When introducing a band, one feels compelled to slot together a neat sentence to sum up their niche in the wider soundscape of the music industry, so listeners can get a grip on whether the product is likely to fit with what they’re looking for. But Epik High defy these conventions. The trio, comprised of rappers Tablo and Mithra Jin, their lyrics backed by beats created by DJ Tukutz, hail from Seoul South Korea, but deliver their scorching societal critiques in English and Korean, as well as linking east and west through their collaborations with other artists. Over the course of the band’s fourteen-year career, they have released music from three labels, including their own independent company, dropped nine albums, toured across Asia and America – including shows at SXSW and Coachella – and earned multiple awards. But more impressive than the stats is their discography, which melds old-skool hip-hop with rock, pop and electronic influences to create a complex, genre-defying fusion of sounds.
We’ve Done Something Wonderful dropped on 23rd October to coincide with the 2003 release of Epik High’s first LP, Map of the Human Soul. The album opens with People Scare Me, a visceral diss at the hypocrisy of the general public. Epik High express their wariness of success through rapid-fire bars: ‘I don’t want to hear “rest in peace” from those who took away the peace / in reality they’ll only applaud once you leave’. They reflect on the highs and lows they’ve endured, culminating in a bold statement of intent: ‘we created these songs with scars not sounds/ although bloodstained, we’ve done something wonderful’. It’s a clear message that Epik High have not released this album to cater to the whims of their fans, or even to indulge in any more experimentation. Instead this is their signature, an album that turns their established ethos of unpicking the holes in society on its head to look inwards instead, and allow the band to take a retrospective view of how far they’ve come.
Korean indie singer Oh Hyuk lends his haunting vocals to lead single Home Is Far Away, and the dreamy cityscapes of the accompanying music video deftly capture the mood of a song that epitomizes Epik High’s knack for crafting introspective, lyrically-driven hip-hop. Tablo and Mithra Jin trade verses reflecting on success and the pursuit of dreams, mourning the losses they’ve experienced along the way. While self-reflective, it also serves as an easy vessel for listeners of all ages to identify with, the perfect soundtrack to the journey home at the end of a long day.
On this album Epik High continue their recent trend of partnering with female vocalists for songs that riff on the themes of love and heartbreak. Lee Hi and Lee Suhyun are both popstars and labelmates to the band. Their addition on the album furthers questions surrounding YG Entertainment’s influence on Epik High’s releases since they went from indie to officially signed. But tracks like The Benefits of Heartbreak and Here Come The Regrets enable Epik High to pull off that fine line between holding onto mainstream appeal and ploughing their own furrow. Both singers anchor the songs in the public consciousness as easily palatable ballads, while between each chorus, Tablo and Mithra Jin undercut the overarching theme of heartbreak to explore the more poignant scars of world-weary cynicism and regret.
One obvious stand out among the explorations of life and loss is hype track NO THANKXXX, the successor to 2014’s hit Born Hater, which includes cameos from rappers Mino, Simon Dominic and The Quiett, who take their turn on the mic dropping disses at their haters. It’s a welcome return to Epik High’s start in old-skool hip-hop, and a strong contender in a long line of cypher tracks that gives the rappers the opportunity to switch up the mood and drop a few comic one-liners. The range of rappers featured is indicative of Epik High’s longstanding influence in Seoul’s hip-hop scene and mainstream music. They are now part of the legacy, giving the next generation the stamp of approval.
If I’m honest, with over a decade’s worth of music culminating in a treasure-trove of tracks to choose from, We’ve Done Something Wonderful would not be my go-to album when introducing Epik High. Rocksteady is emblematic of their old-skool roots as one of Seoul’s first hip-hop crews. The lush soundscape of Fallen Blossoms turns rap to poetry. Up combines pop punch with deft lyrical prowess. But We’ve Done Something Wonderful is Epik High’s chance to subvert their philosophy of ‘no genre, just music’ to drop an album that defines their sound and career. After ten years chasing new ground, it’s an interesting move. But they’ve already long since made their mark.