More than a few albums this year have leaned into the sounds of social distancing. Park Hye Jin‘s Before I Die is one of them, at least in part. Her cool vocal delivery takes on new significance in 2021, especially in conjunction with starkly lonely lyrics and DIY sounds. The title track, during which she recites a list of family members she misses over minimalist beats, feels particularly relatable in the wake of so much physical isolation.
For all its traces of pandemic life, though, Before I Die doesn’t deserve to be reduced to a topical album. More than anything, it’s a full exploration of Park Hye Jin’s skill as a producer, a debut that comes in the wake of several years of exciting singles. Downtempo jams and dirges sit beside pounding house tracks, putting a large swath of Park’s moody repertoire on display.
A sardonic opener—“Let’s Sing Let’s Dance”, a phrase Park repeats with flat affect—sets the tone, looping pleasantly melodic keys under crisp, simple beats and chilled-out verses to near-effortless ends. “I Need You” slows down the pace, making space for the refrain of “Before I Die”: “I miss / My mom / I miss / My dad / I miss / My sister / I miss / My brother,” sings Park with exhausted, helpless insistence.
Less bleak are the echoing guitars of “Good Morning Good Night”, which make a softly brilliant backdrop for Park’s smoky murmur. She takes on a sharper edge with snarling self-confidence anthems “Me Trust Me” and “Never Give Up”, and bounces over old-school soulful sounds on “Where Did I Go”, subtle changes that never veer far from the Park Hye Jin we’ve always known. The swaggering trio of tracks that follow, meanwhile, are anything but subtle. “Can I Get Your Number”, “Whatchu Doin Later”, and “Sex With Me (DEFG)” are musically sparse and lyrically in-your-face, Park not mincing words in her invitations.
It’s around “Sex With Me”, the album’s tenth, that it changes direction for the better, shifting away from often soporific gloom and into much-needed overdrive. Handclaps and hi-hats accent denser rhythms here and on “Where Are You Think” and take resolute “Never Die” fully into trance territory. The industrial pulse of “Hey, Hey, Hey” balances out high-energy cymbal crashes. “Sunday ASAP” floats vocal samples as its beats wind down into closing track “i jus wanna be happy”, a gorgeous, wistful finish that brings the party to a close.
Before I Die has a fashionably unfinished quality, something that works in Park Hye Jin’s favor. Park makes for an ideal musical antihero. Her handcrafted electronic aesthetic is aspirational and, for its impossible nonchalance, strangely unpretentious. At times, it feels like too much. Ten tracks is a long way to go before such a complete change in mood, as happens in the last third of the album. Even so, every cut on Before I Die is so thoughtfully assembled that it becomes exquisitely casual, and Park Hye Jin shows her range as a producer worth keeping an eye on.