about some changes. Nevertheless, whether the unit decides to try a new kind of sound, shift their tone, or even change their overall vision that they have been promoting thus far, I am confident that they will remain the honest Epik High that they're known to be, thinking out loud to a beat, while simultaneously touching the hearts and chilling the minds of many.
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