The red-colored cake filled with buttercream didn’t only inspire the name of the Korean girl group Red Velvet. It symbolizes the two-faced nature of their musicality. While the “red” side of their music is colorful and vivid, the “velvet” side represents a more mysterious or sensual side. But perhaps a dessert that better describes Red Velvet is crème brûlée. Crème brûlée is made of simple ingredients, yet it has a sophisticated taste. It’s crunchy but creamy, and the taste of sugar and vanilla are familiar enough to make you feel comforted, but the combination introduces a new and elegant feeling.
The main ingredients in the dance-pop/R&B-infused music of Red Velvet are the melodies and the vocal harmonization. There’s rarely a Red Velvet song where the beats do most of the job (the honorable exception may be the 2017 single “Peek-a-boo”, which is the closest to a pop drop track that Red Velvet has ever done). The elegant melodies performed by the voices of Irene, Wendy, Seulgi, Joy, and Yeri, fill the entire space in the music of Red Velvet; the production is an adornment. Fine dishware won’t make crème brûlée taste better, but it’ll make you feel classier when you eat it.
However, part of why crème brûlée is so popular is because it has some simplicity and accessibility in its taste. The music of Red Velvet, too, has an accessible side that hopefully will guide you to its most refined and unique side if you crack the sugary topping. In Red Velvet’s Queendom, the track that does it is the title track that starts the mini-album.
“Queendom” is positive in sound and message. It doesn’t fail in its attempt to be empowering, but (thankfully) it doesn’t go out of its way to be, even if the lyrics sometimes verge on cliche. “We are kings and queens / (…) Even if it rains, we are strong and beautiful.” The instrumentals are rich in layers and volume in ways resembling the deliberate loudness of Red Velvet’s “Russian Roulette” (2016). The beat pattern in “Queendom” is more reminiscent of disco, though. The chorus is supported by strings that mimick the vocal melodies, like back dancers for the members’ voices. When the post-chorus comes, it’s hard to resist dancing to the “La di da doo ba ba di da” together with all of them.
It’s easy to see why the bright and engaging “Queendom” is the lead single of the mini-album. But one truth about Red Velvet is that their albums often have some of the best b-sides in K-pop (like “Cool World”, “Body Talk”, “Kingdom Come”, and “Sunny Side Up!”). Queendom is no exception to that rule.
The electropop of “Pose” is a different type of feel-good song than “Queendom”. It’s less about repeating self-encouraging words while looking at the mirror and more about kissing your reflection on it. There’s nothing wrong with these methods or songs, but “Pose” is more intriguing. It echoes a bit of Madonna’s “Vogue” (1990) in attitude and lyrical references (“Strike a pose”). Still, it also has a playful, quirkier side, particularly when Yeri raps over beats in the style of Miami Bass hip-hop.
If you enjoy the playful side of Red Velvet, “Pushin’ N Pullin'” is another good moment. Or, if you’re one of those fans who were afraid Red Velvet would ever recycle their big 2017 hit “Bad Boy” again (like they tried with 2018’s “Really Bad Boy”), give this song a chance. Hear Red Velvet pull the same chord progression of “Bad Boy” in a new and refreshing way. “Pushin’ N Pullin” actually recalls the dreamlike, oniric vibes of Red Velvet’s “Day 1″ (2015) as well.
In the middle of Queendom is where the cream gets tastier. “Knock on Wood” is an elegant R&B/synthpop track that alternates wordy lines with simple and catchier ones, all decorated with beautiful falsettos. “Better Be”, for its part, starts with dramatic melodies in the verse, gets smoother in the pre-chorus, and agitated again in the chorus. As always, Red Velvet’s vocal harmonization is the show’s star in “Better Be”.
Queendom is closed by its slower track, the romantic R&B ballad “Hello Sunset”. There’s a lot of imagery and sentiment in the lyrics: “Thank you for waiting for me / I will hug you / Around the summer, around the closing hour.” The melody invokes nostalgia for listeners of Mariah Carey or Ariana Grande’s old school ballads. “Hello Sunset” is delicate, but the strong beat and the presence of a guitar suggest yearning and desire rather than just passive daydreaming.
Perhaps not all songs from Queendom will be amongst the most listened by Red Velvet fans, and it’s not because any of these songs are poor. Remember the scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) when Julia Roberts says that sometimes one doesn’t want crème brûlée, but jello? However, no matter what dessert metaphor you chose to describe the music of Red Velvet, it’s still dessert. You don’t eat dessert because you need basic nutrients for your body. You eat it because you want to taste something delicious. And Queendom tastes delicious.