review: Epik High’s Epik High is Here 上 (Part 1), or an entire quarantine mood

Epik High is Here 上 (Part 1) has been, well, here for a few days now.

In that time, the hip-hop trio has put out plenty of content, including music videos for both Rosario (ft. CL and Zico) and 내 얘기 같아 (Based on a True Story) (ft. Heize). They’ve also dropped cute TikTok related content such as the TikTok version of Rosario and this Cosmo TikTok dance challenge that is just dripping with dad energy.

credit to Tablo on Insta @blobyblo

As you can see, their dad energy stretches through time… but I digress.

Epik High has made me look lazy in comparison, because in those few days, all I’ve done is listen to the new release. After several listens, it has all but secured its place as my second favorite Epik High album outside of “sleepless in __________

As usual, Epik High blends story telling with their observations and opinions of the world, and for this tenth album, they have done so through the lens of COVID-19. They weave in emotional metaphors to make the topic more digestible, easier to talk about in a world where none of us quite know what to say about just how weird everything has been.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, the trio directly said as much, putting emphasis on both the empowering Rosario and the sweetness of Based on a True Story:

“This winter might feel colder than ever,” said Tablo, “given the ongoing difficult circumstances. So we tried to comfort people with those two songs, which can deliver both warmth and hotness.” He even went on to say that one of the reasons he wanted Heize specifically to collaborate with them is that he “think[s] her voice has the best quality for comforting others.”

Mission accomplished, boys, at least where I’m concerned. I was really impressed with what I heard. Here’s my breakdown, track by track.

Lesson Zero

Those who have been following Epik High since debut or who have simply combed through their back catalogue later will surely notice that their Lesson tracks are a recurring theme.

Until this album, there were five Lessons: Lesson One came to us on their debut album, Map of the Human Soul, while the fifth arrived on the 2014 release, EPIK HIGH – SHOEBOX.

They feature themes of government corruption, injustices, a failing education system, conflicts with religion and other such commentary on society, and Lesson Zero is no different.

Seeing them label it Lesson Zero instead of Lesson Six threw me for a loop at first, but upon listening, I appreciated it. Ultimately, Tablo is saying he’s sick of learning these hard lessons.

He’s sick of warring with the idea of God and law. He’s done with the feeling of being silenced by the powers that be, trapped by the combative tone that the world has taken on as of late. He’s over the way we are failed by the education system to give us the skills we really need to survive.

He’s just… done. He’s ready to strike through years of personal effort put into figuring out the world, as detailed in the rest of that Lessons Series. And he says as much:

Take me back to zero
No more teachers, no more prophets, no more heroes
No more lessons please
Now I see, the question to all answers
Will only bring me to my knees
And back to zero

It felt so conclusive, but it was only the opener to this incredible album.

Rosario (ft. CL & ZICO)

Rosario is a dramatic track right from the start with its moody guitar and the soulful vocals of CL leading into the Tablo’s first verse.

It’s an empowering groove musically and lyrically, taking shots at the people in their lives who have tried to keep them weighed down through it all. Tablo leads in and Zico is quick to join with a resounding “fuck you” before Mithra Jin takes it away.

On its face, that might sound like a typical diss track aimed at society as a whole, but it seems their intention was to encourage listeners to stay on top in spite of the outside factors dragging us down in the hell year that was 2020. Mithra Jin sums it up quite well, capturing the entire theme of the song in one concise line: I stack the stairs with the stones you threw.

This song is pretty exciting to me, because Zico is definitely at the top of my list of favorite Korean rappers. When I saw he’d be featured on the album, I had a bit of a moment.

Tablo seemed to anticipate that this would happen, saying to The Korea Herald about Heize and Zico, “I’ve always wanted to work with them. I recalled Zico saying working with CL was one of his dreams in his past interview, so I decided to make our wishes come true at once, which would double listeners’ joy as well.”

Joy is an understatement. Zico added incredible flavor to track that was already a banger with his verse in his usual expressive style.

Speaking of spice and flavor, Rosario shows us a more fiery Tablo and Mithra Jin, too, with some deviation from their usual conversational flow to a louder, more emotive style that surprised me pleasantly in a few places throughout.

내 얘기 같아 (Based on a True Story) (ft. Heize)

Straight away the trio tempers the up-tempo sound of Rosario by bringing in pianos and strings, which do a good job of softening the overall hard-hitting style of a typical Epik High album.

It fits Heize’s ethereal, airy voice well, and the choice of music inspires in me the mental image of Mithra Jin opening a gate to some garden off of a busy city street, welcoming Heize into the serene place with his hand out. It’s sweet.

Once she’s in that garden, she joins the trio to sing of themes surrounding isolation and feeling desperate for connection using television shows and movies “based on a true story” as a metaphor.

It touches on the isolated way that most of us have felt in quarantine watching the world burn from inside our homes while we sit there, alone and depressed, watching it unfold.

Mithra Jin once again sums up the theme of the song well with his line:

I can only see the tragedy all over the screen
The groans of each song are engraved with one syllable
Because the whole world is as heartbroken as I am

수상소감 (Acceptance Speech) (ft. B.I)

Acceptance Speech jumps right back into that familiar Epik High style that fans have come to expect with a low profile beat, a groovy, evocative melody and last but not least, those good ol’ turntables, which appear for the first time on the album.

Before the scratch, Tablo and Mithra Jin continue to explore themes of isolation, but from the angle of self-isolating–both physically and emotionally–and how they feel too apathetic anymore to try and come out of their shells.

It talks about how retreating into themselves feels natural, comforting in a dark way. How they feel so disheartened by the things that are waiting for them outside of quarantine and keep receding further into themselves because of it.

Overall, it just feels like a big sigh, a shrug of the shoulders, and a “to hell with it.” What a mood.

Leica (ft. Kim Sawol)

Leica opens with Tablo lazily humming over the opening piano notes that start the song, like he’s bored with it, like he could do it in his sleep. The humming leads the way to his verse where he reflects on his career and his family, the work he’s done over the years and how his perspective has shifted.

I’m proud of myself, proud of myself
Makin’ my tenth full-length on my daughter’s tenth
Got her arms around my neck, no chains
This gold, none of y’all can flex

This is a theme that is peppered throughout the album and comes to a head in the final track, but don’t let me get ahead of myself.

Epik High

정당방위 (In Self-Defense) (ft. CHANGMO, Nucksal & Woo)

Epik High is back with a thumping multi-feature track that’s in your face and loud. Once again, they revisit themes of being on the outside of society.

In this case, it seems to be on more of an emotional level. They watch as the rest of the world gets fixed on things like competition and combat, losing sight of what really matters as the world crumbled down around us in 2020. How it frustrates them, makes them just as angry.

The outtro is one of the best parts to me. Tablo wrote an absolute banger of a diss track, fed up with those who seem to focus on everyone else but themselves–especially fellow rappers in the scene. The song gives a big middle finger to anyone that’s ever doubted or insulted Epik High.

And then, in case the message wasn’t clear, he came in with the ‘you wanna act stupid, I’m gonna make you feel stupid’. He proceeded to tell them all about themselves and their careers compared to Epik High’s. After a seething yet still thoughtful diss, it feels like salt in the wound–which is clearly what he wanted.

I swear to God
Swear I didn’t wanna have to kill again
Eye for an eye
Classic after classic, this is number ten
Hey, you bastards
Name a fuckin’ rapper we ain’t influenced
It’s EPIK HIGH, if I’m guilty
It was all in self-defense, BANG!

Yes, hello? I’d like to report a murder.

Before that delicious slap in the face of an ending, Mithra Jin had something to say, too, and he did it by directly referencing COVID, using it as a metaphor.

A chronic disease that affects the society as a whole
Communication is always straightforward
Unwanted rant, listening to the teaching
I’m suffocated, I tear off the mask
You’re afraid of my cough, aren’t you?
Far from social distance
I want to keep a distance from the negative scumbags
Virus and you are the same thing: the fact that it leaves you with nothing but pain

True Crime (ft. Miso)

It’s pretty, don’t get me wrong, but True Crime is just sort of a moody love song. Unless I’m just not catching something, it doesn’t seem to fit in well with the theme of the rest of the album.

Tbh, I wasn’t much impressed with it at first, but when the chorus came around, I changed my mind. Miso took it to a new place with her beautiful vocals, and the production on the chorus is just chef’s kiss. Not a favorite, but I’m not going to skip it when it comes on, either.

I just thought everyone deserved to see Tukutz’ smile in the midst of this heavy content

Social Distance 16

This song captures the entire theme of the album in one minute and five seconds: it examines Mithra Jin and Tablo’s feeling that they are on the outskirts of the new hip hop community looking in… but they, quite frankly, don’t give a damn. Tablo takes a minute to remind us that there are bigger fish to fry in the world these days than competition; that they’re in no danger of losing their standing:

Everybody shouts for eternity, but after ten years, boy, look carefully
Who is left?

The opening lines, delivered in English, deliver the message right away:

Quarantine, we in quarantine
The industry makes me sick and there’s no vaccine
This damn scene that made me sick
Ain’t nothing new, I’ve always been social distancing
I’ve been a pessimist since I was born
My passion replaces optimism

End of the World (ft. GSoul)

I think this one might be my favorite from the album, and not just because how chill and beautiful it sounds. Yet another piece of commentary on the shit-show that was 2020, End of the World touches on themes of injustice and other horrors happening at the same time as COVID.

More specifically, it talks about the feeling of being paralyzed because of the rules of this virus, unable to do anything about it. It perfectly communicates that feeling of doom and gloom, of helplessness against the wildness of 2020 and how COVID is only exacerbating problems that we’ve neglected to deal with for decades.

Mithra Jin gets specific with his verse:

The disbelief of the majority devours the minorities
Even if you commit the same crime, the weight of the crimes are different
Justice deflects wealth and survives corruption
(…)
When I open my eyes, I see the end of the century unfolding

Tablo contributed:

I don’t need a priest
I need a goddamn law degree
Why am I the only one who always believes in assumptions?
Why does only the perpetrator has his conscience and face blurred?
Who the hell is this law for?

In the same verse, he tries to comfort himself…

Okay, it’s gonna be okay

… but then he gets real directly after:

But that’s a lie, this world goes to hell, burn

And it does sort of feel like that these days, doesn’t it?

Wish You Were

The grand finale. It puts in quick, precise, no-bullshit terms everything the album has been trying to say with emphasis on Tablo’s personal life. He talks about how weird and difficult things have been, how he’s been prioritizing his family, focusing on what actually matters; how others in the industry think that makes him “washed up” for not being as active. This song pretty much calls the haters immature, reminds them of his seniority, of their own priorities.

He makes one last ditch effort to have us looking at what’s important and life with none of the extras…

And it worked. I feel good after listening to this album. It had a lot to say, and it did so cleverly. Pair that with excellent production, catchy melodies and beats you can bop to, Epik High returned with a hell of a tenth release and well deserved spots on the top of the charts.

Listen to Epik High is Here 上 (Part 1) and let me know what you thought in the comments or through social media.

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