While K-pop fans would agree that seeing artists write and compose their own music is becoming a more common (not to mention respected) aspect among its stars, it’d be a tough argument to say the music is letting them learn more about the musicians themselves. Since her 2008 debut EP Lost and Found that was fully written and composed by hit producers, IU has been on a gradual mission to taking full artistic control of her music. Her latest album Palette is proving to be not only a creative accomplishment with it almost entirely written by the young star, but a body of work that reveals what’s going on in her head and has rewarded her with new levels of success.
Palette opens with the seemingly nonsensically-titled “Dlwlrma,” that actually doubles as IU’s Instagram handle — the only major social media platform the megastar actively uses which establishes that this is her speaking to us. From the first lyric, it’s clear we’re about to hear something special as she sings, “This is a secret” (via Korean translations) and details how she’s telling the listener a story she hasn’t told anyone before. “You’ll ask with big eyes / ‘How how how?’ / …Whatever,” she continues as if it’s part of an internal conversation. IU has gone from teenage idol and being known as the “Nation’s Little Sister” in Korea to a grown woman who’s had her fair share of K-pop “controversies” (from dating rumors to supposedly inappropriate lyrics and album artwork on 2015’s Chat-Shire). But now, in 2017, IU’s taking us inside her mind to give a sense of how she really feels. As “Dlwlrma” continues to unravel the singer, the lyrics tell us that she’s doing all right and that “Life is cool cool cool.”
The G-Dragon–featuring title track is the centerpiece of the album with the fizzy, electro-pop track detailing who IU is today. She opens by listing what colors, clothes and fashions she enjoys these days, while including she’s still a fan of her longtime favorite artist Corinne Bailey Rae. The chorus continues the journal-like intimacy established in the introductory track as she sings, ” I like it, I’m 25… / I got this, I’m truly fine / I think I know a little bit about myself now.” She continues to explain little quirks about herself and even makes some self-references back to her breakout single “Good Day.”
While it’s not the first time she’s sung about her age like in 2015 single “Twenty-Three” (Born in 1993, most international fans would say IU is 23, but Korea’s age system count birth as age one and add a year to their age on January 1), this new single feels like a declaration of who IU really is; compared to how “Twenty-Three” explored the exciting-yet-confusing entrance into one’s twenties with multiple lyrics that amusingly contradict themselves. Now, IU is confident in herself and though she still has questions about herself, she’s at least moving forward with self-assurance. G-Dragon’s verses also showcases a more tender side of the rapper-singer where he shares advice to his junior and even calls her by her birth name instead of stage name of IU — adding an additional boost of intimacy to the song.
Continuing through Palette, there are songs that feel like they speak specifically to IU’s experiences. With a story hoping a lover finds someone that loves them as much as they love themselves, “Ending Scene” feels like a heartbreaking account of falling in love with a celebrity, while a track like the disco-tinged “Jam Jam” feels like IU navigating the superficial entertainment world. The album brings multiple genres, moods and feels, one has come to expect from an IU album, but feels like it’s being brought with newfound personal touches in the way that any Madonna album still feels like a representation of the superstar’s wide-ranging tastes.
While such experiences may be considered difficult or inaccessible to a casual listener, the charts make a case for more of this. Upon release, the tracks from Palette instantly took over South Korea’s real-time charts while the LP also became IU’s first No. 1 on Billboard‘s World Albums chart and marked her best first-week sales in America. The latter chart stat is particularly telling with many U.S. fans looking for their favorite pop stars to bring those deeper, personal touches in their music. Plus, K-pop stars who write and compose their works (which include G-Dragon and his band BIGBANG) typically perform better on the stateside rankings.
Palette is ultimately an important model of how K-pop stars getting personal and revealing the good, the bad, the neurotic, the anxiety, and whatever else may be in their heads can lead to great success in their homes, but perhaps even greater successes around the world.