Album Review: BoA – Woman

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Release: October 24, 2018
Label: SM Entertainment
Distributor: Iriver
Genre: Electronic, dance

In the second verse of her new title track, BoA slips a curious line: “When they demanded femininity out of me (girls on top) // When I didn’t know what feminine was (didn’t know that)”. She’s referring to the lyrics of her own “Girls On Top” (2005), the crunk-and-SMP manifesto against repressive stereotypes on women; what’s interesting is the self-reflection in the second line, which she expounds upon in the rest of the stanza. “I know now what I really need, I got it,” sings BoA, “a splendid self, tough on the inside”.

Woman, BoA’s ninth full-length album*, witnesses to this kind of growth in several ways – even if it’s not always expressed as neatly as this example. Musically and lyrically, it preserves and refines what BoA has been working towards for years now, but with added experience and perspective.

First, let’s talk some more about that titular “Woman”. Its beat-setting heel clacks give way to an intriguing bass pulse, which stays sharply accentuated and drives the track’s energetic rhythm. The chorus is powered by a blasting synth with a texture that makes it sound sort of like software brass (particularly in the descending triplets right before the chorus is repeated), and the one-beat delay that occurs with the word “woman” makes for a deeply satisfying moment when the instruments enter back.

As good as she was in the lean stuff, BoA brings a unique color to the loud and rich. The song’s chorus understates the vocal role, so she’s content to ride the rhythm and control the beat; but in the verses, where it’s essentially just her and the bass, she lets it loose with a theatrical, mood-shifting performance and falsettos that pierce the atmosphere. It’s a remarkable contrast from that overbearing excess of when she first changed her vocal style for “Girls On Top”.

It’s the same kind of veteran poise that’s reflected in her writing. “Woman” sings of confidence in one’s skin, innate beauty, and self-respect, and implicitly ties it back to feminine identity. It’s thematically consistent with the 2005 track, but where that song was pushback against outward injustice, this one is more like a proclamation from within. The updated message is all the more persuasive coming from BoA herself, given what she’s gone through in the thirteen years since – the adventure in the U.S. market, hiatuses, growth as a songwriter – and her stature now.

And given that recent history, the album’s overall sound direction is a bit surprising. BoA has opted for lighter touch in her last two albums, with Only One embracing acoustic and minimalistic tunes and Kiss My Lips carrying on in similarly lean pop, but Woman is an exercise in lavishness instead. “Woman” is actually the least trendy dance number here: future bass, PBR&B, and deep house beats pack the rest of the tracklist, glistening in metallic synths and sumptuous effects. Turns out February’s One Shot, Two Shot was more than a temporary diversion, and BoA’s really back to trends.

These are predictably high-quality tunes, and the EDM sheen suits BoA well. The prolific Swedish duo Caesar & Loui contribute “Like It!”, which breaks a clinical house buildup into a passionate chorus. Deep house number “Encounter” sees BoA follow the drops with a provocative “can you handle me?”, while the tropical “No Limit” rides waves of sparkling marimba and a powerful beat. The artist is at her best when she gets to evoke in her dry mid-tone – see “Hurricane Venus”, “Shattered” or almost anything else from Kiss My Lips – and these tracks let her plenty of room to interpret.

The killing track, in my mind, is “U&I”. Courtesy of an army of composers including The Family, it’s got a dreamy yet pounding beat that’s lapped by gently cresting synths, plus a breathless melody. It gets a further bump from the really superb writing, which connects the attraction of love to gravity that bends space and light, and uses the phrase “neowa na” (“you and I”) to visceral, percussive effect in the chorus. Both the subject matter and the presentation – lines like “We bend the future however we want, you and I”, “Actually I think we’re a little brighter than light” – are perfectly Sumin, who adds yet another production credit on an SME album (alongside fellow R&B producers Jinbo and Deez, no strangers themselves to SM artists).

Woman isn’t entirely an EDM album, peppered as it is with various degrees of analog in a handful of tracks. Brassy and swinging “Little More”, one of several self-composed tracks on the album, seems the best of these and a nice extension of some of her SM Station work. But on the whole, these songs seem less interesting and focused than their electropop counterparts. The plodding “If” is particularly problematic, but the others are no more memorable.

This makes Woman an album with a powerful and polished electronic/dance core, but also coupled with a middling other half. So in terms of well-roundedness I think it comes short of Kiss My Lips, and I wonder at the the album’s potential if it instead had something like the core of One Shot, Two Shot added to make it a committed genre piece. (The album already lacks a “real” ballad, and it seems like this wouldn’t have been a huge step further.) That said, BoA clearly seems to want that broader pop dimension (and has a proven track record there in recent years), so this is something she will continue to balance going forward.

Girls On Top is still probably BoA’s best and most important album. Not only did it capture excellence in everything it tried (it’s still a marvel that “MOTO”, “Addiction”, and “Garden in the Air” all came out of the same album), but it also doubled down on the artist’s conceptual shift from My Name with an entirely reworked vocal style and kicked off that second phase of her career. For coming out with such a stark parallel, Woman might not be quite as good, but I do sense a similar kind of shift.

See the bridge of “No Limit”, which reads like a distillation of her journey this decade:

“Time spent for someone else
Is more familiar in my routines
Time to spend by myself
Shrinks away like this
I’m not for someone else,
I want to change, do it for me”

Over time, that change has come. Woman is the outline of an artist who’s found her footing in multiple genres, and is ready to work on familiar ground. She’s become comfortable writing most of her songs herself, has seen pretty much everything at this point, and has this continuing hunger for music. It’s an exciting, expectant time to be listening to BoA.

Tracklist (recommended tracks in bold)

  1. Woman
    Written by BoA; composed by Jon Hume, Hookman, Ivy Adara; arranged by Jon Hume
  2. Like It!
    Written by Seo Ji-eum; composed by Caesar & Loui, Deez, Ylva Dimberg; arranged by Caesar & Loui
  3. 홧김에 (Irreversible)
    Written and composed by BoA; arranged by Shaun Kim and STAINBOYS
  4. Encounter
    Written by BoA; composed by Shaylen Carroll, Joshua Chery, Malachi Cohen, Cory Enemy, MZMC; arranged by Cory Enemy
  5. Little More
    Written by BoA; composed and arranged by BoA, Shaun Kim, Brian Cho
  6. 너와 나 (U&I)
    Written by Sumin and Jinbo; composed by Joy Neil Mitro Deb, Linnea Mary Han Deb, Jinbo, Sumin, Anton Hård af Segerstad, Micah Premnath, Steven Berghuijs, Jeroen Kerstens; arranged by Joy Neil Mitro Deb, Linnea Mary Han Deb, Anton Hård af Segerstad
  7. If
    Written by BoA; composed and arranged by BoA and STAINBOYS
  8. No Limit
    Written by BoA; composed and arranged by BoA, Shaun Kim, STAINBOYS
  9. Good Love
    Written by Kenzie; composed by Jamil ‘Digi’ Chammas, Kenzie, Adrian McKinnon, MZMC; arranged by Jamil Chammas
  10. 습관 (I Want You Back)
    Written by JQ and Moon Ye-rin; composed by Sonny J. Mason Osuji and Karen Poole; arranged by Sonny J. Mason Osuji

Album cover images from Bugs Music. Lyric translations by author.

Related writing: BoA – Only One (review)

*For those keeping count, nineteenth (!) full-length including the Japanese and American albums.

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